Italy and Italian politics in 2013

2013 was another momentous year in politics and elections around the world, and my usual Top 10 post reviewing the year’s ten most significant election while offer a retrospective on the political and electoral year which passed. If there is one country, however, where 2013 has proven to be an exceptionally consequential and memorable year as far as politics are concerned, that would need to be Italy. At this time last year, it was clear that 2013 would be a memorable year in Italian politics. But, in true Italian style, what has transpired politically in Italy in the past twelve months has been incredible and obviously of deep consequence for the future of Italian politics.

It all began with legislative elections on February 24-25. The expectation prior to the vote was that the centre-left coalition by Pier Luigi Bersani, the colourless leader of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD) – Italy’s largest centre-left party – would be able to form a relatively stable government, probably with the added support of a centrist/centre-right coalition led by Mario Monti, the economist and former EU Commissioner who was serving as Italy’s technocratic Prime Minister for a year. Things, however, didn’t quite play out that way. Silvio Berlusconi, the histrionic business magnate at the centre of Italian politics since 1994, did better than anybody expected, coming within 0.3% of winning the election (in the lower house). To make matters even worse, the Five Star Movement (MoVimento Cinque Stelle, M5S), a virulently anti-establishment party led by charismatic (demagogic?) comedian Beppe Grillo, won 25.6% of the vote and became the single largest party. Because of Italy’s notoriously horrible electoral law, Bersani’s coalition won an absolute majority in the lower house – the Chamber of Deputies – by virtue of having won the most votes nationally and being entitled to a majority bonus granting the largest coalition an absolute majority. But since the Senate has such bonuses apply only regionally, Bersani’s coalition fell short of an absolute majority in the upper house – with 123 seats to Berlusconi’s 117 and Grillo’s 54.

Italy is a parliamentary republic with ‘perfect bicameralism’, which means that a government needs the confidence of both houses to remain in power. Therefore, it became clear that Bersani wouldn’t be able to form government (with the confidence of the Senate) lest he either swallowed the left’s entire raison-d’etre since 1994 by forming a coalition with Berlusconi or convincing parts of Grillo’s ragtag and inexperienced caucus of allying with him in a short-term minority government. Bersani was principled enough to choose the latter option, desperately trying to convince the Grillists to back him in a stopgap coalition committed to constitutional, electoral and political reform.

By March, however, it had become clear that Bersani had failed. Beppe Grillo, the fiery and demagogic comedian who leads the very theatrical M5S from his blog rather than Parliament, is an uncompromising foe of the entire Italian political system, institutions and politicians – they’re all rotten to the bone, he insists. Grillo and his éminence grise Gianroberto Casaleggio also understand that agreeing to collaboration with an old timer like Bersani and the traditional parties would be suicidal for a new and fragile movement whose support lies heavily on Grillo’s populist rhetoric against a corrupt political elite (it’s often hard to take issue with what he rants on, given the legendary corruption, incompetence and vanity of the Italian political elite). Therefore, Grillo effectively blocked his 109 deputies and 54 senators from giving in to the temptation of siding with Bersani.

In April, to complicate matters further, parliamentarians and regional delegates were called to elect the President – a largely ceremonial role, but one of significance in the government formation process. Bersani, who had up until that point done the best he could in a nightmarish situation, did like the Italian left usually does – shoot itself in the foot. Bersani reached an agreement with Berlusconi and the centre on a common candidate for the first ballot, on April 18 – Franco Marini, an 80-year old former Christian democratic trade unionist. The deal with Berlusconi, which seemed to be reneging all of the PD’s campaign and post-electoral behaviour, incensed many on the left and within the PD. Left Ecology Freedom (Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, SEL), a small ecosocialist leftist party led by Nichi Vendola and Bersani’s junior ally in February, broke with the PD and backed Stefano Rodotà, a respected former jurist and Communist nominated by Grillo’s M5S. Within the PD itself, Bersani’s strongest rival, the young and centrist mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, who had been defeated by Bersani in a 2012 primary for the prime ministerial candidacy, decried Marini’s pick.

Marini fell far short of the 672 votes required to win on the first ballot, largely due to defections on the left from Renzi’s supporters. After two more inconclusive ballots, the PD (including Renzi) and the SEL agreed to support Romano Prodi, a respected former centre-left Prime Minister. Prodi only required an absolute rather than two-thirds majority to win by this point, but he won only 395 votes – short of the 504 needed to win. It is largely believed that Prodi’s nomination was part of a dirty ploy engineered by Massimo D’Alema, a former Prime Minister and a leading factional leader on the PD’s left (who had backed Bersani in 2009 and 2012). D’Alema comes from the party’s ‘left’ (former members of the Italian Communist Party), like Bersani, but in reality he is a centrist who has long been willing to compromise with Berlusconi and the centrist parties (with disastrous consequences for the party). Renzi might also have been behind the Prodi ploy. In any event, the trick worked, and Bersani resigned the leadership.

On April 20, the leading politicians from all parties (except the M5S) agreed on an unprecedented last-ditch exit route from the crisis. The incumbent President, 88-year old Giorgio Napolitano, who was due to retire as all of his predecessors had done after one term, agreed to run for reelection as a solution to the crisis. Napolitano was reelected on the sixth ballot with a huge majority.

