It’s probably fair to say that Italy has never been the most politically stable of European nations. The year after Il Duce was strung up from the roof of a petrol station in Milan, the Italian monarchy was abolished and a constitutional republic established. With a President as Head of State and a Prime Minister as Head of Government, the prospect of a democratic division between ceremonial and political seemed to offer a country emerging from the fascist jackboot the chance to succeed where other democracies in which ceremonial and political were both devolved to one man – the USA, for example – had produced an unsatisfactory system. However, it didn’t quite work out like that.
Perhaps reflecting the shaky unity of the independent kingdoms and nation states that had been grouped together under the banner of one country at the end of the nineteenth century, the post-war Italian constitution granted semi-autonomous status to five regions in the hope it would suppress separatist movements and ensure greater stability. Again, this hasn’t really worked out as intended. Since the republic was established, there have been 61 different governments with 41 different Prime Ministers; in Britain, by comparison, there have been just 14 Prime Ministers over the same time span.
The bizarre contradiction to the incessant turnover at the pinnacle of politics in Italy, however, is that the first half-century after 1946 saw the country controlled by largely the one party, the Christian Democrats, whose absolute dominance (despite frequent leadership changes) was due in part to a deliberate policy preventing the Italian Communist Party from taking power. This hardly democratic situation eventually inspired a decade of terrorism on the streets of Italy by extremist groups of both far-left and far-right, culminating in the kidnapping and execution of twice-Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978.
Even when what the Italians refer to as ‘The years of Lead’ (as in bullets) ended, corruption in public office remained a perennial stain on Italian politics, not to mention malignant Mafiosi infiltration; a series of referendums throughout the 1990s sought to reform the system, but instead brought a certain Silvio Berlusconi to power for the first time. Berlusconi’s chequered political career, in which he dragged Italy’s already tattered reputation to the kind of low Donald Trump can only dream of, finally ended with conviction for tax-fraud in 2013, though his advanced age enabled him to evade imprisonment.
The election of 39-year-old Matteo Renzi as Prime Minister in 2014 seemed to suggest a new dawn for Italy; the youngest-ever PM in the history of the nation, Renzi made it clear from the off that reform of the system was his top priority and he wasted little time in keeping to his word, possibly aware that Italian PMs traditionally have a short lifespan. One wonders if the success he enjoyed in implementing various changes made Renzi a tad overconfident; his announcement of yet another referendum, this time on constitutional law, was something he naturally assumed the Italian electorate would embrace.
The ambitious aim was to give the governance of Italy the most comprehensive shake-up since the establishment of the republic in 1946, bringing all the decades of instability to an end at last; ironically, the result appears to have kick-started the instability again, as the Italian people voted No. Like David Cameron before him, Matteo Renzi now has little option but to fall on his sword.
The rejection of his master-plan (40.89% voted for it, whilst 59.11% voted against) suggests either the accusations that the proposed alterations to the constitution would have given his government too much power were believed or that the Italians are averse to the kind of changes that appear long overdue to outsiders. Whatever the reasons, Matteo Renzi had gambled his premiership on the outcome and now he joins the long list of Italian PMs to not even make it to three years in office before having to vacate the post. Having said that, it’s a measure of how things work in Italian politics that Renzi was the 4th longest-serving PM since 1990.
The post-Brexit timing of – and the worldwide publicity given to – this result is unfortunate, but despite extravagant and opportunistic claims from anti-EU politicians in neighbouring nations (step forward Madame Le Pen), this was not a referendum on Italy’s membership of the European Union; even the most vociferous opponents of Renzi’s proposals aren’t opposed to EU membership, and early uncertainties on the part of the markets in the first few hours following the result haven’t led to any sustained panic. Besides, Italy has the third largest economy in the Eurozone, even if it is considerably more fragile than it was prior to 2008 (then again, which European economy bar Germany isn’t?). The No camp are already demanding a General Election on the back of the referendum result, but it seems more likely a caretaker premiership of the same governing party will lead the country until the next scheduled Election in 2018.
A nation accustomed to constant turbulence where its political leaders are concerned is hardly bound to go into meltdown as a consequence of this outcome; so don’t expect to see Matteo Renzi hanging upside down from a petrol station roof in the next few days.
© The Editor