On Monday, Matteo Renzi was asked by the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, to become Italy’s prime minister and to form a government. Renzi has never stood in a national election or been elected to either Italy’s lower or upper houses of parliament. He is the mayor of Florence yet has no national vote behind him. He replaced the previous prime minister, Enrico Letta, through political manoeuvring, which many democrats would consider as a coup d’état.
How a politician’s principles change when they get a whiff of power. Leftist Renzi had promised not to oppose Letta, said he would avoid any pacts with centre-right political parties, and would only assume power through elections. Before becoming prime minister, Renzi broke all these promises. In January 2014, he held meetings with former right-wing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and agreed proposals for electoral reform, which were examined by Italy’s parliament this week. In Renzi’s early negotiations with political parties to form a coalition government, he has already sought the support of the New Centre Right party.
Renzi has risen to the top job in Italian government by building alliances and cutting deals. It has been suggested that Renzi draws more on caricatures of Niccolo Machiavelli than the traditions of Florence’s city-state democracy. Renzi became mayor of Florence in 2008 and in 2012 stood to become leader of the Democratic Party before Italy’s last General Election in 2013. However, Renzi lost the party leadership vote to Pier Luigi Bersani, who went on to win the General Election. Nine months later, Renzi ran again to become leader of the Democratic Party and this time he won. By then, Letta had replaced Bersani as prime minister, and Renzi manoeuvred to undermine him by increasingly criticising Letta in public. Last Friday, Renzi met with the president to discuss forming a new government; Letta was not invited to attend and resigned. By then, Renzi had convinced the majority of Democratic Party members that he should lead the government as well as the party due to the slow pace of Letta’s reforms.
In many countries, obtaining power through such manoeuvring and without a democratic mandate would be considered a coup d’état. Formally, Renzi has become prime minister constitutionally. According to Italy’s constitution, Italians vote for political parties to lead the government rather than individuals. As the current leader of the Democratic Party, Renzi therefore claims a formal mandate. Nevertheless, this is stretching the notion of democracy, even at a formal level.
It is not as if the Democratic Party received an unequivocal mandate to govern in the 2013 election. In fact, it did not receive the highest number of votes for any one party. The Five Star Movement won the most votes for a single political entity. However, the Democratic Party won a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament and achieved a majority in the upper house through a coalition with other parties.