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Italians have just ditched their fourth prime minister in five years, having dispensed, since 2011, of the television magnate Silvio Berlusconi, the technocrat Mario Monti, the former Christian Democrat Enrico Letta, and now of the brazen young demolition man himself, Matteo Renzi. In a referendum that was supposed to decide the fate of a set of arcane constitutional reforms — Renzi was seeking to scrap some of Italy’s more dubious political mechanisms — voters managed to inflict a stunning, mortal defeat on the Florentine former boy scout. Renzi, who came into office an indefatigable outsider promising to destroy the old ways of doing business in Rome, has succumbed to the morass.
It was only two years ago, at the European elections, that Renzi mustered an unprecedented 40 percent of votes for his Democratic Party (PD), having come to power as prime minister just a few months earlier. The scale of the victory, combined with Renzi’s youthful vigor, seemed to herald a new era of political renewal in ossified, gerontocratic Italy. His war cry back then was “Rottamazione!” — wreck the old political establishment. At the time, that establishment seemed paralyzed, the right unable to shake off Berlusconi, the center-left still unable to find an heir to former Prime Minister Romano Prodi. Renzi, by contrast, stormed into Palazzo Chigi promising to pass a reform a month.
And he made some headway — at least at first. Once in power, Renzi adopted a few early economic reforms: He tried to bring life to the Italian job market, which has been stuck in a quagmire since the economic crisis of 2008. He waged war against the status quo, engaging a younger generation in politics and forcing old war horses, like former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema and former Culture Minister Walter Veltroni, who had been hanging around Rome for decades, to retire. Even Berlusconi seemed awed by his energy, his media savvy, and his silver tongue, briefly throwing his support behind Renzi’s government in the so-called “Nazareno Pact,” so named for the ancient Roman alleyway where the pact was sealed.
But it didn’t take long before Renzi seemed to lose his touch. Instead of keeping his focus on pressing economic reforms — the country has not grown in a generation, unemployment remains sky high, and debt is a staggering 133 percent of GDP — he set his creaky coalition, consisting of the PD plus a motley crew of former Berlusconiani, down the perilous road toward constitutional reforms, in an effort that may well have been doomed from the start.
Renzi was right: Italy’s governing structures are badly in need of a rethink. In 1946, the republic’s founding fathers deliberately approved a cumbersome system of checks and balances, wary of any concentration of power after 20 years of fascism. Noble though their intentions may have been, however, they have resulted in a modern-day Italy whose governance requires a Kafkaesque effort. Would-be legislation must shuttle back and forth between the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate; deputies and senators must vote at least twice on any bill, no matter how insignificant, until the approved text is identical down to the last comma.
Renzi, through tactical brilliance combined with a large dose of luck, managed to get his constitutional reform proposals through this mess, thanks to a center-right opposition that had been weakened by the absence of Berlusconi, who was out performing community service for a tax fraud sentence and then underwent open-heart surgery. Reforms Minister Maria Elena Boschi, a cool-headed young lawyer, was instrumental in this effort, personally cajoling members of the old parliamentary class into passing the laws; an up-and-coming leader, Europe has not seen the last of her.
But having successfully gotten his reforms through the legislature, Renzi followed up tactical brilliance with strategic failure: He neglected to form a unified front for the referendum campaign to come. Apart from Boschi, his wily foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, and his savvy spokesman, Filippo Sensi, Renzi was utterly alone in urging Italians to vote yes — and he was seemingly deluded in believing he could carry the country by himself.
Even so, Renzi might still have survived a referendum loss. But once the reforms had been approved, the prime minister then went on to commit the capital sin of hubris. The young leader, who had once been so magically in touch with citizens, fatally proclaimed that if his constitutional reforms were not approved, he would resign. This was quintessential Renzi, the gambler betting his political life in a way that nobody ever does in the perennial musical-chair game that is Rome but came as second nature to him. As a young man, Renzi was a frequent contestant and big winner on the popular TV game show La Ruota della Fortuna, the Italian version of Wheel of Fortune. One clip, still making the rounds on YouTube, shows Il Campione, as the popular host Mike Bongiorno called him, winning round after round only to be doomed by an answer he rushed too quickly to give, his own impatience betraying him. This week, his passion for gambling and brashness backfired again.
