For Stefano Fassina, it was the final straw; Matteo Renzi, who some might call the coming man of Italian politics, Mayor of Florence, Secretary of the Democratic Party, was busy brokering a deal to reform electoral law with none other than Silvio Berlusconi, recently barred from politics after his conviction for tax fraud. Fassina, influential in shaping the economic policy of Enrico Letta’s coalition left / right Government as Deputy Minister for Finance, a long time spokesman and political conscience of the Democratic Party’s left wing, described himself as “ashamed” to see Berlusconi, an opposition leader, a criminal in the eyes of the law, even cross the threshold of the PD’s headquarters.
Perhaps taken by Renzi to have been a slur in itself, the fatal riposte was delivered at a press conference on January 4th – it is not hard to imagine that, had he been reminded twice more before the cock had crowed of Fassina’s comments, Renzi would have thrice denied all knowledge of this political thorn in his side.
Fassina’s decision to resign will not necessarily have caused Renzi sleepless nights however. Reputed to be exasperated by Italy’s political establishment, Renzi’s first move on being elected mayor of Florence was to organise a meeting at the city’s Leopolda station where he publicly declared his dissatisfaction with the current state of politics in his country.
Dubbed a “rottamatore” (scrapper) by the Italian media, Renzi held a second meeting in July 2011, this time producing a 100 point agenda, which included his belief that it was time for the political old guard to step aside, retire, and make room for a new generation. Announcing his decision to run for the position of secretary of the PN in 2012, he lost the December election to Pier Luigi Bersani, before emerging victorious at the second time of asking after Bersani’s resignation, beating Gianni Cuperlo and Giuseppe Civati.
Renzi has generally favoured business over politics, and has formed an executive consisting in the main of former allies from his home town of Florence. Declaring himself answerable not to politicians such as Fassina, Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister and leader of the coalition, and Angelina Alfano, formerly right hand man to Berlusconi and now leading his own party, the New Centre Right, but to the 3m citizens who voted for him in the open primary elections, Renzi has attacked the Government for it’s perceived failings on an almost daily basis.
These incessant diatribes eventually took their toll on Fassina, who had tired of his leader’s attacks on a coalition government in which the Democratic Party itself was one of the major players. His suggestion that Renzi should organise a cabinet reshuffle was interpreted in some quarters as an attempt to lay down the gauntlet, potentially exposing the young leader’s largely inexperienced circle to the real business of power and government, the implication being that Renzi and his cronies would be unable to back up their vociferousness with the decisive and appropriate actions required within the political sphere.
The coalition problem
At the heart of Renzi’s discussions with Berlusconi is his determination to avoid another coalition government that is incapable of surviving a full term, due to the fragmentation that so many alliances with smaller parties has tended to cause. “”We are saying no to giving small parties the power of holding us hostage”, he announced to the PD leadership, adding “I don’t rule out alliances but only if they’re made for governing, not just winning an election,” His proposals have since been approved by 111 votes to none, with 34 abstentions, likely to have been the disgruntled left wing of the party, who may see themselves, a minority, as the first names on the hit list (although it should be noted that Renzi himself at times sits precariously to the right of the party’s centre).
If Renzi can push through the proposals, a party or coalition winning more than 35% of the vote would qualify for a “winner’s bonus” of a further 18%, meaning it would have a parliamentary majority of at least 53%. If neither side garnered more than 35% of the vote a second round of elections would take place and the winner of this would be awarded the 53% majority. The current single list electoral format, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the Italian high court, would be replaced by 120 electoral colleges, with candidates chosen by primary. “In three days we have made more progress than has been achieved in three years,” Renzi has declared.
The 38 year old Renzi has also pressed ahead with plans to limit the power of local regions by reforming Article 5 of the constitution, which will reduce the Senate’s influence and turn the upper house into an unelected chamber dealing with regional issues only. The measures could be in force by the end of next month.
Although Mr Renzi makes no secret of his wish to become President, and is well placed to attack and perhaps usurp Letta’s unstable coalition before political rival Angelo Alfaro builds his new party into a force capable of triumphing at an election, Italian law states that a new electoral law must be passed before the next vote. A stumbling block indeed, and perhaps a contributing factor behind Renzi’s desire for a governmental pact until the new law has been passed: “We need to make a German-style agreement, note by note, point by point and with a fixed timetable for the next 12 to 15 months,” This would buy Renzi time to enshrine the new electoral law, and it is more than likely that he will seek the counsel of Silvio Berlusconi, who despite being outside the government, remains a wily and influential politician, and a man who also knows Alfaro well. Berlusconi has indeed been quick to endorse Renzi’s proposals; “We want to achieve a clear two party system in a climate of clarity and mutual respect,” he said in a statement.
Pact in haste, repent at leisure?
The likely victims of the proposed changes are said to be the smaller parties struggling to gain a foothold in parliament, including Alfaro’s fledging New Centre Right party, and ex-premier Mario Monti’s Civic Choice party. Alfaro will come to the table, he has said, if 3 of the 4 following conditions are met: the winner’s bonus to be awarded to a coalition and not a single party, the threshold for entering parliament remained at 4% of the vote, an end to the unpopular “blocked list” system (where party leaders can nominate their own candidates), and electoral coalitions to identify their candidate for Prime Minister. Any 3 will do, he has indicated. Within the Democratic party, however, there is disapproval at every twist and turn as the “old guard” expiate their bitterness towards the man whom some have likened to Britain’s Tony Blair. Let’s stay rebellious and change Italy, say’s Renzi – meanwhile Enrico Bersani, former party secretary, is taken to hospital suffering from a cerebral haemorrhage, and Gianni Cuperlo, President of the Party, resigns.
It remains to be seen if Renzi can sustain his so far remarkable juggling act, pushing through change in time for a shot at the next election whilst consolidating his support within the party, mindful of the murmurings of dissent, whilst attempting to clip the wings of Alfaro, a phoenix from the flames of Bercusconi’s reign – and as for Berlusconi, it may be ashes to ashes, but it remains far from dust to dust.
In a remarkable final twist, the foul mouthed ex comedian turned renegade politician Beppe Grillo has thrown his hat into the ring, demanding, as leader of the anti-establishment 5-star movement, that rather than wait for a proposed law to be passed phasing out state funding for political parties, the parties could simply stop accepting the donations. Not to be outsmarted, Renzi has called Grillo’s bluff, calling on him to support an elected party’s right to govern: “if you commit to the reforms, I’ll do without 40 million euros”, Renzi said, “sign here! If not you are a buffoon”. If he calls too many more bluffs, it may be Renzi who ends up looking like a “bluff-oon”.