Palazzo Chigi, the seat and residence of the Prime Minister (own picture)

Palazzo Chigi, the seat and residence of the Prime Minister (own picture)

Napolitano’s condition in exchange for agreeing to serve a second term was the formation of a grand coalition government between the left and right. On April 24, Napolitano nominated Enrico Letta, a relatively youthful (47) politician from the PD’s centrist (ex-Christian Democrat, DC) wing but a former Bersani ally. Letta formed a government backed by his own PD, Berlusconi’s PdL, Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (Scelta Civica, SC) and independents. On April 28, he was sworn in with his ministers. Angelino Alfano, still seen as Berlusconi’s dauphin, became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and the PdL had four other ministers (Infrastructure and Transports; Health; Agriculture, Food and Forestry; Constitutional Reforms). The PD was well represented, but like with the PdL few – if any – leading party figures joined the cabinet. Major portfolios went to fairly independent personalities – the former EU Commissioner and Radical politician Emma Bonino as foreign minister, the director general of the Bank of Italy Fabrizio Saccomanni as finance minister, Monti’s former interior minister Annamaria Cancellieri as justice minister and Mario Mauro, a PdL dissident who joined Monti’s party, as defense minister.

On the right, the Lega Nord – Berlusconi’s ally in the elections – went into opposition, as did the SEL. The most vocal opposition came from the M5S, with Grillo as fiery as ever in opposition to Letta’s government. Grillo denounced the creation of the government as a coup d’état and kept calling Parliament a degenerate institution.

Berlusconi had little commitment to Letta’s cabinet from the get-go, being largely preoccupied with his own political and personal interests. He understood that he was holding Letta’s government by the balls; as long as the government served his interests, he would grudgingly tolerate it (but wanting to have the cake and eat it, criticize it at the same time) but if the government started being inconvenient, Berlusconi would start huffing and puffing. Even the PD had little deep commitment to Letta’s government. Renzi was hardly enamoured by Letta’s government, and most of the party was busily preparing for the leadership elections in which Renzi was the runaway favourite. In June, even the mild-mannered and gentlemanly Monti threatened to pull his (weak) party out of the coalition unless it became bolder and more unified.

Letta’s objective, for the time being, was largely restoring investor and foreign confidence in Italy and managing the economy – mired in recession for months on end. On this front, he was relatively successfully, although vulnerable to Berlusconi’s huffing and puffing. Italy has been badly hurt by the economic recession, the result of a variety of structural and political factors among which is years of economic mismanagement by Berlusconi’s governments.

After the emergency austerity measures adopted by Monti’s technocratic government between 2011 and 2012, Italian policy-makers have tried to reorient economic and fiscal policies in a ‘pro-growth’ and ‘pro-jobs’ direction. The public’s mood, with the economy in recession since the fourth quarter of 2011 and unemployment at 12.5% in October 2013, is obviously quite testy and tired of austerity policies. The economic crisis also created a new wave of deep-seated anger at the political elites (la casta), described by populists with Grillo – often with good reason – as parasites of no use who leech on hardworking taxpayers to serve their narrow personal interests. Monti’s reformist government began taking on vested interests and lobbies in ‘closed’ economic sectors (pharmacists, taxies), Grillo’s campaign focused much of its fire and vitriol on ‘parasitical’ politicians (all rotten, he insisted). Even Berlusconi, the political chameleon he is, was able – with some success – to recycle populist rhetoric aimed at politicians and judges.

The government promised to cut employers’ welfare contributions, tax breaks for energy-saving home improvements, expand a guarantee fund for small and medium enterprises and it said it would consider benefits for families and children. Once in office, the government sped up payments of €40 billion in public administration debts, approved tax incentives for employers to employ young workers and began working on a privatization program. For some, Letta’s government has been insufficiently bold in tackling vested interests and promoting competition, largely because both the PdL and PD are tied to special interests and have little interest in disturbing that.

Berlusconi’s main interest as far as economics went was to get the IMU, an unpopular property tax introduced by Monti (with PdL support), scrapped as he had flamboyantly promised in the election. Letta’s government gave in, knowing that Berlusconi would bring down the government if he didn’t. The IMU on primary residences will be abolished.

The government faced its first major test in May-July. In late May, a police operation unceremoniously arrested Alma Shalabayeva, the wife of an exiled Kazakh political dissident (who lives in the UK) and her six-year old daughter. 72 hours later, the Italian authorities handed them over to Kazakh government, who had a plane waiting in Rome to take her to face an uncertain fate in Kazakhstan. Alfano, as interior minister, denied knowledge of the operation. His denial might have been more plausible if Berlusconi didn’t entertain a close and friendly relation with Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev and if Italy’s main oil firm (ENI) didn’t have a 17% stake in a Kazakh oil field. On May 28, the Kazakh ambassador had apparently met with Alfano’s chief of staff at the interior ministry to demand Alma Shalabayeva’s arrest and deportation.

The Kazakh expulsion created a political firestorm in Rome which threatened to bring down the government. Berlusconi and his party made it clear that the government would fall if Alfano got into any sort of trouble. The M5S and SEL, along with renziani PD parliamentarians demanded Alfano’s resignation. In July, the M5S and SEL senatorial caucuses tabled a motion of no-confidence in the interior minister, which was rejected by the Senate a few days later. Berlusconi’s threats paid off – the PD, minus a few renziani senators who excused themselves, joined the PdL, SC and minor right-wing groups in voting against the M5S-SEL motion.

Alfano ultimately got a slap on the wrist. Letta was hardly any tougher on other politicians who got caught up in nasty business. Roberto Calderoli, a Lega Nord senator (and one of the vice presidents of the Senate), said that Congolese-born integration minister Cécile Kyenge made him think of an orangutan. Calderoli, who has a knack for comments of the kind, defended himself saying that he intended no racism and only said it because ‘he loves animals’ (and apparently sees animals in all cabinet ministers!); many called on him to resign, but the government seemingly let the matter slide away without a ruckus, although Calderoli may face charges. Annamaria Cancellieri, the non-partisan justice minister, was accused in November 2013 of intervening on the correctional services office to release the daughter of Salvatore Ligresti, a corrupt entrepreneur who is a friend of the minister. The government reiterated its confidence in Cancellieri, and the governing parties all voted against a M5S no-confidence motion in the Chamber of Deputies.

