ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter

Why Renzi really failed

Italy excites itself with false hopes, but no one person can provide magic fixes

In a country that will soon have its 64th government since 1945, it is no surprise that people pin their hopes on men (yes, always men so far) who are casting themselves as transformative figures.

For a long time, the man who was supposed to fix things was Silvio Berlusconi. A shifty television magnate, Berlusconi entered politics largely for one reason -- self-aggrandizement.

After many years of fireworks and several terms in office, the net result of all his machinations was basically nothing in substantive terms. But in th emeantime, Berlusconi kept Italians entertained -- and entertained himself.

In the end, most people in both camps were contented in their own way: Berlusconi had lived up to their expectations. Italy, meanwhile, more or less ended up wasting a decade.

The next deus ex machina

In February 2014, Italy had another "deus ex machina" moment -- for the umpteenth time in its history. At that occasion, it was Matteo Renzi, the youngish former mayor of Florence, who was vested with high hopes of a fresh start.

Renzi, never shy to profess his ambitions, surely was a breath of fresh air. For a while, there was hope that he would deliver magical salvation to the country. Following the loss of the referendum vote over his planned constitutional reforms, he is exiting stage left.

It appears as if the Italian people have been conditioned to await the periodic rise of a new Caesar who momentarily excites the masses. That saga has indeed been going on in Rome since the year 44 B.C., when Brutus killed Caesar, for fear that he would accumulate too much power.

The only good news in the 2016 version of the story is that Brutus has now been democratized. Renzi was not slain by one of his colleagues in the political arena, but by its collective technocratic equivalent, a national referendum.

All of which leads to a broader question: Do Italians acknowledge the need that any polity needs to be governed in some fashion and by someone? One must have strong doubts.

This is all the more peculiar, since even at the lowest and least complex level of government -- municipalities -- Italians fail to elect leaders who can manage even to get the trash collected properly.

The inability of the city governments first of Naples, then of Rome to deal with their mountains of trash made global headlines. They also are a fitting indicator of Italian politics.

While the resulting smell was curiously reminiscent of waste management problems going back to the days of the Roman Republic, today's Italians did not really get too upset about it. They delight in their own ungovernability. They are even lucid enough not to blame the mafia for all the inaction.

The key question is this: If a country cannot solve its waste management issues, what can it actually resolve?

Italy has a strange obsession about politicians fighting each other, turning the entire country into a toy to be played with. All the people expect is good entertainment.

To make it suspenseful enough, the country has a love affair with political intrigue, if not political murder. The latter extends from the aforementioned Senatorial games over who killed Caesar all the way to former Prime Minister Aldo Moro's assassination in 1978.

As Renzi's fate shows, in the more symbolic variant of killing the leader, that same game is still being played today, 2,060 years later. The pattern is always the same: An initial wave of hype is soon enough followed by ennui and disillusionment, which inevitably lead to the leader being toppled.

And then, when competent politician-managers are appointed in between the latter-day Caesars (a la Berlusconi from the right and Renzi from the left), the Italian public quickly complains about not wanting to live under an unexciting, technocratic government.

Fratricidal pattern 

What all of this points to is a massive collective failure -- at the level of politicians as well as of the public at large.

Italy's politicians and the public at large excel at engaging in a fratricidal pattern of interaction that ultimately negates the entire meaning and purpose of politics.

Ostensibly, the purpose of politics is the management of the public process to improve the lives of the entire (national) community through smart legislation.

The Italian public, for its part, continues to see politics as a hugely entertaining soap opera. Entertaining though it may be, they still do not comprehend that the joke is ultimately on them.

The few people who do see things differently and pursue a more long-term oriented, nuanced approach -- the Mario Montis, the Enrico Lettas, the Carlo Padoans -- are usually cast aside unceremoniously, usually after only a short stint in office.

Why? Because their way of treating politics as the national art of drilling through thick boards in order to arrive at a better future for all does not mesh with the prevailing Italian mindset.

True, all of these lesser "big men" have their weaknesses and foibles too. But they've got one thing right: Nation comes before ego. That is a lesson lost on the Berlusconis and Renzis.

Stephan Richter is publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, a daily online magazine based in Berlin and Washington.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends July 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more