Can Machiavellian Renzi Save Italy?

Using political machinations, disrupting a coalition carefully crafted by the leader of his own party and promising expansive reforms, Matteo Renzi followed Machiavelli’s playbook to become prime minister of Italy. He promises to streamline Italian bureaucracy, attract foreign direct investment and create jobs. But his promises rely on dangeros agreeemnts. If he fails, Europe will see a rise of radical rightwing populism. (Leggi in Italiano)

In Italy it is widely understood, even if left unspoken, that Niccolò 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 famous 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 Labor leader Tony Blair has raised hopes in foreign capitals about 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 inevitably reverberate negatively throughout Europe and beyond. Italy’s is the third largest economy in the eurozone, as well as Germany’s most important trading partner in that part of the world. Angela Merkel and other European leaders are not alone 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 marveled that the former relatively lackluster mayor of Florence had used his purely populist appeal so cleverly as to get away with destroying the delicate national coalition valiantly held together by Enrico Letta, a leader of Renzi’s selfsame center-left PD, or Democratic Party. A subtle subtext of this conquest: Letta is a native of Pisa, another Tuscan city whose still-active rivalry with Renzi’s Florence dates back centuries. 

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 Center Right political party, whose political reward is now a key cabinet position.   

As a pure populist without a specified program of his own, Renzi skillfully 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 his speeches and Tweets that propelled his rise to power.

At 39, Renzi is the youngest prime minister since Benito Mussolini came to power early in the last century. This alone may represent a healthy shift away from Italy’s much-criticized 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 thirties. The average age of cabinet’s members is 62, the lowest in the republic’s history. 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. True that the cabinet includes politically seasoned individuals, like Angelino Alfano at the ministry of the interior, and Piercarlo Padoan whose International Monetary Fund and Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development experiences make him a valuable resource at the treasury. Yet several untried cabinet members are now in charge of politically sensitive ministries – such as foreign affairs, economic development, defense and public administration – and some risk is implied.

Now that Renzi has secured the powers of high office, Machiavelli would have much advice on behavior. 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 recognizes that the latter, even though forced out of parliament, remains in absolute control of the Forza Italia or Go Italy party. Without Berlusconi’s support, electoral reform is unlikely to materialize. Under the proposed law, tiny parties which have reduced parliamentary stability would be denied representation in parliament unless, alone or in coalition with other parties, they get at least 4.5 percent of the votes cast in national elections.   

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 United States 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. In the best of circumstances, these two major reforms may not emerge until late in the present legislative term, which expires in 2018.

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, even for cause, remain principal reasons for the comparatively low inflow of 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 has also promised bureaucratic reform, including a drastic reduction of the required procedures which cripple business enterprises that operate in Italy.  Changes like these will help Italy emerge from the economic doldrums that have mired the world’s 10th largest economy in the lowest growth rate among the European Union’s major economies.         

This 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 and Management at Yale University.


This article was originaly published by Yale Global Online.

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