In the meantime, attention turned to Berlusconi’s judicial travails. Il cavaliere‘s innumerable run-ins with the law is nothing new; the business magnate has been indicted on charges of tax fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribery, false accounting, violation of antitrust laws, libel, defamation and under-age prostitution. However, until August 2013, Berlusconi had never been convicted of anything – he was acquitted, cases dragged on exceeding the statute of limitations, he saved his own skin by aptly passing amnesty laws or he changed the law to legalize the alleged offences. The French newspaper Le Monde has an excellent infographic detailing Berlusconi’s various cases.

Il cavaliere‘s luck with the Italian judicial process, often derided for its lengthiness, ran out this year. In October 2012, an appeals court in Milan confirmed a lower court judgement in late 2012 which had found Berlusconi guilty in the ‘Mediaset’ case, where he and his media giant company (Mediaset; the haven of badly-dubbed Extreme Makeover Home Edition reruns) were accused of tax evasion and tax fraud for illicit trade (and false accounting) of movie rights between Mediaset and secret fictive foreign companies in tax havens. The appeals court sentenced him to four years in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office. Berlusconi appealed the case to the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest appeals court. Much to Berlusconi’s chagrin, the Court of Cassation proved exceptionally quick at issuing a decision on the case – on August 1. The court confirmed the lower courts’ verdict, with a four year prison sentence but asked the Milanese appeals court to review the length of the ban from public office. A 2006 amnesty law, ironically voted by the left to reduce prison overcrowding, automatically reduced Berlusconi’s jail sentence to one year and since he is over 70 and not a repeat offender, he will not serve any jail time: he was given a choice between house arrest or community service, opting for the former.

On June 24, a penal court in Milan had found Berlusconi guilty of child prostitution and abuse of power in the world-famous Rubygate case, where Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, who was a minor at the time (in 2010) and abusing his powers to have her released from police detention in 2010 (on the pretext that she was Hosni Mubarak’s niece). The court sentenced Berlusconi to seven years in prison and a lifetime ban from public office, but he will appeal the decision.

Berlusconi is still involved in three other ongoing cases. A trial on the bribery of a centre-left senator in 2006 to topple Prodi’s government will open next year; in March 2013, he was sentenced to a year in jail in the ‘Unipol’ case (confidential wiretaps by Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, on conversations between a former Governor of the Bank of Italy and a centre-left politician); the Constitutional Court is set to rule on a defamation case concerning Antonio Di Pietro, a former magistrate (famous for his corruption-busting work during the 1990s Mani Pulite operations) and the former leader of the Italia dei Valori (IdV) party. Berlusconi, in 2008, had accused Di Pietro of obtaining his degree only with the complicity of the secret services. In 2010, a court in Viterbo acquitted Berlusconi because parliamentary immunity bans any prosecution against words spoken in the exercise of a parliamentary mandate; however, a higher court overturned the decision in 2012.

The Legge Severino, adopted in December 2012 by the Monti government with the support of all major parties (including the PdL), bans any politician convicted to over two years’ imprisonment from holding or running for public office for six years. This law superseded the October 2013 judgement of the Milanese appeals court, which has shortened Berlusconi’s ban from public office to two years. With the prospect of Berlusconi being expelled by the Senate (but his colleagues would need to vote on the matter first), Italian politics for all of August and September were largely dominated by Berlusconi’s fate.

Undeterred, Berlusconi and his camarilla argued that he was the target of a political witch-hunt – in which the culprits were the same as in the past: left-wing ‘red’ judges. In a country where decades of Red Scare rhetoric by the Democrazia Cristiana (DC) have created a right-wing base receptive to anticommunism and allegations of communist plots against a tireless defender of Italy, Berlusconi still appeals to a large number of Italians (but, we shouldn’t fall into the usual trap of deriding the bulk of Italian voters as ‘dumb’ – the Berlusconian right won less than 30% in 2013). In his usual theatrical (and often comedic) style, Berlusconi complained that he was unable to sleep, that he had lost 11kg, that he was psychologically tormented and that his children felt like Jews under Hitler.

Berlusconi’s supporters pleaded that their leader be granted agilità politica (‘political freedom’). President Napolitano and Prime Minister Letta were faced with the hot potato issue of pardoning Berlusconi. While Letta knew that he was taking a political risk in holding firm, he – and the PD – also knew that doing so would be political suicide for the centre-left. Berlusconi challenged the Legge Severino, arguing that it was not retroactive (and, by extension, he couldn’t be expelled by the law since his crimes were committed before 2012) and is challenging the issue to the European Court of Human Rights.

Politically undeterred, Berlusconi simultaneously announced that the PdL, the party which he had founded in 2008, would be folding and that Forza Italia, his original party when he entered politics in 1994, would return. Rome, Milan and some other Italian cities were plastered with posters of Berlusconi rallies reading ancora in campo per l’Italia (‘still in the field for Italy’); while planes with ‘Forza Italia Forza Silvio’ banners flew over beaches during Ferragosto, Italy’s second most popular holiday in which the swelteringly hot cities are emptied by Italians heading to the beach.

Some of Berlusconi’s closest supporters began floating the possibility of a dynastic succession, in the person of Marina Berlusconi, the cavaliere‘s eldest daughter  and chairman of her father’s Fininvest holding firm. She showed little interest, and the dynastic implications annoyed some politicians in Berlusconi’s party.

