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Why Italy’s Political Leaders Fail So Often

Italy keeps investing itself in false hopes. No political leader can provide magic fixes.

December 6, 2016

Italy keeps investing itself in false hopes. No political leader can provide magic fixes.

Before long, Italy will close in on having its 70th(!) government since 1945. Given the frequency of changing governments, it seems all the more surprising that Italians still pin any hopes on men (yes, always men so far!) who are casting themselves as transformative figures. But perhaps, this is only logical.

Overrating the power of personality

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. Meanwhile, Berlusconi kept Italians entertained — and entertained himself.

This article was originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review

It also appeared in Germany’s Handelsblatt

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 for 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 the city of Rome since the year 44 BCE, when Brutus killed Caesar, for fear of him accumulating 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.

Simply not serious about governing

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 as even on the lowest and least complex level of government — municipalities — the Italians fail to have leaders who can manage to get the trash removed properly.

The inability of the city governments first of Naples, then of Rome to deal with trash mountains 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 with it all. 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.

Political murder

To make it suspenseful enough, the country has a love affair with political intrigue, if not political murder. The latter extends from the afore-mentioned 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 on today 2,050 years later. The pattern is always the same: An initial wave of hype is soon enough followed by ennui and disillusionment, which inevitably leads to the leader being toppled.

And then, when competent politician-managers are appointed in between the latter-day Caesars (à 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 of political interaction

What all of this points to is a massive collective failure — both 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 massively entertaining soap opera. Entertaining though this may be, they still do not comprehend that the joke is ultimately on them.

Unwanted technocrats

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, typically only after 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 prevailing Italian mindset.

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


The Italian public sees politics as an entertaining soap opera. The joke is ultimately on them.

For Italian politicians and the public, life is a stage to act dramatically on – not for meaningful outcome.

Italy’s politicians play the same games of intrigue and (political) murder like in the Roman times.

Italy and Italian politics is a clan-driven place, which means any victory costs others a great deal.