Can Matteo Renzi Fix Italian Politics?

By Rob Edens

Italy proudly boasts being the only country in the world where one can have a career as a gondolier, cheese whisperer, olive oil police officer or renaissance flag thrower. To this list, another one can be added: unelected head of state. Indeed, Matteo Renzi is the third unelected prime minister in two years to grace the Italian political scene. Will this young buck succumb to the same fate as his predecessors, or will he manage to prove everyone wrong and turn Italy around?

The ambitious former Mayor of Florence rose through the ranks with lightning speed. It was only in December that he became a household name after being appointed the leader of the Democratic Party. Within weeks he was already taking jabs on Twitter at his party colleague and sitting prime minister, Enrico Letta. Two months later, in what was called a palace coup, he ousted him through a vote of no confidence and comfortably installed himself as Italy's youngest ever premier at the ripe age of 39.

His dazzling ascent to Italy's highest political office is only matched by his prodigious ambitions. With a hyperactivity not seen in Europe since the early days of Sarkozy, for the first 100 days in office he has vowed to deliver one structural reform per month. Few actually believe this breakneck pace can last.

For the moment, Renzi has matched his rhetoric with action. On March 12, the lower chamber of Parliament passed a long-awaited electoral reform, showcasing the prime minister's ability to whip votes. This comes after the former law, nicknamed "porcellum" (pigsty), was declared unconstitutional by the Italian constitutional court back in December.

This is the first installment of a two-pronged strategy that seeks to address Italy's political deadlock at its core: the way its leaders are elected. On February 24, a relaxed Renzi addressed the Senate, saying "I'd like to be the last prime minister to address this assembly," signaling his clear intention to dissolve the institution, generally seen as ineffective and costly to maintain.

Many have blamed Italy's complicated, conflict-prone electoral system as the reason behind its inglorious status as the sole European economy whose per capita gross income has actually fallen since 1999. Its recent history has been marred by an unending political feud between parties that, having failed to obtain steady majorities, have resorted to horse-trading and corruption to gain support.

The new system aims to create more stable governments with higher majorities and with fewer political parties. To this end, the law provides for an electoral prize that is handed out to the party (or coalition) that obtains at least 37 percent of votes in the lower chamber of Parliament. Some critics have argued that this arbitrary figure seems tailor-made for Renzi's coalition government, polls giving it roughly the same percentage among voters.

Nevertheless, if no party reaches this threshold, the two most voted parties would then go to a run-off. While Italians will still cast their ballots for a list of candidates proposed by parties, the new law demands an equal number of male and female candidates in order to encourage political participation.

Furthermore, the threshold for entry into Parliament has been raised to an astonishing 8 percent of the vote, striking a blow to one of the most resilient Italian fringe parties, the Northern League, which now stands a slim chance of gaining access to Parliament. The reform also cuts the number of deputies and paves the way for abolishing the Senate, replacing it with representatives of Italy's regions.

Renzi's reform seems to be part of a general move in Europe toward electoral systems that seek to create greater majorities at the expense of strict proportionality, which are increasingly seen as counterproductive.

A similar situation can be found in Hungary, where firebrand Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is set to run for re-election on April 6 under a new electoral law that has much in common with Renzi's reform. Like in Italy, the constitutional court declared the previous system unconstitutional in 2005. The incumbent government addressed this problem with the aim of simplifying the former system and creating healthier majorities.

To this end, the winning party gains an electoral bonus, while political competition is encouraged by easing the access of individual candidates to participate in elections. The system is kept in check by raising the electoral threshold. The reform has widespread implications: MPs are not allowed to hold other positions while in office, companies and NGOs are not allowed to finance the political campaign and parties are ensured equal airtime on both public and private broadcasters.

In many ways, the two reforms seek to improve the way leaders are elected and allowed to rule. Unlike Renzi, Orbán doesn't enjoy the same favorable international image, as his electoral law came under heavy scrutiny over accusations of autocratic behavior. With polls crediting his Fidesz party with 50 percent of votes, this is clearly not the case. The goal of the reform is simply to create steady majorities by leveling the playing field and increasing access for newcomers.

Renzi's first steps seem to be in the right direction, transforming the ailing political class by changing the rules of the game. Seen by most as Italy's last chance, the young Florentine now has the chance to prove that mainstream parties are still relevant.

Rob Edens is a research assistant with a political think tank based in London.

(AP Photo)

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