Hitherto united in public, the PdL/Forza Italia began showing public cracks in September 2013. While a Senate committee, in which the PD and M5S held a majority of the seats, began debating Berlusconi’s expulsion (decadenza in Italian, because Italian is such an awesome language) under the Legge Severino, Berlusconi started huffing and puffing again. On September 28, Berlusconi ordered his cabinet ministers to resign from Letta’s cabinet. The pretext was the government’s decision to raise the VAT (IVA) by 1%, but nearly everybody saw through that – the real reason was that Berlusconi was threatening to pull the plug on Letta (and plunge Italy into another political crisis) over his judicial travails and Napolitano/Letta’s unwillingness to pardon him or delay the expulsion debate. Feeling that Berlusconi might be bluffing, Letta asked for a confidence vote on October 2.

Berlusconi had been breathing fire in the run-up to the vote, threatening to vote against the government. However, on October 2 in the Senate, Berlusconi gave a speech critical of the government but one which ended by announcing he would vote confidence (fiducia), such a astonishing twist that many initially taught he misspoke (the word for distrust or no confidence is one letter away, sfiducia). The PdL joined the PD, SC, Union of the Centre (UDC) and minor government allies in voting for Letta, who won the Senate’s confidence easily 235 to 70 (M5S, SEL, Lega).

Was Berlusconi bluffing all along? It appears he twisted and turned in agonizing indecision, facing an extremely rare internal revolt. Indeed, all but one of the PdL ministers – who obeyed Berlusconi’s original order – shortly thereafter said it was perhaps a bad decision. One of them was Alfano, who led the doves (colombes) in the PdL – moderates (ex-DC and ex-Socialists) and ministers who placed political stability over Berlusconi’s personal interests. The doves faced the hawks (falchi) and loyalists (lealisti), hardline supporters of Berlusconi who came from the party’s right-wing liberals (Giancarlo Galan, Daniele Capezzone), hard-right (Daniela Santanchè) or camarilla (Raffaele Fitto, Mara Carfagna, Renata Polverini). The hawks-loyalists lost, the doves won and Berlusconi, to save face at the last minute, went with them. It was a shocking twist from Alfano, a Sicilian Christian democrat who had been a subservient justice minister between 2008 and 2011 (passing laws to save his boss from prosecution) and been groomed as Berlusconi’s loyal successor and political ‘son’ (despite Berlusconi publicly insulting him).

On October 4, the Senate committee voted to recommend Berlusconi’s expulsion, sending the matter to the Senate as a whole. The PdL demanded that the vote be held with a secret ballot, a prospect which worried Berlusconi’s opponents – given that it would probably mean that he would try to secretly bribe centre-left lawmakers as he had in the past, but there was also a rumour that the M5S would like a secret vote to secretly vote against Berlusconi’s expulsion to reinforce their ‘plague on both your houses’ rhetoric. On October 30, the rules committee asked for a public vote.

Still undeterred, Berlusconi pressed on with the transformation of the PdL into Forza Italia. On November 16, Berlusconi dissolved the PdL into a new Forza Italia. However, one day prior, the ‘doves’ led by Angelino Alfano announced that they would not dissolve into Forza Italia and formed their own party, the New Centre-Right (Nuovo Centrodestra, NCD). The NCD includes all five centre-right ministers in the Letta government, the former Lombardian regional president Roberto Formigoni and his allies, members of the Catholic lay movement Comunione e Liberazione, former members of the DC who joined the centre-right from various post-DC Christian democratic parties (Carlo Giovannardi, in the UDC until 2008), former members of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), Renato Schifani – the former President of the Senate and architect of an unconstitutional immunity law in 2004 and the incumbent regional president of Calabria Giuseppe Scopelliti.

All in all, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – reduced to the hawks, loyalists and ‘mediators’ (moderates such as Renato Brunetta, supporters of party unity) – has 67 deputies and 60 deputies, against 29 and 31 respectively for the NCD.

Palazzo Madama, the seat of the Italian Senate in Rome (own picture)

Palazzo Madama, the seat of the Italian Senate in Rome (own picture)

On November 26, as the government was preparing to pass the 2014 budget, Forza Italia withdrew its support from the government and, the next day, voted against the budget which nevertheless passed the Senate 162 to 115, with the NCD’s support. That same day, the Senate finally voted on Berlusconi’s decadenza under the Legge Severino by public ballot. Berlusconi’s supporters, symbolically dressed in black in the Senate or rallied in front of Berlusconi’s Roman residence, desperately tried to delay the vote or have it held by secret ballot. Berlusconi warned the PD and M5S senators from voting against him, so that they were not later “ashamed in front of their children”, he also insisted on a re-trial, claiming new evidence and witnesses. All to no avail, as the Senate voted 192 to 113 to expel Berlusconi from their ranks. The PD, M5S, SEL, SC, UDC and two small centre-left groups voted in favour, while Forza Italia, the Lega Nord, the NCD and a centre-right autonomist group voted against. The NCD in doing so signaled that their split was not as much against Berlusconi himself as against Berlusconi’s political strategy, which makes the Alfano dissidence different from Gianfranco Fini’s very public split with his former ally in 2010. Indeed, Alfano said that he was still Berlusconian – but “in a different way”.

