In search of the new Berlusconi

Rising leftist politician Matteo Renzi might be Italy’s new populist star.

Silvio Berlusconi might soon have a successor on the left [EPA]
Silvio Berlusconi might soon have a successor on the left [EPA]

Italy is at a crossroads. Even by its own tumultuous standards, recent events signal that profound changes are imminent in Italian politics. The decision last month to expel Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from the Italian senate was more than just another episode in his colourful and controversial political career. Barred from standing for election for six years, Berlusconi has left Forza Italia leaderless for the elections in 2014 or 2015.

As a consequence, the Italian right seems to be disintegrating. A loyalist rump remains faithful to il cavaliere, but moderates have created their own centre-right parliamentary grouping, around the figure of Angelino Alfano. The more deeply disenchanted look to Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement for some consolation, or even further afield to the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy).

It, therefore, seems that the 20 years of Berlusconi’s hegemony are unlikely to leave much by way of political legacy within the Italian right. Originally propelled to power by the vacuum opened by the “Mani Pulite” (Clean Hands) corruption scandal that shook the Italian political system between 1992 and 1994, Berlusconi’s system of government revolved entirely around his own larger-than-life personality and clientelistic networks. Without his charisma and ebullient personality, it is difficult for anyone to keep the machine going.

Indeed, the fact that Berlusconi’s own daughter, Marina, has been widely called upon by sympathisers to take up the relay, illustrates the perverse irony implicit in Berlusconism as a political phenomenon: After Berlusconi himself, only another Berlusconi could really step into his shoes.

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Since Marina Berlusconi seems intent on refusing the offer, at least for the time being, the real legacy of Berlusconism is more likely to be felt on the left of the political spectrum. For much of the 2000s, this camp debated whether or not it needed a “Berlusconi of the left”. Mired in a strongly intellectual tradition and dominated by the cultural legacy of post-war Italian communism, most of its previous leaders had categorically rejected the media-dominated politics of the Berlusconi era.

Today, this attitude is being reversed. On the December 8, Matteo Renzi – the young and media-savvy mayor of Florence – was elected leader of the Democratic Party. In many ways, Renzi goes further than Berlusconi ever did in his ambition of transforming Italian politics into a celebrity-obsessed media spectacle. Whereas Berlusconi’s vulgarity and superficiality was spontaneous, for Renzi, it is carefully crafted.

Once accused of anti-intellectualism by one of the old heavyweights of the Italian left, Guiliano Amato, Renzi has today transformed this into a badge of honour. As mayor, he has been filmed sending tweets to his constituents and once appeared on a popular TV show in a black bomber jacket, joking about his resemblance to Fonzie, from the popular US show, Happy Days.

Of most significance is Renzi’s attempt to “junk” – his own words – the Democratic Party. Rather than position himself outside the party, as Segolene Royal, much to her disadvantage, did in France in 2008, Renzi is more like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his ambition to reform the party from within. Here we see the full implications of a Renzi-dominated Italian left.

Confident in his ability to win elections based on his own charisma, Renzi sees in the old party apparatus a barrier to effective rule. Instead, he insists on what has aptly been described as an ideology of fare (doing). This ideology combines both populist and technocratic elements.

On the populist side, Renzi flaunts his youth as a marker of novelty, and therefore exteriority from the existing power networks. On the technocratic side, he has already declared that he has no intention of challenging the economic policies pursued by his predecessors, as he has already emphasised in public statements [It] that Italy is first committed to respecting its economic engagements with the European Union.

The most significant elements of his programme are, therefore, calls to abolish the upper house of parliament, and to directly elect  the prime minister – both of which tend in the direction of a concentration of power in the hands of the executive. However, detached from any substantive indication as to what Renzi intends to do with this power, were he to obtain it, his campaign remains tainted by a persistent sense of vacuity.

This was also a feature of Berlusconi’s own style of government. For, if the defining feature of one’s political identity is that one is capable of “doing”, it doesn’t matter what one does, only that one can do it. But this is a perfect recipe for getting nothing done in the end.

If the legacy of Berlusconi has been the transformation of Italian politics into a media spectacle dominated by charismatic individuals, behind which executive power is expanded at the expense of civil society, then his successor lies not on the right but on the left, in the young and voluble figure of Matteo Renzi.

Chris Bickerton is lecturer in politics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. His most recent book on European integration, published with Oxford University Press, won the Best Book of 2013 prize awarded by the University Association of Contemporary European Studies (UACES). 

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti is currently a research fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies of Columbia University in New York and lecturer at Sciences Po, Paris. He has a forthcoming book with Columbia University Press on Church-State relations in Italy and Europe.

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