Renzi’s step too far

In Italy, Berlusconi may return

Italy’s banking crisis continues to capture headlines, yet its politics deserve more serious attention. Populism has retreated somewhat in the country, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) fared poorly in the latest round of local elections in June. Emmanuel Macron’s triumph heralds the revival of a strong Franco-German alliance at the helm of the European Union. Matteo Renzi, prime minister until December of last year, quickly styled himself as ‘Italy’s Macron’ and congratulated the new French president. But Rome’s Democratic Party-led (PD) government remains conspicuously unstable. Italy has been hostage to Renzi’s attempt to replicate at the national level the strong 41% score achieved by the PD in the 2014 European elections. The results have been a succession of failed gambles.

First there was a referendum to endorse changes in the constitution and the electoral law. The proposed changes were poorly composed and gave off the smell of gerrymandering. Renzi ran a divisive campaign, presenting the referendum as a vote of confidence in him. He was roundly defeated and had to endure a split from the left-wing of his party. Renzi resigned as prime minister and PD general secretary, vowing to take a sabbatical – he returned in a matter of weeks and easily regained control of the party.

Renzi’s pursuit of early elections counters the views of President Sergio Mattarella. But this has not deterred Renzi from seeking an informal alliance with Grillo and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in promoting a new electoral law supposedly based on the German model. The unwritten aim of the law was to make possible a twisted ‘grand coalition’ between the PD and Berlusconi’s Forward Italy party. This would ensure Renzi’s reappointment as prime minister, with the silent accord of Grillo.

Renzi intended to capitalise on the positivity of Italy’s economic recovery by bringing elections forward to the summer. He could then hand to the next government the unsavoury task of passing a ‘blood and tears’ budget in the autumn requiring sweeping national sacrifices. It was, in the view of many, an irresponsible step too far. The proposed electoral law fell prey to a parliamentary ambush reminiscent of the worst practices of last century’s First Republic. Elections will probably be held at the end of the current legislature, in February 2018, under what is in practice a straight proportional representation system.

The likeliest outcome will be no party securing an overall majority and the three major parties – PD, M5S and FI – splitting the vote roughly equally, with around 10% going to smaller groups. The return to proportional representation will make tactical coalitions inevitable. Assuming Grillo continues to refuse an active role in government, Berlusconi could become the lynchpin of a compromise. This would allow Renzi to govern while isolating former allies turned adversaries, led by former Prime Ministers Pier Luigi Bersani and Massimo D’Alema on the left, and the vexatious far-right Northern League.

Strange though it may seem, this might be the only way to give Italy a modicum of stability and strengthen its European commitment. Berlusconi’s return to the fore of Italian politics could be the most extraordinary and unwitting result of Renzi’s scheming.

Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India and Nepal from 2004-8. He is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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