Italy’s new prime minister, Enrico Letta, is making the best of a bad job. After February’s inconclusive election, it looked like Italy’s dysfunctional political system might drag the country further into the abyss. There was a risk that nobody would be able to form a government, new elections would be called and that even these would end in a stalemate.
In the end, a grand coalition was formed involving Letta’s centre-left Democrats, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL and Mario Monti’s centrist group. Putting together such a coalition was itself an achievement – given that the Democrats and Berlusconi hate one another and that the Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, refused to make deals with anybody.
Even after the coalition was formed – largely as a result of pressure from Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s respected octogenarian president – there wasn’t much hope that it could achieve anything. But Letta has been quietly getting on with reform, as I discovered when I spent a few days in Italy last week. Part of the explanation is that he is an intelligent, modest, consensus-builder rather than a charismatic figure with a big ego.
Moreover, none of the big beasts of Italian politics, notably Berlusconi, is in Letta’s cabinet. The prime minister, who is not even leader of his own party, keeps a fairly arms-length relationship with the political leaders. This gives his government a semi-technocratic flavour, not vastly dissimilar from the Monti government it replaced.
The worry is that these qualities could be a source of Letta’s ultimate undoing. Although he is popular now, the same was true of Monti in his honeymoon period. Letta has yet to prove he can push through, let alone sell, any real tough reforms.