Politics Member States

Italy: The traps awaiting the new generation

29 April 2013
La Repubblica Rome

After two months of political crisis, the new Italian government led by Enrico Letta seems to be responding, at least in part, to calls for renewal of the country's political class. A few unknowns remain, starting with the alliance with Silvio Berlusconi, who is plagued by legal troubles.

It is impossible to gloss over the difficulties confronting Italy’s new government. The alliance will find it hard to transcend its half-progressive, half-conservative dual-headedness, which at its inception brings an obscure political agenda and a centre-left electorate baffled by the pact with Silvio Berlusconi.

The government is the consequence of the crisis and of an election result that is nebulous to say the least, lacking a clear-cut majority and leaving the Democratic Party (PD) – the country’s largest – in tatters by its disastrous handling of the presidential election.

Nonetheless, the new government somehow marks a turning point in the jungle of Italian politics. In one stroke, almost all the leaders who have stamped out Italy’s path over the past twenty years have been swept away. The pressures to retain the status quo aren’t lacking, both from the two parties, and from outside Italy. But the need for renewal and succession have won out in the end.

Giorgio Napolitano, the president of the republic, has played a decisive role. For the time being, the outcome is surprising: the centre left is losing its historical leaders. Some tried and failed to get a foothold in the new cabinet. They may very well thus have lost their last chance [to govern].

For the first time since 1994, the centre right is joining a government that does not include Silvio Berlusconi. The symbol of this era has no seat, nor do his former ministers. The chairman of the outgoing council, Mario Monti, has also been dropped off by the side of the road; while a relative newcomer to the political scene, he is pushing seventy. What we are witnessing no doubt is the end of a cycle. It remains to be seen, though, if this amounts to the beginning of a New Deal.

The average age of the members of the Letta team is considerably lower than the outgoing cabinet. They count among them many young men and women, including, for the first time in the history of the Italy, a minister of African origin. The appointment of Cecile Kyenge is the most striking illustration of the changes that are emerging in Italian society and in its demography. The president has undoubtedly managed to put together a team better than the alliance that will support it. In fact, sizing up that coalition, he may have avoided the worst. The fact remains that these choices, even though they are to some degree necessary, mark a point of no return.

It will be difficult from this day forward to go back to the symbols of the old generation in the next elections or when forming a new government. Italy is going through a clean-up, as it did during the Tangentopoli (inquiry into pervasive corruption in Italian politics) between 1992 and 1994. This purge picks apart one of typical vices of Italy: the quasi-feudal guardianship over dominant positions – the often blocked social ladder, the political class holding onto its monopoly in power.

For Enrico Letta, however, this is only a first step. And to make it, he had to pay the price: Angelino Alfano, the right hand of the Cavaliere, was given the powerful post of minister of the interior – a portfolio equally decisive for the legal troubles of the leader of the People of Freedom Party. The DP has lost almost all of the big ministries, though it is making up for it with gains in the social and cultural portfolios. The situation will oblige the new tenant of the Chigi Palace to balance centre-right reluctance with calls for change on a daily basis.

The malaise that prevails among the government’s sympathisers and public opinion on the centre left, after all, will eventually re-emerge. The contradictions are too obvious, and the conflicts of these past 20 years are still too fresh to forget from one day to the next the conflicts of interest, the “leggi ad personam” (laws made for a single person, notably Berlusconi) and an economic policy that has entrenched inequalities and widened the gap between the rich and poor (10 per cent of the wealthy families today own nearly 45 percent of the country’s total wealth.)

Enrico Letta has probably grasped that the main obstacle in his path is Berlusconi. In particular, the political volubility of the latter stands in direct proportion to his legal troubles. This will be the true unknown variable for the Chigi Palace. Enrico Letta will have to prove – notably to the most restive part of his electorate – that this marriage of fish and fowl is useful for the country and that the alliance with the centre right will not bring a rotten odour to the pact.