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Italy Decides Its Identity

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The reconstruction of modern Italy, likewise, has been slow and taxing. Former Prime Minister and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi served in four governments from 1994 to 2011. In this time, Berlusconi fabricated a corrupt government and manufactured a $2.6 trillion sovereign debt. The nearly 20 years that Italy was governed by the right-wing populist media tycoon echoed the two lost decades in Japan’s history. By the end of it, Italians clamored for a new order. Exit il cavaliere: “The Knight.” Enter il rottamatore: “The Demolition Man.”

Succeeding the two temporary “technocrats” that followed Berlusconi, 2014 witnessed 41-year-old Matteo Renzi become Italy’s youngest Prime Minister, ready to take a wrecking ball to the house that Berlusconi built in order to reshape Italy as a global power. His capstone reform project – the first new Italian Constitution since World War II – is scheduled for a vote on December 4. Renzi put his name, his work, and his ideology on the line in this referendum. Italy approaches a crossroads, sitting with the United States on the front lines between right-wing populism and left-wing progressivism.

“I’m the scrapper… I’m cleaning up the swamp,” Renzi told The New Yorker’s Jane Kramer. He was hailed as the third-most influential person under 40 by Fortune, and included in the Top 100 Most Influential Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy in 2014. The former Mayor of Florence rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party, the main center-left coalition in the country. Then-President Grigio Napolitano mobilized Renzi to lead the new government in 2014. President Barack Obama praised the young leader, who is so à la mode that he was profiled in Vogue, for his “progressive and forward-looking” vision for Italy. The Justin Trudeau-like figure (in fact, the Canadian and Italian are friends) is part of the new wave of young left-wing leaders around the world – and Renzi’s following exceeds even his 1.3 million Twitter community. However, he is yet to face perhaps the biggest political test of his career: The December 4 referendum will tell if Italy will continue to ride the Renzi wave as long as possible. The referendum represents Renzi’s attempt to dismantle every policy and rectify every failure from Italy’s sunk years under il cavaliere, one by one.

Berlusconi was not a politician; his hallmark was his anti-establishment mentality. Renzi is the opposite – a politician by trade and by training – and his first task was to fix a reeling political system in Italy. Renzi’s government is the 63rd in 69 years. The administration turnover rate in Italy is startling, and a major cause for concern for Renzi and the rest of the European community. The revolving door of premiers in Italy was particularly welcoming to Berlusconi, who held the post for four separate terms. The disgraced leader turned the electoral system into a proportional structure to divide and weaken his political opponents, and was eventually convicted in 2015 for bribing senators. By then, however, he had already uprooted Italy’s political foundations.

A crucial part of Renzi’s constitutional reform is the attempt to completely reformulate the Italian Parliament, curtailing the power of the Upper House in order to streamline government. Under the new reform, the political faction that garners 40 percent of the vote is guaranteed 340 of the 630 seats in the House of Deputies, and the upper house is changed into an unelected chamber. Renzi believes the Senate reform – in the image of the German Bundesrat – will alleviate the gridlock in the Italian government that has induced the turnover rate and reduced the pace of progress.

Electoral reforms, which comprise a significant part of the constitutional reforms in the upcoming referendum, are part of Renzi’s progressive mission. The Prime Minister insists they will make sure governments stay in power for five years, halting the constant cycling of leaders at the helm of Italy’s government. Critics claim the bill expedites bureaucracy at the expense of democracy, and that Renzi’s focus on stability is myopic. These voices don’t forget to add that he’d be happy, too, to have his Democratic Party retain power. Kramer put it best in her New Yorker piece: “Italy’s Democratic Party, in its new, ‘Renziani’ incarnation — think Clinton-Blair for the twenty-first century — is a warring clan of former Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and liberal entrepreneurs, each faction circling the others warily and hoping they will go away.”