To top off a year of shocking twists and turns, the Constitutional Court ruled, on December 4, that two key parts of the electoral law were unconstitutional. The Italian electoral law (known as the Legge Calderoli, or unofficially the legge porcellum – piglet law – or porcata – literally ‘shit’, as described by its own sponsor, Roberto Calderoli) was passed by Berlusconi’s government in 2005 in an unsuccessful attempt to save the right in the 2006 elections. The law, whose effects we witnessed in the February election, guarantee an absolute majority in the Chamber to whichever coalition wins the most votes nationally by granting them 340 seats (55%), even if said coalition wins only 29% as in 2013! In the Senate, however, the majority bonus is applied regionally (but three regions have no majority bonus) so there is no guarantee that the winning coalition will have an absolute majority in the Senate. This means that the winning coalition either lacks a majority in the Senate (2013), has so tenuous of a majority that it makes it vulnerable to any dissent within the often-fractious coalitions (2006) or the majority is strong but still vulnerable to large blocs of dissent within the coalition (in a landslide election like 2008).

The Constitutional Court declared that the majority bonuses in both houses were unconstitutional and also ruled against the closed party lists, which prevent voters from indicating preferences for candidates on a party list. A new electoral law was already one of the government’s priorities, along with constitutional reform (to end with ‘perfect bicameralism’ and reduce the Senate’s powers); it will now need to actually deliver on a new electoral law. This will hardly be a cakewalk given that there is no agreement on what form the new system should take, and it is obvious that the parties will likely engage in horsetrading and concessions amongst themselves before agreeing on constitutional and electoral reform. It is likely that the new electoral system will include a large number of seats won in single-member districts. Many, like Matteo Renzi (but not Alfano), like a French electoral system, with two round voting and the propensity to create a two-party (or two-coalition?) system. However, in the absence of a political agreement, the most likely option might be a return to the Mattarellum in place between 1993 and 2005, in which 75% of members of both houses were elected by FPTP in single-member districts and the remaining 25% by forms of proportional representation, either compensatory or party-list votes. The system had led to backroom deals, horsetrading, small parties selling themselves to the highest bidder (and holding great power) and corrupt abuses of the obscure clauses of the law (decoy lists in 2001 to work around the party-list PR rules).

What are voters thinking?

The short answer: nobody knows, and politicians are in no hurry to find out. In national polls, the centre-right coalition (PdL/FI+Lega Nord+allies+NCD) have generally held small leads, confusingly ranging from statistically insignificant/tied to narrow but significant (4-6 pts) depending on the pollster (who, it must be pointed out, generally are terrible). The right opened up a narrow but significant lead from April to June-July, at which point the left closed the gap and it has, on the whole, been more or less tied between the right and left since.

Within the coalitions, the PD has improved on its February result (25%) and now stands at 28-29% while Forza Italia, hurt by the NCD split, stands where the PdL stood in February – or a bit below (19-21%). The Lega Nord is stable at low levels of support (4-5%), the SEL peaked at nearly 6% (3% in February) between May and September but has since fallen to 3.5%.

A grand coalition between left and right should have been a godsend for the M5S, but it hasn’t really been so. A new party in Parliament, with a caucus heavily made up of first-time, inexperienced novice politicians drawn from different social horizons and drawing on different political traditions and ideologies, it has had a tough time adapting to Parliament – especially how their leadership and many of the parliamentarians themselves consider the Parliament to be a corrupt and illegitimate institution which should, in a perfect world, be abolished and replaced by internet-based direct democracy. Despite the commitment to direct democracy and political revolution, the M5S isn’t a shining example of internal democracy. Beppe Grillo is an autocratic leader, who is rather intolerant of any dissent or criticism, and doesn’t hesitate to insult any critics – internal or external, politicians or journalists – with crude ad hominem attacks. Grillo just recently allowed his followers to go on TV, which he had until then boycotted. His angry followers often enthusiastically join Grillo’s countless attacks on his ‘enemies’ launched from his blogs.

Two deputies and five senators have been expelled or voluntarily left the M5S caucus. In April, senator Marino Mastrangeli was expelled by members (in an internet vote) for having appeared on TV shows. In June, senator Adele Gambaro, who had held Grillo responsible for the M5S’ poor results in local elections, was expelled from the caucus after an internet vote. Gambaro, Mastrangeli and two other dissident M5S senators voted in favour of Letta’s cabinet in the Senate on October 2. Still, considering how diverse and inexperienced the M5S caucuses are, losing so few parliamentarians is a big feat. I compared the M5S to the Canadian Progressive Party from the 1920s in February, and while I still argue that the two parties share some similar traits (some of Grillo’s ideas remind me of the Ginger Group), the difference so far is that the M5S has been far more cohesive than the Progressives. The reason might be that the Progressives lacked a Beppe Grillo, a rabble-rousing populist politician who is also able to hold his crowd together.

In polls, the M5S saw their support fall from 25-30% in the immediate aftermath of the election to 15-17% in July and since then back up to 20-23%. Basically, while some February voters are reconsidering their vote and may not vote for Grillo again, he remains a hugely influential player.

The centre, which won 10.6% in February (Chamber of Deputies), has collapsed. Mario Monti lost control of his own party, the hastily-assembled and fractious SC, ended his short-lived political career in October and resigned from the SC. The SC has broken up, divided between liberals and Catholics. The liberals have taken control of the party, which led the Catholic/Christian democratic wing to split off and join forces with the Christian democratic party, the UDC. The SC group has 26 deputies and 8 senators left, down from 47 and 21 at the outset. The Catholics and UDC have formed their own group, Per l’Italia, with 20 deputies and 12 senators. In the polls, the SC has sunk from 8% in February to 1-2%, and the UDC has been stuck at 1.8%, what it won in the election.

