Who is Paolo Gentiloni? The steady hand of Italian politics

Unflashy Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni has conquered the centre ground so coveted by former premier Matteo Renzi, becoming more popular than the anti-immigrant firebrands dominating the headlines in the general election campaign -- and even his old boss.

Who is Paolo Gentiloni? The steady hand of Italian politics
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni speaks during a press conference. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Gentiloni's appointment as PM in December 2016 was widely seen in Italy as a containment move by the outgoing Matteo Renzi, head of the ruling Democratic Party (PD), who had just resigned after losing a referendum on constitutional reform.

Leader of the populist Five Star Movement Luigi Di Maio called the 63-year-old Gentiloni “Renzi's avatar” while Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which is in former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, referred to him as “a puppet”.  Few observers fancied his chances of lasting more than a few months in the hot seat.

But with the strong possibility of a hung parliament after the general election on March 4th, Gentiloni could remain in the top job far beyond polling day, something that would satisfy much of the Italian public. A recent poll carried out by Istituto Piepoli for daily La Stampa had Gentiloni with a 44 percent approval rating, well ahead of both Di Maio, his nearest rival, and Renzi.

Berlusconi's popularity has fallen, partly due to his sex scandals and legal woes, but his right-wing coalition is expected to pick up the most votes on election day. Barred from public office because of a fraud conviction, the 81-year-old Berlusconi remains a key figure at the head of his party and sees himself as a kingmaker.

Silvio Berlusconi: what to expect from the comeback king in Italy's election
Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

Safe bet

A lover of tennis, opera and fine wine, Gentiloni comes across as the classic “signore”, an upper-middle class Italian male with refined tastes and a reserved manner that befits his aristocratic roots.

In his behaviour and mannerisms he couldn't be more different from motormouth Renzi, but the pair are long-time political allies and Gentiloni has largely followed the blueprint laid down by his predecessor. He was plucked from obscurity by Renzi to become Foreign Minister in October 2014, a move that raised eyebrows given Gentiloni's almost complete lack of ministerial experience at the time.

His previous experience in front-line politics amounted to two years as communications minister for Romano Prodi's 2006-08 administration, while his bid to become mayor of Rome in 2013 ended up with him finishing third of three candidates in the left's primaries.

However Gentiloni is widely seen as having done a good job as foreign minister as Italy played a proactive role on the world stage, and stood up for himself during a migrant crisis that only started to abate following a controversial agreement his government struck with Libya last summer.

READ ALSO: Who is Matteo Renzi? The former PM who swiftly fell from grace

Gentiloni has overtaken old boss Matteo Renzi (above) in popularity. Photo: AFP

Gentiloni's popularity runs in contrast to the fortunes of his own party, which with Renzi at the helm is leading a four-party centre-left coalition polling at around 27-28 percent of voter intentions — behind Berlusconi's right-wing grouping and the M5S.

Riddled with internal divisions and fresh from a left-wing rebellion that led to the formation of the breakaway Free and Equal party, the PD is looking likely to pick up a lower percentage of the vote than the 25 percent it gained in 2013 under Renzi's predecessor Pier Luigi Bersani.

Renzi-ite before Renzi

Gentiloni's relationship with Renzi is so close that in 2014 La Stampa wrote that he “was Renzi-ite before Renzi existed”. Since taking the top job Gentiloni has presided over Italy's best year-on-year GDP growth figures since 2011, with 1.5 percent growth posted in the first half of last year, and the figures for 2017 look set to beat forecasts of 1.1 percent.

These figures are still below the EU average, and the economy is still six percent smaller than it was in 2008. While results have not been spectacular, Gentiloni's steady hand has inspired faith in Italians.

However, unimpressed by the prime ministerial candidates offered up by all the main parties, voters are expected to turn out in lower numbers on March 4th than for any election since the Second World War.


By Terence Daley


Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.