I recently​ discovered that when my friend Giovanni was a boy scout, the leader of his troop was none other than Matteo Renzi. I asked what he had been like. Giovanni shrugged. ‘Com’è,’ he said. (‘As he is.’) He wouldn’t be drawn further. When Renzi was prime minister, his scouting career – he’s still a keen supporter of the movement – was a source of much mirth in the Italian press. A photo of him with his backpack and neckerchief, laughing merrily, circulated alongside a severe picture of Vladimir Putin in his KGB uniform. One of these politicians was to be taken seriously, the comparison implied, and one was not. Renzi’s supporters might plausibly argue that there are reasons to prefer the boy scout over the secret policeman, but given the standing of his Partito Democratico (PD) in the last polls before we head into the general election on 4 March (22 per cent and falling) it’s hard not to think that he’s led them deep into the woods with a broken compass and no idea which way to turn to get them out again: certainly not to the left; but should they go dead ahead, or further to the right – or can we pretend there’s no difference? Meanwhile, the stragglers at the back – who happen to include the speakers of both houses of parliament, as well as three former party leaders – have broken away from the rest of the troop, and are striking out on their own; but no one can agree whether they are heading to the left or just going backwards. Meanwhile, as the scouts frantically rub sticks together in the hope of generating a spark, night is falling, and the forces of xenophobic nationalism are gathering.

Renzi has never been a member of parliament, or led his party to victory in a general election. The last time Italy went to the polls, in February 2013, a centre-left coalition of ten parties led by the PD, then in the care of Pier Luigi Bersani, scraped to a majority in the lower house, thanks to the bonus seats awarded, since 2005, to the first-placed party or coalition. But no one gained control of the Senate. Bersani tried and failed to form a government with Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), which had won more votes than the PD alone but fewer than the centre-left coalition as a whole. He then tried and failed – not least because of manoeuvring by Renzi, who had lost heavily to Bersani in a primary to determine the leader of the coalition – to persuade deputies and senators to vote for Romano Prodi as president of the Republic when Giorgio Napolitano’s term came to an end in April 2013. Prodi, humiliated, dropped out of the race. Napolitano agreed to stand for a second term, and Bersani resigned as leader of the PD. His deputy, Enrico Letta, became prime minister at the head of a grand coalition government with Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà, but without several of the parties whose presence in the centre-left coalition going into the election had ensured its narrow but decisive victory over the M5S in the lower house.

The PdL split in November 2013 after Berlusconi failed to get its ministers to quit the government. In December, the constitutional court ruled that the electoral system was unconstitutional, and the current parliament – which lacked legitimacy, having been elected according to an illegitimate system – should remain in session for only as long as it took to establish a new electoral system that was in line with the constitution. Meanwhile, Renzi was elected leader of the PD. In February 2014, Letta resigned as prime minister and Renzi took over. The Italian prime minister, whose official title is ‘presidente del consiglio dei ministri’, i.e. leader of the cabinet, is appointed by the president of the Republic; as head of the executive, he – and it always has been a ‘he’ – doesn’t technically need to be a member of the legislature. Renzi’s extracameral elevation was unusual, but not unprecedented: in 1993, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, governor of the Bank of Italy since 1979, was appointed prime minister at the head of a technical government.

A new electoral law was passed in 2015, but parliament wasn’t dissolved. Renzi called a referendum on the next stage of electoral reform, which included reducing the powers of the senate, and said he’d resign if it didn’t pass, which immediately turned it into a referendum on his leadership – unsurprising, really, considering that no one outside his party had voted for him to be prime minister. He duly lost and duly resigned, to be replaced by his foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni. But he clung onto the leadership of the PD, and goes into this general election hoping to be prime minister again. I don’t think this is what Gramsci meant by optimism of the will.

Left-wing PD deputies, at loggerheads with Renzi, started to abandon the party in 2015. The most substantial exodus came a year ago, when Bersani, Massimo D’Alema (prime minister for 18 months in the late 1990s) and others quit to form the Movimento Democratico e Progressista. It is now the largest party in the Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal) coalition, contesting the election on a platform to the left of the PD, under the leadership of the ex-PD speaker of the Senate, Pietro Grasso, who has identified Jeremy Corbyn as a model to follow. The two factions aren’t holding back from attacking one another. Renzi has accused D’Alema and Bersani of trying to destroy the PD, and said that a vote for the LeU is a vote for the Lega Nord. Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and a senior figure in the LeU, has said that a vote for the PD is a vote for Berlusconi, whose revenant Forza Italia is the largest party in a right-wing coalition that’s leading the polls with close to 40 per cent. Berlusconi is banned from holding public office until 2019, but he’s contesting that in the European Court of Human Rights, and contesting the election anyway, presenting himself as an elder statesman, a safe pair of hands.

