On Dec. 8, two years ago, Matteo Renzi became the secretary of the Democratic Party in Italy.
His rapid ascent was mythical, and his creative energy all but guaranteed he’d be successful. Now, after two years of undisputed leadership, it’s enough time to see that the party’s dreams of glory have withered.
The image provided by the latest Censis report (in Italian here) offers the stinging metaphor of a country burning in “hibernation.” When Renzi concluded his triumphal march from the primaries, he gathered the support of outsiders eager to finance a hostile takeover. As the ruling class faded in 2013, the Democratic Party was in need of renovation.
But in two years, the government of “tips for all” has not attracted a single new vote to. And his casual and creative economic measures have not stimulated a real recovery, but have aggravated the wealth gap with the rapid pace of other European partners.
Growing social exclusion and tax evasion reigns supreme, regional divides deepen, and public services and healthcare deteriorate. Lawlessness rises, setting the stage for a bank bailout.
Businesses, cashing in on social security payment reductions and cuts to the regional production tax (IRAP), continue to dissuade any competitive strategy based on innovation and quality.
Low labor costs are virtually guaranteed by the government’s new labor laws that allow companies to fire workers at will and send them off with a modest severance. The ability to dismiss freely has left companies feeling invincible. They think they’re continuing on the path of downward competition, through the marginalization of unions, but the precariousness is disguised by state favoritism.
Soon under-the-table payments will become the dominant feature of the contractual relationship. After 40 years of work, employees pensions won’t be much higher than social security, and they will prefer to be paid under the table — that way, at least they can make some extra pennies from the non-payment of contributions.
Without a policy of social investments, and without a wage increase in the public and private sectors (other than tips graciously bestowed, without any social safety net), the system is falling into a regressive and catastrophic spiral.
The social and political wounds of these two years will be difficult to heal.
Renzi fashions himself as the generous protector of the whole nation, who distributes bonuses and gratuities to children, police and teachers. But he only wastes scarce resources, without any tangible steps toward social inclusion.
Paolo Mieli, the former editor-in chief of il Corriere della Sera, has a great way to describe it: Renzi is not a divisive leader, but he lives in the comfortable company of those who view him as a winning leader that admirably leaps fences and fishes everywhere for confidence.
It is better to listen to real public opinion: There is a distinct perception of a growing enmity, and even of political hatred, that prevents Renzi from breaking through, despite his unending TV presence, the general support of the media, the approval of influential powers and the demobilization of the right.
A void has grown between the leader and the people. To compensate for that fact, it’s not enough just to build up the party.
The problem is that, for structural reasons, Renzi cannot build the party. He destroyed what little organization was left. He has forced the deluded — those who pretended to find in Renzi’s party the residue of old symbols — to flee. He can’t build a new structure with the fleeting cheer of 1,000 banquets in this country’s towns.
For Renzi, the party only serves as a source of legitimacy, letting him continue to live at Palazzo Chigi as long as he wants and issue orders to “stay calm.” He does not have a modern leadership culture. From him only emanates a caricature infatuation with the outward symbols of command over the barracks.
Around the world, other leaders are not submissive to the aggressive oligarchies and rigid parliamentary groups. Even Barack Obama knows something about that. And the new British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earned the investiture of the party base but is at odds with the Parliamentary Labour Party on foreign policies and domestic issues.
Italian parliamentary groups, picked by former secretary Pierluigi Bersani, quickly endorsed the new leader, never showing a sign of disobedience. They do not behave like representatives of the Democratic Party. If there were a party, Renzi would never have climbed it. And if he had actually rebuilt the party, its leaders would have overthrown him, for his obvious inability of true leadership.
They would have gotten rid of a leader who lost the regional elections, dismissed the organizational nucleus of the party, forced the membership’s desertion, showed an evident incompetence in government and is in clear trouble at the polls.
But Renzi’s luck is that there is no Democratic Party. He can make do with a shadow of one, that gives him the rank of commander of the day.
Two terrible years of the deconsolidation of constitutional democracy and there is little to celebrate.
The only hope is that the hatred and disappointment that are lurking in the injured left turn into policy, and there will be leading groups ready to tackle the difficult task, to restart with critical thinking after it all comes crashing down.