Renzi’s push for social reform has been more nuanced. How do you fight back against a culture of right-wing populism, rooted in hate and legitimized by Berlusconi? The former Prime Minister fended off 24 lawsuits in his time and countless scandals. His history of racism, and his attitudes have permeated the psyche of the public. In 2009, after Berlusconi called newly elected President Obama “young, handsome and even has a good tan,” a Rome official in the Anti-Racism Observatory worried: “For one world leader to talk about the skin color of another is utterly disrespectful and sets a bad example for ordinary folk.” Renzi’s administration and its referendum attempt to mute not only those racist ideas, but also silence the notorious Berlusconi-affiliated mafias in the country and overlook his history of “playboy tactics,” sex scandals, and poor treatment of women.

Renzi may not have a perfect antidote, but he has prescribed plenty of medications for Berlusconi’s viral ideas. Renzi’s approach to the broad umbrella of “social issues” has been, much like his approach to other policy issues, very progressive. He penned a widely-circulated Op-Ed in the Times in April 2015 reaffirming Italy’s commitment to welcoming refugees in light of the pervasive European crisis.

Now, Donald Trump’s victory in the United States emboldened populists worldwide, and Renzi faces fierce backlash from the contingency formerly sympathetic to Berlusconi. A senior official in Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party claimed “Renzi is politically finished from today, he’s a dead man walking.” A Renzi win in the referendum is the best chance for the prime minister to push back against a reinvigorated Italian populist movement. In defeating Forza Italia and silencing the populist Five Star Movement and Northern League, Renzi hopes to undermine the principles that the former Prime Minister propagated. A Renzi loss in the referendum may precipitate the resurgence of those toxic ideas to the public stage.

Economic recovery has been more elusive. The businessman Berlusconi was not as great for the economy as his supporters had hoped. In 2011, Public debt was 120 percent of the national GDP, second in the Eurozone to only Greece. Youth unemployment was nearly 40 percent. Thanks to Berlusconi’s self-serving decriminalization of tax avoidance, tax evasion was pervasive. Having inherited such a disastrous scenario, Renzi made clear early on that enough was enough. As he told the UN General Assembly in 2014: “Everything must change in Italy.” He and his Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan are seeking to create growth with tax cuts for companies and households, and make Italy an innovator. Renzi began his visit to the United States in 2014 in Silicon Valley and resolved to facilitate an analogous information and communications technology (ICT) Renaissance in Italy.

Italy was not in horrible economic shape post-Berlusconi – its debt misrepresents the nondescript deficit in the country. However, the country was missing trust from the markets and lacking foreign investment. Renzi’s economic reform efforts in the referendum include recriminalizing tax evasion, attracting more investment, and trying to do better than the austerity measures that forced Berlusconi out in 2011. His signature labor reform is the Jobs Act, which the Prime Minister signed into law in September 2015. The bill reduces hiring restrictions and incentivizes companies to higher workers on permanent, open-ended contracts. It provides for job training, unemployment benefits, and a modern labor market that can keep pace with the digital age. The legislation’s biggest critic are the unions, as much uncertainty remains about the potential efficacy of the reform. While it may take years for the economy to show growth, the Jobs Act gives investors more optimism about the future of the country. Renzi is doing everything he can to end stagnation in the nation.

No policy is permanent. No government is exempt from reform. No precedent is irreversible. Moreover, Italy is the paragon of political cycling. Berlusconi weighed down the seesaw and propped up a right-wing populist government that rendered stability an improbable prospect. Under his rule, Italy saw its political structure, social consciousness, and economy driven into the ground by a controlling media tycoon. Now, Renzi is pushing down on right-wing populism with left-wing progressivism to once again balance the country. Italy now sees its electoral system reorienting, its morality resurfacing, and its economy recovering. But its future prospects all come down to the December 4 Constitutional referendum.

Not only is Renzi’s career on the line in this December 4 referendum, but right-wing populism is making a final push to infiltrate Italy once more. Progressivism risks being purged. If the populist, Trump-fueled resurgence defeats Renzi’s electoral reforms, every other reform he’s made will tumble too. The existence of the Eurozone economy and the livelihood of Italian progressivism are at risk, and it’s time to trust the new establishment. It’s time to believe in the Italian Prime Minister and his youthful vision for Italy’s future, and for Italy to be patient while doctor Renzi does his work.


About the Author

Michael Bass '20 is the Co-Editor in Chief of the Brown Political Review.