Beppe Grillo, founder of the populist Five Star Movement, which was fresh off victories in mayoral races in both Rome and Turin, was the first to smell blood. Soon the rest of the sharks began circling.
With Renzi distracted by his doomed reform efforts, the PD sank into the same internecine feuds that have plagued the Italian left for decades. Former Prime Ministers D’Alema and Monti campaigned hard for voters to reject the reforms, breaching loyalty to party and cabinet by hammering Renzi on everything except the substance of the reforms in question. Former PD Secretary Pier Luigi Bersani soon joined them, despite having voted for the new law three times over two years of debate in Parliament. Italy’s largest trade union, CGIL, and law scholars, led by respected judge Gustavo Zagrebelsky, joined together in a bizarre coalition with the far-right, anti-immigrant, and anti-euro Northern League, the neo-fascists, the Berlusconiani, and the Grillini. Former President Giorgio Napolitano and Prodi tried to cool heads, and fought for the “yes” vote, but to no avail.
La Stampa, a daily newspaper in Turin, on the day of the vote published research by Catchy, a team of big-data analysts (of which I am a member). The team had combed through conversations on Italian social media during the referendum campaign. Their research revealed, with striking clarity, that over the course of the campaign, the country was not discussing the reforms or debating the finer points of scrapping the Senate. Rather, the vote on Sunday was always going to be, in the style of Roman gladiators, a brutal thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on the once beloved Matteo Renzi.
To his credit, the prime minister fought with gusto, single-handedly taking on all of his many enemies. But eventually he succumbed. On Sunday, fighting back tears, Renzi admitted defeat, congratulated his opponents, called on his base to soldier on and not to despair, and praised the country’s democratic passions. Then he quit. He will stay in charge nominally to pass the budget laws — and then leave office, supposedly for good.
In any accounting of Renzi’s downfall, his decision to make the referendum personal — to invite citizens to use the vote as a means of offering up their verdict on his government — will inevitably play a central part. It was an error, yes — but such cockiness is built into his personality. His more serious, and less explicable, mistake — the truly fatal one — was to take his eye off economic reforms at a time when voters were angry about corruption, starving for jobs, growth, and tax relief. He ditched the demolition man routine for the role of rational establishment leader and tried in vain to wrestle concessions from the stone-faced austerity masters of the European Commission. In doing so, he underestimated the populist fever spreading from the U.K. to the United States to France and now Italy.
Already for weeks now, dinner parties in Rome have been busy trying to fathom whom the new prime minister, the fifth in five hapless years, is going to be. Will it be the respected economist Pier Carlo Padoan, who could steady markets? The former anti-mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso? The well-liked culture minister, Dario Franceschini? The task of choosing now falls to a discreet law professor-turned-president, Sergio Mattarella. A quiet widower, Mattarella entered politics only after the Mafia gunned down his brother, a Sicilian politician. He detests the limelight but will now be forced to step into it.
Two years ago, writing in this magazine, I warned Renzi to stay focused, because time was not on his side and the quicksand that is the Italian status quo was eager to swallow him up. I can’t say I’m pleased to have been proved right. While the populists, fascists, communists, and Grillini celebrate the “no” victory in the streets, the country will face the turbulence ahead with no steady hand at the helm. The new prime minister may squeak through an electoral law for the purpose of shutting out Grillo and the Five Star Movement from power, but doing so will only serve to further inflame — this time justly — their pent-up anger and contempt for the system.
Whoever wins, reforms of the sort Renzi tried to pass will not be on the agenda. The status quo has won. Sixty percent of Italians have shown that they may love to curse politicians while stuck in traffic but do not want serious change. Renzi may fade soon away, taking his place in the crowded Wax Museum of Failed Italian Leaders — or he may look at the 40 percent that supported him against all odds and ponder one more round at the wrecking machine. In the meantime, of course, expect no growth, no jobs, no banking reforms, no tax bill, no debt reduction, and no sense of hope in a country desperately in need of it.