There were local elections in late May (earlier or later in two regions), the most significant race for mayor being in Rome. The centre-left won 19 out of 21 major cities, with an independent list winning one and the M5S only winning one city (Ragusa). The centre-right was defeated in Rome but also other historically right-wing places: Brescia, Treviso or Viterbo. In Rome, incumbent mayor Gianni Alemanno, a former neo-fascist who won a surprise victory in a traditionally left-leaning city (but one with a long history of high support for neo-fascist/post-fascist parties) in 2008, was defeated. His term had been marred by some patronage scandals and policy mishaps, and he was handily defeated by Ignazio Marino (PD), a centre-left senator and esteemed transplant surgeon. Marino won 42.6% against 30.3% for Alemanno in the first round, with the M5S candidate polling only 12.4% (Grillo had won 27% in Rome in February). In the second round, Marino won 63.9%. The centre-right – Lega included – usually did poorly, even in their northern and Sicilian bases. They lost cities such as Viterbo in the Lazio (which elected its first leftist mayor, the incumbent right-wing mayor winning only 37.1% in the runoff), Catania in Sicily (a former centre-left mayor returned by the first round) and Messina (where the PdL was out by the first round, with only 18.5%, and a narrow victory for a pacifist, environmentalist and anti-mafia activist against the PD in the runoff). In Treviso, held by the Lega Nord since 1994, the centre-left defeated Lega Nord candidate Giancarlo Gentilini, a two-term mayor between 1994 and 2003 known for his provocative xenophobic and homophobic stances. The left won 42.6% in the first round against 34.8% for Gentilini, and won with 55.5% in the runoff.

The M5S did very poorly compared to its showing a few short months earlier, winning less than 10% in most cities and winning, at most, 15% of the vote. The party’s only success was in Ragusa, where the Grillo candidate placed second behind the PD in the first round, with 15.6%, and went on to win with 69.4% in the runoff.

A regional election was held in Friuli-Venezia Giulia in April, one day after Napolitano’s reelection. Debora Serracchiani, a young PD MEP close to Renzi, narrowly defeated the centre-right incumbent, Renzo Tondo, with 39.4% against 39% in the presidential vote. The M5S won 19.2% when it had won 27% in February. In May, the special (French-speaking) autonomous region of the Aosta Valley held a regional election. Although Aostan politics form their own little world separate from Italian politics, there is some overlap. The M5S, which had still won 18.5% in February won only 6.5% while the PdL lost all four seats it held and won only 4.2%.

The Trentino-Alto Adige region is its own unique world as well, because of the German-speaking majority in Alto Adige/Südtirol/South Tyrol and the strength of the autonomist centre-left, a regional election was held on October 27. The election in Alto Adige/Südtirol was interesting in its own right but of little relevance to Italy: the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), the catch-all German party which has dominated the province since 1948, finally lost its 65-year old absolute majority on the provincial council, winning an all-time low of 45.7% of the vote. The main winners were the German right, in the form of Die Freiheitlichen (often described as a local variant of the FPÖ and separatist) who won 17.9% but also the Süd-Tiroler Freiheit (separatists demanding reunification with Austria) which increased its support from 5% to 7%. The Greens, one of the few (only?) pan-linguistic parties in the province, increased their support to 8.7%. The PD won 6.7%, roughly holding its ground, but the Italian right lost heavily – an alliance between Lega Nord and Forza Italia (competing as Forza Alto Adige) won only 2.5% and 1 seat, down from 10.4% in 2008. The M5S eked out one seat. In the Trentino province, the centre-left coalition led by Ugo Rossi from the Trentino Tyrolean Autonomist Party (PATT) won handily, taking 58.1% of the direct presidential vote against 19.3% for Diego Mosna, an independent businessman backed by centrists, liberals, centre-right and centre-left dissidents. Running separately, it was a massive disaster for Forza Italia/Forza Trentino, which won 4.3% in the presidential vote and 4.4% in the list vote, losing all 5 seats won by the PdL in 2008. They were surpassed by the Lega Nord, which won 6.6%, but also the M5S – whose 5.7% were still a far cry from the 21% it had won in February.

A special regional election was held in Basilicata, a region in southern Italy, on November 17-18 after the PD president resigned following a corruption bust which saw members of his government and the leader of the opposition arrested for embezzlement. The PD candidate easily held the regional presidency, which has been held by the centre-left since 1995 (often in alliance with the centre), winning 59.6% of the presidential vote. SC senator Salvatore Di Maggio, in coalition with the PdL and UDC, won only 19.4% while the M5S won 13.2% (24.3% in February). In the list vote, the PdL suffered sharp loses, losing five seats and winning only 12.3% of the vote (19.4% in 2010) although the PD also lost ground, from 27.1% to 24.8%.

Why are Italian voters handing the left large victories at the local level, but are still torn between the left and right nationally? Similarly, if the M5S is holding up relatively well from the general election, why are they being trounced in local elections? The most likely answer for the first question is that the centre-right is heavily dependent on Berlusconi, for better or for worse. Berlusconi is the right’s most famous, charismatic and likely popular leader and remains the glue which may hold a very fractious coalition together, although younger leaders such as Alfano or the Lega Nord mayor of Verona Flavio Tosi are knocking at the door. Berlusconi has little interest in local/regional elections and campaigned little for ‘his’ candidates in this year’s local elections. A similar explanation goes for Grillo, who is by far the M5S’ most charismatic and notable leader. His movement, however, still lacks grassroots at the local level and most of its candidates are no-namers who struggle to make an impact if Grillo is not playing an active role in their campaign.

PD leadership

The PD held a much-awaited leadership election on December 8, capping off a fascinating year in Italian politics.

The obvious favourite was Matteo Renzi, the 38-year old reformist mayor of Florence, who had lost the 2012 prime ministerial primaries to Bersani. After the near-loss in February and Bersani’s disastrous handling of the presidential election, the PD elite and rank-and-file began reconsidering Renzi, who had cemented himself as Bersani’s heir apparent and strongest public critic.