His coalition is routinely described as ‘centre-right’, but there’s nothing of the centre about it. The second biggest party in it is the Lega Nord, which was founded thirty years ago on a platform of independence for the fantasy land of Padania – Italy north of the river Po – in the hope of unshackling the country’s wealthy northern regions from the dead weight of Rome and the unprosperous south. But in recent years, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, it has more or less entirely abandoned that project and repositioned itself as a national (and nationalist) party. The Lega used to direct its contempt at its fellow citizens from the Mezzogiorno; now that it wants their votes, it has turned its hatred further south, and is running an unabashedly racist, anti-immigration campaign, promising to put ‘Italians first’ and to deport hundreds of thousands of African migrants.

It isn’t a promise they’ll be able to deliver on, even if they do come to power, any more than Berlusconi is likely to be able to deliver on his promise of a flat rate of income tax, which he’s wanted for as long as he’s been in politics. But that doesn’t mean the Lega’s racist rhetoric doesn’t have consequences. On 3 February, a man who’d stood for the party in local elections last year drove through the town of Macerata, in Le Marche, shooting at black people. He imagined he was avenging the death of a young Roman woman a few days earlier; a Nigerian man had been arrested in connection with her murder. On 20 February, a left-wing activist was stabbed at a political rally in Perugia. The right doesn’t have a monopoly on political violence: in Palermo, the leader of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova was tied up and beaten by left-wing militants. On 22 February, meanwhile, the police turned water cannon and tear gas on anti-fascist protesters trying to disrupt a speech by the leader of CasaPound, yet another small neo-fascist party, which attracts press attention out of all proportion to its level of support among the general public. (A few years ago Ezra Pound’s daughter took them to court to try to stop them taking her father’s name in vain; she lost.)

The biggest​ single party is still the M5S. It was created as an anti-establishment movement in 2009, but since acquiring positions of real power has come to look more like just another political party, as corrupt and venal as all the others. The M5S mayors of Rome and Turin have not only run incompetent administrations but are under investigation for fraud. Still, it has some way to go before it’s as thoroughly tainted in voters’ eyes as either – take your pick, depending on your politics – Berlusconi or the PD. One M5S supporter I spoke to – just turned fifty, he has always voted for parties to the left of the PD’s current position – said that their programme is, for him, a left-wing programme: more money on health and education, sustainable public transport, renewable energy, publicly owned utilities … What about the ius soli? The proposed law, finally defeated in the Senate just before Christmas, would have made it much easier for the children of immigrants to get Italian citizenship. On the day of the vote, none of the M5S senators showed up (they weren’t the only ones, admittedly), which meant there wasn’t a quorum, and the bill was abandoned. Yes, the M5S supporter agreed, the ius soli is the right thing to do, but it isn’t for Italy alone to pass such a law; it’s something that the whole of Europe needs to do. He isn’t wrong; but still, Italy could have led the way. And with an ageing population and low birth rate, the country needs more young citizens. The ius soli would have been a better starting point for a solution to Italy’s long-term problems than neo-fascist fantasies of mass deportation.

Given the state of the opinion polls – and their general unreliability; they were off in 2013, exaggerating the PD’s chances – it’s impossible to say what the outcome of the election will be, even in terms of how many seats each party is likely to get. And that’s before the horse-trading begins as they attempt to form a government. Both Renzi and Berlusconi have ruled out a grand coalition, and said that the only answer to an inconclusive result is another election. Jean-Claude Juncker was reported as saying that ‘we must prepare for the worst scenario,’ by which he meant Italy having ‘no operational government’ (though I can think of several scenarios a lot worse than that, many of them emblazoned on posters across the country: ‘Salvini Premier’, for example). Gentiloni – who has been strangely absent, for a sitting prime minister, from the cut-and-thrust of the campaign trail, though he has been held up by both Napolitano and Prodi as the best hope for a stable future – made soothing noises, and Juncker issued a bland official statement:

Elections are a moment of democracy, and this applies to Italy – a country that is very close to my heart. On 4 March the Italians will go to the polls and cast their votes. Whatever the outcome, I am confident that we will have a government that makes sure that Italy remains a central player in Europe and in shaping its future.

But the Italian stock exchange, which had been outperforming other European bourses, took a hit, and the spread between German and Italian bonds grew by a few points.

It may yet turn out that a more significant date than 4 March 2018 will be 31 October 2019, when Italy’s most powerful man, Mario Draghi, steps down as president of the European Central Bank. In July 2012, Draghi said the ECB would do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the euro. Under the programme of quantitative easing begun in 2015, the ECB has bought pretty much all Italian bonds issued since then. And no one wants to think about what may happen when it stops.

23 February

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