Wishing on Il Rottamatore

Every night, my host family eats dinner with the television on in the background. We tend to start dinner by the time the show Otto e Mezzo begins on TV, a nightly news and political analysis show in Italy that gathers together different commentators to discuss the day’s headlines—namely, the current status quo in parliament. Occasionally, one of my host parents will grab the remote to listen to an analyst’s view of the current political dilemma. Without fail, my host parents always respond the same. “Oh Dio!” they sigh. “Che disastro sono le politche italiane!”
Indeed, the rollercoaster ride of Italian politics over the past several months has made it exciting to follow the developments each day. In February, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta submitted his resignation after his Democratic Party (PD) backed a call for a new administration. His coalition government had struggled to act in the face of Italy’s economic woes, even as the country continues to suffer from its worst unemployment rate in 40 years and an economy that has shrunk by 9 percent in seven years. 

Quickly, the charismatic Matteo Renzi emerged poised to take his place. Renzi is the former mayor of Florence, nicknamed Il Rottamatore (“The Scrapper”) by his supporters. At 39 years old, he became the youngest prime minister in the country’s history when he was sworn in on February 22. 

It has been interesting to judge the reactions of Italians amidst this government transition. To be honest, most Italians express that they don’t know what to expect from Renzi. After all, he only served as the mayor of Florence for a short time and has never been elected to parliament or served in a national government. He was only recently elected head of the center-left Democratic Party. 

“Do you think we will be able to improve anything?” I ask. 

“Speriamo,” they say. “We hope.” 

Or as my host mother put it: “We have no other choice!” 

I have been surprised how often the name Berlusconi appears in conversations about Renzi. Even on the nightly news show, Berlusconi is mentioned almost as often as Renzi by the political commentators. Silvio Berlusconi, after all, is the Italian billionaire and former prime minister who faced a recent conviction for tax fraud. Ever a colorful character, Berlusconi was just as much known for his turn of phrase and gregarious behavior as his ability to attract loyal votes to his Forza Italia party. For example, at a European Union summit in 2002, he famously held up his fingers in the sign of bull horns behind the Spanish prime minister in the official photo-op; they had to then retake the photo. When discussing this in my government class on the European Union, my Italian professor remarked, “You know, sometimes I miss Berlusconi. At least he was always entertaining.” 

The slick and charismatic Renzi has been occasionally likened to Berlusconi for what their detractors designate as a tendency for style over substance. The Italian press, on the other hand, has called Renzi as “Italy’s Tony Blair,” due to his professed desire to shake up Italy’s political castes. 

Yet the unwillingness to call for elections questions the legitimacy of Renzi’s new government. Since 1992, Italy has had nine prime ministers, including Renzi. Of these nine, only two have won elections: Romani Prodi (2006) and Silvio Berlusconi (2008). So, why is Il Rottamatore afraid of letting the Italian public decide? 

But again, this current turmoil in Italian politics is not entirely new, as we have been discussing in one of my government classes this semester. Italy, after all, is an incredibly young country; a unified “Italy” did not exist until 1861. Since then, Italian politics has always been made up of competing factions. Existing animosity between the north and south continues to define Italian politics, with feelings that date back to the centuries of division and rivalry in the peninsula prior to political unification. Even today, under the centuries-old practice of campanilismo, many Italians profess more loyalty to their hometown than to the nation-state of Italy itself. 

Nevertheless, I have wholeheartedly jumped into the Italian practice of discussing and debating politics, just like the old men I see at the local bars, outlining their own plan to “fix” Italy over their afternoon espresso fix. 

But what can I say? 

When in Rome (or Florence for that matter), do as the Romans do.

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