Mark Calabria, the Director of Financial Regulation Studies at the Cato Institute, has tweeted “Who is the Italian prime minister this week? Does it matter?”. As the family name may suggest, Mark has an Italian background – and I gather he considers the politics of his family’s old country pretty irrelevant. As I live in Italy, you’ll pardon me for having a slightly different opinion.
However, I think Mark also had another message – that is, last week’s change of leadership in the Italian government somehow made news. The former prime minister, Mr Letta, was a rather gray but a somehow internationally renowned chap. He was also substantially younger than his immediate predecessors (Mr Berlusconi, born 1936, and Mr Monti, born 1943), as he was 47. The incoming prime minister is Matteo Renzi, a flamboyant politician who was until yesterday the mayor of one of the jewels of Italy: Florence. At 39, Mr Renzi is even younger (he is the youngest man becoming prime minister ever, in Italy). But I think Mark wanted to remind his Twitter followers that political instability isn’t new in Italy. Since 1948, we have had 59 different governments. The old saying goes that “you go to London to see the change of the guards, you go to Rome to see the change of the governments”.
Fair enough, though you may have very different kinds of political instability. Until 1992, Italy was a “blocked” democracy: the main opposition was the Communist Party. The Communists succeeded to mobilize up to 1/3 of the electorate, but could not become part of the governing majority: Italy’s commitment to stay with NATO and the Western Block made it impossible. The Christian Democrats were the inevitable axis of any government coalition: they stayed in government from 1948 to 1994. Back then, Italy had an astonishingly fast turnout of prime ministers, but the political system was remarkably stable. Actually, we changed governments so often because, within the very same coalition that was going to be in power no matter what, that was the way in which you made people happy: political parties kept an equilibrium among different factions, by rotating in ministerial roles. The same equilibrium was maintained in good repair by increasing spending, to the benefit of politically supportive interest groups: this planted the seed for many of the problems we have now.
Since 1994, Italy has had fewer governments (11 in 20 years), and one – Mr Berlusconi in 2001-2006 – basically lasted for an entire Parliamentary term (never happened before, since 1948). The country, however, was not necessarily more stable. It proved to be rather difficult to reform, the bureaucracy was very resilient, and we had harsher conflicts between parties than in the past. As a result, we ended up having “grand coalition governments”, for the sake of pursuing some of the necessary reforms (the cabinets led by Mr Dini in 1995 and Mr Monti in 2011). Those attempts were not completely successful either.
The current change of leadership is basically the consequence of the emergence of a new political “star”, Mr Renzi, who couldn’t wait until the next election to grab power. A left-winger who often speaks highly of private enterprise and innovative entrepreneurs, Mr Renzi raised to prominence thanks to his remarkable skills as a communicator, but also because he promised to change the rules of the game. He is led by “tremendous ambitions” (in his words) and promised “reforms” and “jobs” – though he hasn’t explained very clearly what kind of reforms he has in mind. Giulio Zanella has a very well reasoned, and very pessimistic, post on Mr Renzi here.