Matteo Renzi, unlike Bersani, comes from the Christian democratic tradition – while too young to have been in the First Republic’s DC, he began his political career in the centre-left Italian People’s Party (PPI), one of the DC’s successor and joined the PD from the Democracy is Freedom – The Daisy. Renzi made in name in politics, as president of the province of Florence between 2005 and 2009 and as mayor of Florence since 2009, as a ‘scrapper’ (rottamatore) who took on the political elites (within his own party) and reducing waste, mismanagement and the size of the local public administrations. Despite being only in his first time as mayor and fairly new to politics, like Barack Obama (to whom he is often compared, alongside Tony Blair), he has made a name for himself largely by being a competent municipal administrator and his populist/anti-establishment persona which is popular in Italy.

The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall (own picture)

The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall (own picture)

In 2010, Renzi made a name for himself nationally by launching a reformist anti-elite movement within the PD (rottamazione senza incentivi) alongside two other young leaders, MEP Debora Serracchiani and Pippo Civati – who are more left-wing than the centrist Renzi. In November 2012, he ran against Bersani and SEL leader Nichi Vendola (and two minor candidates) for the prime ministerial candidacy of the centre-left, PD-led coalition in the 2013 elections. Renzi won 35.5% in the first round, about 10 points behind Bersani, and only won 39.1% in the runoff against Bersani, who received the backing of Nichi Vendola. Renzi was popular with some PD members, but his anti-establishment/anti-elite creed and his reformist ‘Third Way’ policy proposals challenging the centre-left’s traditional values worried some left-wing voters. As did, among others, a December 2010 meeting with Berlusconi and Berlusconi commenting that Renzi was adopting his ideas under the PD’s banner. Bersani, the establishment pick and more orthodox, was the safe bet at that time.

Ideologically, Renzi is on the party’s right and challenges the traditional ‘dogma’ of the centre-left (which is nevertheless very moderate in practice). In 2012, Renzi proposed tax cuts for employees, a €100 increase in employees’ net salary paid for by a 15% cut in the costs of public administration, financial support and credit for SMEs, labour market flexibility (flexicurity) along the Scandinavian/Danish model, financial incentives for foreign investors, cracking down on tax evasion and civil unions for homosexual couples. A ‘straight-talker’, he also took strong stances against corruption – abolishing public subsidies to parties (abolished recently by Letta, responding to a M5S demand), reducing the number of parliamentarians, greater accountability of public officials to their constituent (he favours a French electoral system) and constitutional reform to reduce the Senate’s powers. He is often compared to (and accepts such comparisons himself) to Tony Blair and his New Labour.

A good article by Spain’s El País newspaper emphasizes Renzi’s frankness, ‘what you see is what you get’ style – noting his public criticisms of the PD’s old guard, a public admission by Renzi himself that he doesn’t have an excellent relation with the unions, stinging criticism of Italy’s inefficient or mismanaged bureaucracy and a burning desire to promote entrepreneurship. Asked about his age, Renzi points out that ‘only in Italy is 38 still young’.

He justifies his identification with the centre-left by saying that he’s a centre-leftist who “wants to do things”, and not one of those who don’t act and limit themselves to theories and internecine factional warfare. He promotes his record as mayor as his definition of ‘left-wing’ – environmentalist policies (limiting new buildings and preserving green spaces), gender parity in his administration (which now has more women than men), investments in new technologies, privatization of the public transit company, cutting the costs of public administration and promoting culture (late-night opening hours for museums).

He is very critical of the old centre-left leadership for their ‘obsession’ with Berlusconi, saying that his objective is to get him to retire rather than send him to jail (that should be up to the courts, he says) and opposing him by doing the reforms which he (and the centre-left) failed to do. Although both he and Letta shared Christian democratic roots, both men have been on separate sides of recent factional battles (Letta was pro-Bersani) and Renzi is fairly critical of Letta’s government – not openly opposed to it, but less supportive than the outgoing PD leadership. Renzi has little interest in having Letta stay on for longer than is necessary, and can be expected to pressure Letta into doing what he promised to do but hasn’t done (yet) – tax cuts for working classes, fighting corruption and la casta and political reform.

The PD’s members chose between four candidates in a preliminary vote in early November, with the top three moving on to the open primary on December 8. The open primary was free for PD members and non-members needed to contribute €2 to be able to vote. Besides Renzi, two other candidates qualified for the open primary: Gianni Cuperlo and Pippo Civati.

Cuperlo, the oldest of the candidates (52), comes from the other tradition represented in the PD. He was the last national secretary of the Italian Communist Youth Federation between 1988 and 1990 and joined the post-communist/social democratic Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) and Democrats of the Left (DS). He has member a member of the Chamber of Deputies since 2006. Cuperlo was very much the ‘establishment’ or ‘old guard’ candidate, endorsed by the party’s so-called ‘left’ or ‘centre’ – mostly made up, like Bersani or D’Alema – of former Communists. That being said, considering the PD’s establishment to be particularly left-wing despite their opposition to Renzi’s heterodox views is erroneous. In reality, they remain moderate, inoffensive centre-leftists – as Prime Minister, D’Alema governed as a centrist, and Bersani’s 2013 had nothing radical or markedly leftist to it.

