Italy's new prime minister asked to form new government

Foreign Minister Paolo Gentilon is considered a political ally of the previous prime minister, Matteo Renzi.

Remo Casilli/Reuters
Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni talks to reporters after receiving a mandate to try to form the country's new government, at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, Italy December 11, 2016.

In the wake of the political chaos rocking Italy following the resignation of Matteo Renzi last week, President Sergio Mattarella asked Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni on Sunday to form a new government as the nation's new Prime Minister.

The swift creation of the government will likely help to quell uncertainty after Italians voted "no" to a referendum on constitutional reform championed by Mr. Renzi, the former prime minister who fulfilled his promise to resign if the referendum did not pass. Sixty percent of Italians voted against the changes, an unexpectedly large margin of victory.

Mr. Gentiloni is expected to have a list of potential cabinet members to present to President Mattarella by Monday. His government will then have to secure a vote of confidence from parliament in a vote that will likely take place later this week. Gentiloni's cabinet will be the object of considerable scrutiny in the coming months,  as the country's financial problems are intensifying calls from populist and antiestablishment forces for immediate elections.

"I am aware of the urgent need to give Italy a government with full powers, to reassure our fellow citizens, to confront our international, economic and social priorities with the maximum commitment and determination," Gentiloni said after Matterella passed down the mandate.

Gentiloni, set to be the fifth prime minister in the country in five years, is considered to be a Renzi loyalist, a position for which he has drawn fire from his predecessor's many critics. Despite this, he seems to be a reasonably safe choice for the president. Most Italians consider Gentiloni to be less "arrogant" than Renzi, and he is largely considered to harbor no ulterior political ambitions, though some critics have called him a puppet of his predecessor, who still leads the Democratic party.

"[Gentiloni] knows the world's trouble spots and takes action to shape events," a senior US Department of State official told The Guardian. "For instance, he has been personally involved in trying to counter the forces of chaos in Libya ‎through a mix of diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives, which have made a difference there on the ground."

Some critics have raised concerns about Gentiloni's connections to Russia. While US and much of Europe has taken an increasingly hardline stance against Putin's antagonistic attitude toward the West, Italy has taken a more conciliatory and diplomatic approach under Gentolini's purview as foreign minister.

Gentolini is acting quickly to form his cabinet as troubles brew in the country's banking sector. The world's oldest bank and Italy's third largest lender, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, is in danger of going under without rapid government assistance. The bank was unable to failed to secure an extension to raise funds from the European Central Bank last week. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gentiloni is likely to reconfirm Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan as soon as possible to give the bank the capital infusion it needs before the end-of-year deadline runs out.

"It doesn't matter if it's resolved tonight or tomorrow," Maurizio Caprara, a commentator for Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper, told Reuters referring to Gentiloni's cabinet appointments. "The important thing is that the markets already know that with Gentiloni there will be no radical change." 

But while Gentiloni's appointment is expected to stabilize the country's political and financial situation in the short term, many Italian political parties, including the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant Northern League, have been energized by the unexpectedly strong anti-establishment surge of voters during the referendum to call for a more immediate election to oust the Democratic party than the one currently scheduled for spring 2018 .

Like much of Europe, populist movements in Italy have begun to flex their muscles in recent months, invigorated by a series of unexpected right-wing populist victories such as Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. While Italy's populist sentiments have gotten a similar boost, the Five Star Movement, Italy's most prominent antiestablishment party, is a little harder to pin down, as the Christian Science Monitor's David Iaconangelo previously reported:

Unlike the far-right forces on the crest of that wave, though, the Five Star is less united around grievances stemming from immigration and free trade – though it’s also no stranger to those either. While the path forward it envisions for Italy still seems unclear, the party seems to incarnate an unpredictable, incoherent yet unusually viable strain of populism.

Demographically, many of its supporters tend to be the Italian counterparts of the core supporters of Mr. Trump and the United Kingdom's Independence Party (Ukip), says Dr. Garavoglia: “overwhelmingly male, relatively uneducated, usually white, and in lower socioeconomic demographics.”

“They’ve been skillful in appealing to voters from across the political spectrum,” from old supporters of former president Silvio Berlusconi to those who traditionally voted for center-left parties, he adds.

With high unemployment rates, particularly among Italian youth, Gentiloni will have to tread carefully to maintain the Democratic party's hold on the government, which currently holds the most seats in parliament. While Gentiloni may remain prime minister until 2018, many commentators say it is likely that early elections could be held sometime next year.

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