Napolitano and Italian Politics - English

Italy’s Deng Xiao Ping

By Stefano Casertano24.04.2013Global Policy

Giorgio Napolitano has rescued Italian politics from perpetual quagmire. With the nomination of Enrico Letta, he might even succeed in reforming the Italian Left.



For all those who had been expecting it, this is it: Italy’s Third Republic began on April 20, 2013 with the re-election of 88-year old Giorgio Napolitano as president. If you believed that the new republic had already started with the nomination of Mario Monti as prime minister in late 2011, you are mistaken. “Monti was just a placeholder”: for foggy political machinations that now exploded into a complete political reshuffling of the country.

It was clear from the beginning: Monti was no De Gaulle. He didn’t have strong partisan support, and he wasn’t a military hero like De Gaulle. He didn’t have much popular support, either. The disappointing performance of Monti’s government in the February elections – a meager ten percent – is a clear indication of how much the country enjoyed his (un)attempted reforms and the successful perpetration of short-sighted tax increases (by short-sighted I mean both “due to urgent circumstances” and “lacking a longer-term vision”).

Italy’s puppet master

Napolitano is different. His nomination highlights three innovations in Italian politics. First, Napolitano prevented populist movements from taking power. He did not directly oppose Beppe Grillo’s “Five Star Movement,” but gave them enough of a platform just to show that the stubborn movement was unfit for power (despite Grillo’s demand for early elections). Napolitano maneuvered between possible alliances, spoke out against Grillo’s rejection of moderation (“the essence of democracy”, in Napolitano’s words) and let Italians make the choice. That strategy has paid off: At a regional relection in the northern region of Friuli last weekend, Grillo’s party dropped from a local result of 27 percent to a grim 13 percent. Once the political arena is cleared of the former comedian, serious attempts to do politics can finally flourish.

Second, Napolitano finally accepted the “big taboo” that had hampered Italian politics since 1994: the problem is not Silvio Berlusconi; the problem is the Left. To all non-Italian readers, a brief explanation: forget the traditional explanation that Berlusconi is “he-controls-televisions-so-he-controls-the-electorate.” That might have been true in the early 90s, but not today. Foreigners are constantly exposed to news that criticizes Berlusconi – but so are Italians. And we aren’t stupid: Italians posses the same critical faculties as the rest of the world.

The problem is that the Left has egregiously failed to express a modern ideology, adequate to the times. Flirting too much with the rhetoric of traditional socialism, bundled to the economic interests of cooperatives and unions, the Italian left has never gone through the transformation that characterized European social democracy from Tony Blair to Gerhard Schröder. Some might argue that this is not bad _per se_. The issues of economic polarization in the UK and Germany, not to mention the disaster of Zapatero’s former social democratic government in Spain, are undeniable. Yet the problem is that other countries reformed, and Italy did not. Italian ideological recalcitrance is now costing the country economically. Would you prefer to live in Italy, in the UK, or in Germany nowadays?

So, the weakness of the Italian Left isn’t because of Berlusconi – what an easy excuse! – but because Italian voters did not believe in the Left. Reformers have been annihilated: The mayor of Florence, 38-year old Matteo Renzi, competed for the leadership of the Left with a program based on “Blairism,” and lost to the incumbent Pierluigi Bersani. How did party members criticize Renzi? “He is like Berluscon.” Nevertheless, survey after survey has demonstrated without a shadow of doubt that Renzi would win the election by a large margin. That would be enough to provide my poor country with a functioning government. The crash of the Left has also been demonstrated by the fact that its proposed presidential candidate, the great Romano Prodi, failed. Dozens of left MPs refused to vote for him.

The question should not be “why do Italians like Berlusconi so much?” but “why do Italians dislike the left so much?” The answer, in one sentence: Because the Italian left is old-fashioned, traditionalist, and perceived as inadequate.

Napolitano has now forced the Left to confront the reality of the 21st century: A time when the rise of new economic powers is shifting the geopolitical landscape and when the “necessary luxury” of the welfare state must be defended by reforming it. Hopefully, Napolitano will also succeed in prompting a reform of the Left. It’s an odd historical quirk that Napolitano himself began his career as a deputy of the Italian Communist Part.

The third innovation is Napolitano himself. For two years, he has acted as the official puppet master of Italian politics. He urged Berlusconi to step down when he had become untenable, he nominated Mario Monti as prime minister (and granted him a lifelong tenure as senator), and he staged the great comedy of “candidate busting” just to demonstrate that he had to stay in the presidential palace himself. Now he has asked Enrico Letta to form a new government. And whatever government next emerges in Italy, it will represent Napolitano’s power and will – and it might also embrace his ideas about “informal democracy” that relies less on ideology and populism and more on reforms.

In defense of mediation

Once again, in Italy reality is not as it seems. The simple reading that Italians voted for Berlusconi, which prevented a stable coalition government, which will now lead to shady agreements, is a typically Anglo-Saxon reading. It’s internally logical, but it fails to describe Italian political realities. In Italy, back-of-the-envelope deals are commonplace. The country will never be more transparent than other countries in Europe. So this is it. Countries can be reformed through revolutions or through agreements, and Napolitano has successfully avoided political booby traps. Politics is once again working how it has always worked in Italy: Through mediation, mediation, and more mediation.

If you feel that Napolitano is too old for the job, I can only say that it depends on your perspective. He is now one year older than “Hindenburg”: was when he died. “Deng Xiao Ping”: also initiated the reform of China late in his life: He really pushed the pedal down when he was in his eighties – and that was thirty years ago. The acumen of the machinations in the last 18 months demonstrated that Napolitano is still there and shining. Go for it!



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