Dispatch from Italy—
Ambition and animal instinct drive Italy’s new 39-year old Premier
By GAITHER STEWART
(Rome) E.M. Cioran wrote in his memorable essay, A l’école des tyrans (In the School of Tyrants): “Ambition is a drug which makes of one who is addicted a madman in power.”
I happened to be reading Cioran in these days when the 39-year old Florentine Matteo Renzi unseated from the Premiership his fellow member of the Left-Center Democratic Party, Enrico Letta, executed an unswerving march to power in a manner which his political adversaries labeled a coup d’état and thus became the youngest chief of government in the major countries of Europe. Cioran’s quote reflected the most frequent adjective used in regard to the ex-Mayor of Florence: ambitious, in the sense of excessive.
Born in Florence in 1975, graduate in law from the University of Florence, Matteo Renzi was the Provincial Secretary of People’s Party in 1999, President of the Province of Florence in 2004, and in 2009, as the candidate of the Partito Democratico (PD), the Democratic Party, he was elected Mayor of Florence. Though Renzi’s experience was of a provincial nature when he entered the political ring, his popularity quickly soared on the national scene due to his youth and his rhetoric calling for radical change, earning him nickname of Rottomatore, of “scrapper” as of used cars, or Demolition Man. At two widely publicized meetings he began calling for a generational revolution, out with the old, in with youth.
Instead of the question of social justice and the elimination of inequalities, it seemed the substitution of the old with a new generation became the program of this now new leader of the fundamentally left Democratic Party. Matteo Renzi himself has become the political program of Renzi. A genuine Leftist, Nichi Vendola, chief of the Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà party (SEL) believes the PD’s leftist electorate is in a state of shock at the Machiavellianism Renzi employed to betray and eliminate his party colleague, Letta.
Confused Leftists are today asking why Letta was ousted? And many are beginning to see their Benjamin in another light.
As his image spread across the country, despite his failed bid to become Secretary of the PD one year earlier, Renzi won primaries for the PD Secretariat last year with 68% of the national party vote. That vote in effect marked the beginning of the end for the PD Premier, Enrico Letta. While promising loyalty to Letta, Party Secretary Renzi instead methodically undermined and eroded his colleague’s position, In the early days of this February he demanded Letta’s resignation because of his government’s “inefficacy”, after which a sweeping majority of the some 150 members of the Democratic Party’s national leadership voted for his program of so-called radical change and abandoned “their” Premier and effectively forced Letta to resign. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano had no alternative but to name Matteo Renzi to form a new government.
Renzi is married to a school teacher and has three children. His youthful image of jeans, rolled up sleeves and no tie is appealing. Especially youth like him. In recent days he has driven around Rome in a small black and white Smart auto. His populist appeal sweeps through many other parties, including Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia party which would lose many votes to Renzi were national elections to be held today. For that reason Berlusconi holds Renzi close, prompting wide speculation that Renzi has made secret agreements with the old fox Berlusconi in their several half-secret meetings.
Comparisons of Renzi to Berlusconi are apt. Someone coined the phrase “from the alligator (as Berlusconi is nicknamed) to the crocodile” (Renzi) which is a fitting description of the passage from Berlusconi to Renzi governments. Renzi in fact recalls the young Berlusconi when he officially entered politics in 1994 announced at his press conference in the Association of Foreign Journalists in Rome. Like Berlusconi, Renzi also makes promises he doesn’t intend keeping. It’s his nature. He says one thing today and the opposite the next day. Yet charisma—both he and Berlusconi know—is a durable and resistant quality. Berlusconi is a criminal, sentenced for fraud in Italy’s highest court. He is about the begin work in social services instead of jail since persons over 75 are not generally jailed in Italy, yet he heads a major political party, Forza Italia, is still a public image in Italy and was received by President Napolitano in consultations concerning the nomination of a new Premier.
In the Italian system of “change so that nothing changes” knowledgeable observers do not expect the radical changes Renzi has promised. Renzi is already engaged in the same old game of political bargaining in the formation of his cabinet, balancing the demands of one party against those of another. Even though for the wrong reasons, Renzi got it right in one thing: the political system is rotten. North Europe would be right from its point of view to look down on Italy and southern Europe in general, were its system not also rife with the same capitalist vices of which Renzi is a victim as is any other political leader in the European Union.
Renzi the Seducer of people is at the same time seduced by power. His unbridled ambition leads him to blithely contradict today his promise of yesterday. At the age of 39, Renzi has already made his the vices of the political world. Yet the brutal manner in which he betrayed his fellow Party colleague, outgoing Premier Letta, is a new twist in ugly Italian politics. So that I wonder how he will transform with age. How will he be at 49, 59 or 69? Will he be another Berlusconi?
As Eugenio Scalfari wrote in his editorial in last Sunday’s La Repubblica, Renzi’s political merit has been to be in agreement with everyone so that everyone is in agreement with him. With his excessive ambition and his boundless vitality no other politician in Italy more resembles Silvio Berlusconi than Matteo Renzi. You may think this Renzi profile include too much Berlusconi. Yet from my perspective and from that of many observers Berlusconi infects the Renzi mindset and is part of Renzi’s political mentality. In a more general way, the overcoming and eradication of Berlusconi and Berlusconism is a major—though yet unfulfilled—impulse not only in Italian politics but in public morality. Berlusconism is an ugly and vulgar illness to be cured of, demanding a kind of purification (unfortunately for Italy only partial) as occurred after the fall of Mussolinian Fascism. The worst of that past continues to weigh heavy in contemporary Italy. One might easily come away with the impression that for Italians good government is based on the personality of one man.
Finally, it is curious to take a look at how other major European nations regard Matteo Renzi, whose general political stance is as mysterious as is his missing political program. Who is this brash kid, coming out of the mists of the hills of Tuscany to challenge the established political system? We got rid of that pest, the ballad-singing jokester Berlusconi and now another grinning charismatic Italian populist steps forward to stir up our well-oiled system. Germany is hostile to Renzi with his lack of a history in European affairs, with his big mouth, his non-creditability and his cocky aggressiveness. France doesn’t even know him, nor has Renzi yet made ouvertures toward Paris or President Hollande, while France has never grasped the subtle anarchism of Italian politics anyway and considers Italy a weak partner of North Europe of France, Germany and The Netherlands. London instead, its media and political world, like the new “Blair”, referring to him fondly as they might pamper a gifted child, as the “demolition man” and “Fonzi.” I can well imagine that the British welcome to Matteo Renzi is anticipatory of the US position.
Senior Editor Gaither Stewart serves as TGP’s European Correspondent, with HQ in Rome. His latest novel is The Fifth Sun (Punto Press). He is also the author of the The Trojan Spy and Lily Pad Roll, part of the Europe Trilogy, novels focusing on intelligence and military questions underscoring the American effort to encircle Russia, and eventually China.