While Enrico Letta, Italy’s new prime minister, was being sworn in Sunday, a desperate jobless man from Calabria, a depressed region in the south, shot two police outside the parliament in Rome, apparently intent on taking out a few craven politicians. This incident speaks to the impossible situation facing the leader of the bitterly divided center-left Democratic Party (PD), which has collapsed from election favorite in February to the humiliation of being forced into the nation’s first ‘grand coalition’ — with left-wing and right-wing forces serving alongside each other in the same cabinet — since 1947.
As Letta began to spell out his policy program Monday, we immediately got a taste of the delicate tightrope that will define his tenure. On one hand, a bare majority of the Italian political class is intent on remaining one with the European Union, even if that means continuing to impose some of the unpopular austerity measures conjured up by technocrat caretaker Mario Monti. On the other, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star insurgency rode a wave of resentment of the scions of European finance to 25 percent of the popular vote, and has been completely blocked out of government. What’s more, Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition shamelessly demagogued Monti’s signature (and despised) property tax during its surprisingly strong election campaign, which Letta nodded to in his first speech as prime minister by promising a one-month holiday from it in June. Italy is seething with anger at foreign (especially German) bankers and financiers, desperate for an infusion of economic growth with unemployment near a 20 year high of 11.5 percent. Meanwhile, Europe is having second thoughts about its love affair with austerity, and while Letta is certainly intent on coming across as one with that new trend in favor of short-term stimulus — he promised to do away with the stipends lawmakers receive in addition to their salaries, make another round of electoral reforms, extend some welfare programs, provide tax cuts for small businsesses, and create new citizenship opportunities for immigrants — it is difficult to envision this arrangement lasting long enough to push through even these incremental reforms.
For one thing, the Democratic Party is still in turmoil, and some of its members have taken to burning their membership cards in outrage that its leaders chose to serve alongside Berlusconi, who is still weathering sex scandals and criminal charges, and whom they find just about as distasteful as American Democrats do George W. Bush. And Grillo’s Five Star insurgency and its incredible rise loom, even if a few savvy voters might hold them accountable for this whole mess, as Grillo and his deputies refused to enter into a coalition with the center-left under its ousted leader Pier Luigi Bersani. This new government, despite being perhaps the most diverse in Italian history — it includes a black cabinet minister and is one-third female — is nonetheless full of familiar faces, none more so than Berlusconi’s. A perennial rule of politics is that voters have short memories, and Berlusconi stunned political observers with his comeback just a few years after being forced to hand the reins over to Monti, the national fiscal situation in chaos. Indeed, polls have shown his support rising since the election. But Berlusconi is doubtless the most polarizing national figure still on the scene (except perhaps the quirky Grillo), and with criminal cases still unfolding, his presence in the government could end up being toxic and destabilizing.
Of course, the problem for Letta is that if Berlusconi’s popularity holds up and his poll numbers continue to rise, the incentives are simply not there for meaningful action on pressing national issues. Instead, the center-right will be tempted to pull the rug out and force a snap election, which might put it in the driver’s seat to form its own government, or at least have a loyalist as premier atop another grand coalition. Stimulating the economy would both help the government’s popularity and deny its members a reason to continue playing along, as this is an arrangement born from crisis — not shared ideals. Letta’s trip Tuesday to Berlin, Brussels, and Paris reflects Italian elites’ commitment to, as he put it, “a Europeanist government.” But with voters on both sides of the ideological spectrum increasingly unwilling to trust the old guard, this new government, now matter how “Europeanist”, may only serve to delay another spike in popularity for Five Star, another boost in fresh blood for the insurgency. Letta has shown he can speak well and is effective at back-room dealing. Whether he can keep voters from completely abandoning the established parties is another matter entirely.