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

For members


EXPLAINED: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

As more than a hundred political parties register ahead of Italy's upcoming election, here's why and a look at the ones you need to know about.

EXPLAINED: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

Italy is gearing up for an early general election on September 25th, and so far the number of different parties and alliances in the running can seem overwhelming.

While they won’t all be approved, a total of 101 political parties and movements submitted their symbols and leaders’ names to the Italian interior ministry on Sunday.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy’s government collapsed in the middle of summer?

Meanwhile, parties are busy forging electoral alliances that include up to eight or nine members.

It may look chaotic, but a large number of small parties and numerous complex alliances is standard in Italy’s electoral system.

Here’s a look at why, how it all works, and which of the parties to watch. And we’ll try to keep it brief.

How many political parties are there exactly?

It’s not yet known for sure how many of the 101 political parties and movements which submitted their symbols and leaders’ names to the interior ministry on Sunday will be approved.

Those who go forward also need to collect the 36,750 signatures necessary for their candidates to stand for seats in the lower house of parliament, and a separate 19,500 to get onto the ballot for the Senate.

The parties now have until August 22nd to officially register their candidate lists, or liste elettorali.

These lists of prospective MPs are seen as vitally important, and as such are reported on in detail by Italian media: all of these names will feature on lists at polling stations, and voters have the option to name up to three individuals they want to support on the ballot.

Each list is headed by the party leader, who would then be that party’s choice for prime minister. But some – usually smaller – parties choose to link their lists together under one leader’s name.

Ok, so which of these parties do I need to know about?

At this stage, it’s safe to say quite a few of the 101 parties and movements mentioned earlier are not serious contenders.

The number of parties you’ll actually need to know about in order to follow the election race is much smaller (although it’s still more than the two or three some of us are used to following in our home countries).

You’ve probably heard of at least some of Italy’s biggest political parties: Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, or FdI); Partito Democratico (Democratic party, PD); Lega (the League); Forza Italia; Viva Italia; and Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S).

READ ALSO: Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

As well as these, some small, lesser-lnown parties are also likely to be decisive in the outcome of the election, if not in the formation of the next government.

That includes groupings of several parties that have joined the large right- and left-wing alliances.

What are these alliances?

Electoral alliances between two, three or more parties are vital, because the way Italy’s political system works means it’s almost impossible for one single party to take enough of the vote to rule alone.

Italy essentially has a multi-party system – in contrast to the two-party system in countries like the US and UK – designed after the second world war (and Italy’s Fascist era) to prevent any one party from being in complete control.

So parties must team up and form these alliances with similar parties to fight elections. Then, they often have to join forces with yet more parties or alliances to form a government – often, these coalition partners are from a different part of the political spectrum.

Image: Demopolis

As a result, Italy has had a long series of fractious governments made up of numerous parties with vastly differing viewpoints (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, don’t tend to last very long).

Here’s a look at the three main electoral alliances in the running this time around, and the parties within them, as well as a few other contenders you may hear about in the news:

  • Centre-right

The so-called centre-right or ‘centrodestra’ alliance is led by the hard-right Brothers of Italy, the biggest party in Italy according to the latest opinion polls, along with the populist League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

These three heavyweights, predicted to take around 45 percent of the vote between them, have now been joined by a grouping of smaller, more moderate parties – a coalition within a coalition, if you will – who are running under one list.

This list is named Noi Moderati (‘we moderates’), and is made up of the following small parties: UDC, Coraggio Italia, Noi con Italia and Italia nel centro. 

Altogether, the ‘centrodestra’ alliance is essentially the same one that came close to winning the last election in 2018.

  • Centre-left

On the other side of the ring sits Italy’s second-largest party: the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is polling just behind FdI but hasn’t formed similar powerful alliances that would make it a credible challenge to a right-wing landslide.

The centre-left alliance, called the PD-IDP, is made up of four different lists, or groupings of similar small parties:

    • Democrats and Progressives (PD along with Article 1 and Socialists)
    • Più Europa (a grouping of small pro-European parties)
    • L’Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra (Greens and Italian Left, an alliance known as AVS)
    • Impegno Civico (IC leader Luigi Di Maio is heading a list including candidates from two other small parties: Centro Democratico and Psdi, the Italian Democratic Socialist Party.)

All these parties together are currently expected to take around 32-34 percent of the vote.

  • ‘Third pole’

After breaking an agreement to ally with PD, centrist party Azione formed a pact with Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva to create a third alliance, which they called “a third pole” and described as a “pragmatic alternative to the bi-populism of the right and left”.

The two are currently running together along with a smaller party, Lista Civica Nazionale.

The so-called A-IV alliance is currently polling at five percent.

  • Five Star Movement

Now led by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the populist Five Star Movement is the only major party running alone.

The party is significantly diminished since it shot to power on the protest vote in 2018. 

After several years of hemorrhaging support and recently splitting as former leader Di Maio left to form his own party, Impegno Civico (which is running as part of the centre-left coalition), M5S is expected to take around ten percent of the vote – sharply down from 32 percent in the 2018 elections.

Who else is out there?

There are currently dozens of new and unaffiliated parties out there, though very few are likely to reach the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot.

Some of the more notable smaller parties and movements could take a small share of the vote each – though it’s unlikely to be enough for them to obtain representation in parliament.

The better-known of these parties include single-issue parties like Italexit (Eurosceptic), which is currently polling at three percent.

There’s also the Partito Gay (campaigning for LGBTQ rights) as well as anti-establishment groups such as the Movimento Gilet Arancioni (Orange Vests Movement), while many of Italy’s most prominent politicians, such as current health minister Roberto Speranza, also lead their own small parties.

Find all the latest news on Italy’s election race here.