Pippo Civati, 38 like Renzi, also comes from the party’s left, but representative of a newer generation opposed to the old guard (and sharing some of Renzi’s criticisms of the old guard) and with some liberal positions on economic issues. Civati, elected to the Chamber of Deputies only in February, stood out by emphasizing the need for a more left-wing oriented party, with close ties to Vendola’s SEL and openly supportive of an alliance with the M5S. Civati represented the PD in the ill-fated negotiations with the M5S, supported the M5S’ presidential candidate Stefano Rodotà and opposed the Letta government.

Renzi was supported by his own core backers (renziani) and most of the liberal and Christian democratic factions of the party. As in 2012, he was supported by Walter Veltroni, the PD’s inaugural leader and 2008 PM candidate, who despite coming from the PCI is considered to be an ‘American liberal’ in the party and supports a big-tent party like the US Democrats. This year, Renzi was joined by ‘Areadem’, a centrist faction led by former PD leader Dario Franceschini (2009), who was defeated for the leadership by Bersani in 2009 but later joined forces with Bersani in 2010, breaking with Veltroni and the Christian democrats (I Popolari). Some supporters of Prime Minister Letta also backed Renzi.

Cuperlo was supported by the traditional social democratic old guard of the party, made up of Bersani and D’Alema’s supporters (Cuperlo himself is a dalemiani) but also the so-called ‘Young Turks’, a faction of younger members (whose most famous name is Stefano Fassina) on the economic left of the party.

Civati, a minor leader in the PD’s factional games, had little institutional or factional support. He was backed, among other names, by Laura Puppato, a new senator and environmentalist from Veneto, who had run in the 2012 primaries.

According to YouTrend, the Bersaniani, Areadem and renziani are the three largest factions in the Parliament, and about 35% of the PD’s parliamentarians were considered to be bersaniani.

In the vote for PD members, Renzi won only 45.34% against 39.44% for Cuperlo and 9.43% for Civati (another candidate, who was eliminated, won 5.8%). On December 8, 2.8 million voters turned out to vote in the open primaries – down from 3.1 million in the centre-left primaries in 2012 (first round) and also from the 2009 PD primaries in which 3.1 million had participated. The PD won 8.6 million votes in February.

Matteo Renzi 67.55%
Gianni Cuperlo 18.21%
Pippo Civati 14.24%

Results of the PD members vote and open primary (own map)

Results of the PD members vote and open primary (own map)

Without much suspense or surprise, Renzi handily won the open primaries against his two lesser-known opponents. While the members’ vote in November showed that a significant section of the PD’s rank-and-file membership was still fairly sceptical of Renzi, when the vote was opened to non-member sympathizers, Renzi won by a predictably massive margin. His support clearly broke through traditional factional strengths, and traditional ‘centrist’ or ‘rightist’ support within the PD. After the near-defeat of February 2013 (which was basically a defeat), the hot mess of April 2013, the humiliation of allying with the Berlusconian right in a grand coalition and the unpopularity of such an unnatural alliance of necessity with the PD’s rank-and-file, there was certainly widespread desire within the PD for a new leader, regardless of his ideological purity, who would give the PD some pride and shake up the political system.

Renzi is expected to take a more critical stance vis-a-vis the Letta government, although it seems unlikely that he would precipitate its collapse in the short term.

Geographically, Renzi won every region and – according to YouTrend – all but one province, losing only the inland Sicilian province of Enna to Cuperlo. Generally, Renzi’s lowest results came from southern Italy, including Sicily and much of Sardinia, while his best results – fairly naturally – came from his native Tuscany, although he was also strong throughout much of northern Italy. Renzi won 78.5% in Tuscany, and 79.6% in his province of Florence. His worst results were in Sardinia (56.4%), Basilicata (57.2%) and Calabria (57.8%). Southern Italian centre-left voters could be expected, I guess, to be more favourable to the establishment pick.

Unnoticed by most, the Lega Nord held a leadership election on December 7. The historic leader of the party, Umberto Bossi, had been forced to resign from his leadership positions in April 2012 following a crazy scandal in which Bossi and his ‘magic circle’ were accused of embezzling the party’s public financing funds and using the money to pay Bossi’s son. The scandal badly hurt the party, which suffered major loses in the February election, and led to Bossi’s replacement by his rival and one-time deputy, Roberto Maroni. Although the Lega still allied (reluctantly and in return for juicy concessions) with Berlusconi in the last election, Maroni and his followers have tended to be far less supportive of the Lega’s traditional ties to the centre-right (Bossi strongly supported the alliance with Berlusconi in the last few years). The leadership battle opposed Umberto Bossi to Matteo Salvini, a MEP. Salvini was supported by Maroni.

Salvini won in a landslide, 81.7% to Bossi’s mere 18.3%. The Łiga Vèneta, the Lega Nord’s branch in Veneto – the party’s second strongest region alongside Lombardy (where the national leadership is drawn from), is controlled by Flavio Tosi, the ambitious mayor of Verona and an ally of Maroni/Salvini’s line against Bossi, although more traditionally conservative. Tosi interpreted the Lega/LV’s poor result in February as the result of the alliance with the PdL. Salvini’s election signals a return to fundamentals for the Lega Nord: more independence from the centre-right, hardened ‘Padanian’ nationalism/separatism, strong anti-immigration stances and Euroscepticism (Salvini once decried the euro as a crime against humanity).

2013 will undoubtedly have been a significant year for Italian politics, which will have major repercussions on the future of Italian politics in the coming months and years.

Merry Christmas to all readers!

Posted on December 25, 2013, in Italy, Primaries, leadership contests or internal party votes. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Nice post (as usual!). There are just a couple of linguistic mistakes:

    – PdL members spoke about Berlusconi’s “agibilità politica”, not “agilità politica”;
    – it’s “colombe” and not “colombes”.

  1. Pingback: 2013′s Top 10 | World Elections

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