December 10, 2013 6:11 pm

Rome’s revolution

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Italy has much to gain from generational change at the top

Ten months ago Italy’s general elections saw the then 61-year-old Pier Luigi Bersani pitched against the 76-year-old Silvio Berlusconi. The first act of the new parliament was to implore the 87-year-old Giorgio Napolitano to serve an unprecedented second term as president. The personalities of these politicians – ranging from Mr Napolitano’s statesmanship to Il Cavaliere’s chutzpah – could not be more diverse. But their combined age showed that Italian politics was a game between old men.

Less than a year later, a new generation has marched through the gates of Rome. In April, Enrico Letta became the third-youngest prime minister in the history of postwar Italy. Angelino Alfano, his 43-year-old deputy, has stepped out of Mr Berlusconi’s shadow and is seeking to renovate the right. This week, Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence, became the new leader of the left after a thumping victory in the primaries of the Democratic party.

Fresh blood is essential for the vitality of any democratic system. This is all the more true in Italy, where the ruling elites have presided over two decades of economic decline. Voters have become increasingly frustrated with this ineffective gerontocracy. Last February, the Five Star Movement filled its lists with fresh faces, winning 25 per cent of the vote.

Generational change should make it easier to reorient Italy’s economic policy, which is heavily skewed against the young. The government spends too much of its welfare budget on pensions and too little on other benefits. The labour market grants excessive protection to older insiders at the expense of the under-35s. Payroll taxes are exorbitant, while levies on property – which is typically held by the old – are lighter. Not only is this inequitable, it also frustrates younger workers, stifling economic growth.

Of course, Italy’s new crop of politicians is, by definition, inexperienced. The scale of the economic problems they face is staggering. There is no guarantee this generation will prove better than its predecessors, nor that it will really want to shake up the system rather than continue to chase the grey vote. Italy needs deeper political reform than just a change at the top. A new electoral law is indispensable for real change.

Yet, preserving the old guard in power would have meant more of the same. Politically and economically, this was not viable. For all its risks, Rome’s generational gamble is worth taking. Italy has little to lose and much to gain.

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