Fear Gives 40 -- Renzi's Magic Number

"If these numbers are confirmed this is an historical moment," declared the charming Italian Minister for Reforms Maria Elena Boschi, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's darling in Government.

Indeed, apparently nobody was able to correctly foresaw the electoral results of the European elections in Italy. There was wide-spread fear that Beppe Grillo's 5 Stars Movement (5SM) would score a landslide victory, like UKIP in Great Britain or FN in France. For once, however, the sick man of Europe turned out not to be Italy.

There a say in Italian: "Fears gives 40." Fear of a Grillo's victory pushed progressives to cast their vote for the Democratic Party (PD), leading it to a surprising 40%. PD will be the largest delegation in the European Parliament (EP), well positioning Italy for a top job in the next European legislature. Rumours are that current VP Gianni Pittella is getting ready to regain a position that Italy has not had for 40 years, since Emilio Colombo had it in the 1970s. Renzi also has a credit with Merkel, since he quickly abdicated on a claim for NATO's Secretary General as a favour to her in a complicated Euro-plot that should ultimately keep the Socialist Martin Shultz away from the EU Commission's Presidency.

With the Italian Semester of EU Presidency fast approaching (July-December 2014) and with Renzi being often criticized for his lack of experience in foreign policy, getting the European Parliament's highest Chair would make of the Italian EU Presidency an instant success, after which he will probably be tempted to call for general elections for the Spring 2015.

Yet, getting the EP's Presidency would be the cherry on a cake that still has to be baked. So far Renzi, who is in power since February 2014, has shown Italians just the ingredients and they gave him credit; it remains to be seen if he will be able to successfully bake it. It will not be an easy task.

To begin with, though it is true that one has to go back as far as 1953 and 1958 to find a party (the Christian Democrats) able to score over 40% in an Italian election, percentages are not real numbers. These tell a different story, a story that the young Minister of Reforms might not even remember. The Democratic Party is the result of the fusion between the left of the Christian Democrats (DC) and the moderate former Communists (PCI) after the end of the Cold War. While in this election PD regained over 2 million voters as compared to 2009 and 2013, with 11 million voters it still trails behind the 2001, 2006 and 2009 numbers. And these numbers are not even comparable to what DC and PCI scored until the early 1990s. In other words, the sharp increase in percentage is in good part due to a decrease in the total number of voters, down to 66% from 75% in 2013 and 81% in 2008.

Along the last 20 years, the Democratic Party (or the Olive Tree Coalition as it was previously known) alternated fates with Berlusconi. This time Berlusconi - who lost 30% of his supporters after having lost a similar share in 2013 - was, together with Grillo, the clear looser. Grillo is most likely doomed to gradually disappear like the "Uomo Qualunque" did at the outset of the Italian Republic, as Italians showed a decreasing support for a kind of politics mostly based on yelling and offences.

Berlusconi, on the other side, is a different story. While the man lost his magic touch, there is still a moderate electorate that in part still voted for him and in part did not vote at all. These are the people Renzi needs to win over if he wants to succeed at the next general elections. They are likely to be convinced only if he will finally achieve those reforms that Berlusconi announced for 20 years without ever realizing them and that are now Renzi's cry for battle.

Yet, reforms are hard to achieve, they need numbers in Parliament and the capability to change a political and administrative culture that is all about resistance to change. Unfortunately, the landslide victory in the EP elections did not translate in increased PD numbers in the Italian Parliament.

On the short term, Renzi will be able to lock in his allies threatening elections if they do not support his reforms. Of his allies, in fact, New Democratic Center (NDC) barely made it over the required 4% threshold, while Mario Monti's party got a humiliating and useless 0.71%. They will both want to avoid general elections as for as long as possible. Likewise, Berlusconi is unlikely to be tempted to call for them any time soon; even the internal opposition within the Democratic Party should stay put for a while.

All the conditions thus seem to be there for a long-needed season of change. Let's hope fear will transform not only in hope - as Renzi said in closing the electoral campaign - rather in actual change. That would really be historical.