How Italy’s Progressive Prime Minister Turned The Country Around

CREDIT: Flickr user Palazzo Chigi

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta

CREDIT: Flickr user Palazzo Chigi

Since the publication of Machiavelli’s The Prince, students of politics have watched Italy closely. This week, the new Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta will make his first visit to Washington since taking office. The timing, though, feels paradoxical. Having finally calmed Italy’s political turmoil, Prime Minister Letta arrives while the United States’ government appears more dysfunctional than ever.

Less than two weeks ago, Prime Minister Letta faced down Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian center-left’s nemesis for more than two decades. Berlusconi had attempted to call time on Italy’s grand coalition government and asked ministers from his Italian Party of Freedom (PDL) to resign from office. Officially, an “intolerable” one percent rise in the level of value added tax introduced by the coalition government prompted the defection. Behind the scenes, however, the pending Senate vote on whether to ban Berlusconi from public office following his final sentencing for tax frauds is speculated to be the true motive.

In the past lesser politicians may have blinked. Letta stood his ground. He called a confidence vote, and won by a large majority, after Silvio Berlusconi was forced at the last minute to reverse his opposition. Letta’s victory may not be the end of Berlusconi just quite yet, but one can hope — to paraphrase Winston Churchill — it is at least the beginning of the end.

It’s not just Letta’s political successes that impress. In a few short months, his government has also managed to stop the steep decline in economic output. While the country has not yet returned to positive growth, it’s looking like that happy day will come in the last trimester of 2013, and continue into 2014. Letta, then, has consolidated the good work undertaken by his predecessor, Mario Monti, and crucially reinforced Italy’s credibility in the eyes of partners in Europe and the United States as well as the financial markets.

So where does all this leave the new Prime Minister?

During February’s election, much of the Italian press had speculated that Mario Monti had been the White House’s preferred candidate. The short delay with which Prime Minister Letta received his invitation to the Oval Office suggests, however, that President Obama is more than happy with the new Prime Minister’s credentials and achievements. Indeed, in Europe too, Letta’s stature as a leader is growing. He is set to take on the European Union’s Presidency in July 2014, and many hope this will mark a shift in the Union away from austerity and toward growth and investment.

Prime Minister Letta is also increasingly popular at home. His poll numbers are higher than any other national politician, surpassing both Silvio Berlusconi and the deputy Prime Minister, Angelino Alfano. He also polls higher nationally than Matteo Renzi, the charismatic but unproven Mayor of Florence, that many see as the future of the Democratic Party. In ending the dysfunction and division that characterized the two-decade long Berlusconi era, Letta has bought himself time to enact his reform agenda and cement his grip on Palazzo Chigi (the Prime Minister’s office).

Yet significant challenges remain. In the coming twelve months, the Prime Minister must push through reform of the constitutional system and forge agreement on a new electoral law. Reducing the extravagant levels of state funding of political parties, another signature reform, is also likely to be resisted or at least resented by “allies” within parliament. And, on the economic front, the government is preparing a number of important reforms to the labor market which look at spurring domestic consumption most notably by reducing the tax burden on labor.

If Letta succeeds, and there is every indication he just well might, the Italian Democratic Party’s first ever Prime Minister will have illustrated both that Italy’s new center-left party can be a reliable, centrist and progressive in government, and that he himself is the right leader to take the country forward. Standing firm in the face of political intimidation and governing with moderates on the right who share his values, it seems Italy’s new Prince has a lessons or two for progressives in America, and beyond.

Matt Browne is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In 2005, he co-authored the Progressive Generation Declaration with Enrico Letta. Prime Minister Letta will visit the Center for American Progress on Thursday for private discussions with senior staff.