A 21st-century Machiavelli, but can he save Italy?

opinion March 01, 2014 00:00

By Joseph LaPalombara

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Youthful, good-looking and unencumbered by ideology, Matteo Renzi has promised to revive a dying economy

In Italy it is widely understood, if unspoken, that Niccolo Machiavelli had a hand in the birth of its just-installed national government, headed by youthful Matteo Renzi. Like most Tuscans, and millions of others around the world, Renzi surely has read Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, the 16th-century treatise with blunt advice for pursuing, retaining and expanding political power. The rise of a new Machiavelli in Rome, whose telegenic charm draws comparisons with former British leader Tony Blair, has raised hopes in foreign capitals of a halt to Italy’s downward economic spiral and political doldrums. The fear, though, is that Renzi may offer less than meets the eye.
Should Renzi’s promised Italian renaissance turn out to be largely rhetoric, without substance, Italy’s malaise, particularly in the economic sphere, would reverberate negatively throughout Europe and beyond. Italy’s is the third-largest economy in the euro zone, as well as Germany’s most important trading partner in that part of the world. Angela Merkel and other European leaders are not alone in counting on Renzi’s success. So are investors whose positive expectations are concretely expressed in the sharp reduction in the “spread” in the cost of servicing Italian as opposed to German sovereign debt.
Machiavelli would have marvelled at the way the former lacklustre mayor of Florence cleverly used his purely populist appeal to destroy the delicate national coalition valiantly held together by Enrico Letta, a leader of Renzi’s selfsame centre-left PD, or Democratic Party. 
Following Machiavelli to the letter, Renzi appears unencumbered by ideology. He’s an expert at making ringing statements largely without substance. Journalists and others find it almost impossible to get him to pronounce more than very vague preferred public policies or promises about Italy’s imminent Renaissance. 
Demonstrating his Machiavellian cynicism, he reached an agreement with a politically disgraced Silvio Berlusconi – to bring about needed change in the Italian electoral system. Similarly, to assure a working majority in his coalition, Renzi has made a deal with Angelino Alfano, the leader of the newly-formed NCD, or New Centre Right  party, whose reward is now a key Cabinet position. 
As a pure populist without a specified programme of his own, Renzi skilfully used the mass media as an instrument to suggest that his youthful, charismatic leadership is preferable to Italy’s age-old Byzantine approach to politics. Not one of Italy’s major daily newspapers has welcomed the new government with enthusiasm. This somewhat doleful response may change, but only if Matteo is successful with basic reforms he repeatedly promised in speeches that propelled his rise to power.
At 39, Renzi is the youngest premier since Benito Mussolini came to power early last century. This alone may represent a healthy shift away from Italy’s much-criticised political gerontocracy.
The Renzi Cabinet consists of 16 ministries, another sharp break from earlier longstanding practices. Three ministers, like the prime minister, are in their 30s. To top this off, for the first time, the Cabinet has gender equality. 
That same approach, essentially Machiavellian, has led Renzi to create a Cabinet which consists not only of elements from the political right and the left, a tactic forced on more than one of his predecessors. The media have expressed mixed reactions to the youthful leadership. Several untried Cabinet members are now in charge of politically sensitive ministries – such as foreign affairs, economic development, defence and public administration – and some risk is implied.
Now that Renzi has secured the powers of high office, Machiavelli would have much advice on behaviour. Renzi has promised that his government will move swiftly – some would argue with dangerous haste – to enact reforms. The electoral law universally understood to be the prime cause of persistent governmental paralysis – and the cause of dismay among its European partners would top the list.
Renzi’s remarkable agreement with Berlusconi recognises that the latter, even though forced out of parliament, remains in absolute control of the Forza Italia (Go Italy) party. Without Berlusconi’s support, electoral reform is unlikely to materialise. 
The timing of this badly needed reform is encumbered by another deal struck by Renzi, with Alfano’s NCD party, under which any new electoral law would remain suspended and inoperative until a constitutional amendment changes the present so-called “perfect bi-cameral system” in the following ways: The Senate would no longer be elective; its membership would consist of the presidents of Italy’s 18 regional governments as well as some city mayors; and its legislative powers, now similar to those of the US Senate, would be largely abolished.
Constitutional amendments of this type require four separate majority votes in the parliament, a process likely to consume 18 months. 
Renzi promised a new “Jobs Law”, intended to address high unemployment, especially among younger Italians. His reform agenda also includes fundamental changes in the Italian fiscal system which, together with existing regulations that make it next to impossible to fire workers, remain principal reasons for the comparatively low foreign direct investment. For decades, despite huge differences – Italy has a population of 61 million and a GDP of more than $1.8 trillion while Sweden has 9.6 million people and a GDP of $385 billion – the former nation has attracted little more in this form of capital than does the latter. The recent sharp drop in FDI, even from this remarkably low level, has understandably sounded a needed alarm in Italian policymaking circles. 
Renzi’s ambitious agenda is a tall order. Success in meeting it is hampered by the cynically undemocratic methods which have accompanied Renzi’s rise to power. He will be forgiven all of this, particularly throughout Europe, is he succeeds in creating yet another Italian economic “miracle”, from which everyone would benefit. If his vague policy agenda fails in this mission, this would encourage further growth of radical rightwing populism throughout Europe.
Joseph LaPalombara is the Arnold Wolfers Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University.