Matteo Renzi, challenger for the leadership of the Italian Democratic Party, and Pierluigi Bersani, current Leader, had a set-to on the television last night. For well over an hour in front of an invited studio audience and an enormous public at home they presented their reasons for leading the political party most likely to be elected in March next year. At Angels' Towers shouting at the telly made an unexpected return.
It is hard to think these men are from the same party, indeed from the same century. Renzi was elegantly dressed, elegantly spoken and outstandingly straightforward and extensive in his statements and his answers to questions; it is his good fortune to have the beautiful, formal yet intimate Italian of the Florentines at their best - carrying allusions, inclusions, examples, jokes, cruel teases, and great amounts of complex information in economical and telling phrases, a mode of speaking that is best exemplified today by Benigni [yes, I know, but he's an honorary citizen of Florence, ed.] expounding Dante on present-day politics - but it wasn't just his rhetorical gifts that made Bersani look and sound so old and slow. Bersani is old and slow.
The patent contrast between the two was vivid: one positively bouncing with vitality, ideas, analyses, commitment, willingness to salute but then set aside ancient shibboleths and commanding hights of the Left; the other fending off past failure with all the empty words and blocky hand gestures we know so well. When the cameras panned to Bersani while Renzi was speaking, Bersani would be copiously drinking water (at least I hope it was water, otherwise his slowness might have other explanation) peering through his halfmoons at acres of notes, wiping his face with his hankie, putting his hand under his voluminously cut soviet gents' suiting to massage his aching back; his every remark was preceded by 'In my opinion.... let me say here..... I remember meeting a little child who's hope was for a dolly for Christmas and her mother's job returned.....' Meanwhile Renzi was saying:
'Cut taxes, end the state funding of political parties, stop demonising debt reduction measures, recognise the claims of our children not to pay for our self indulgence, realise we cannot retire early and have the longest life expectancy in the world, modernise representation in the workplace, reform the institutions of the European Union so that we can be democratically in control of decisions there - proud to be Europeans and proud to be Italians, aid the needy but not by feeding corruption and corrupted elites, .......And then, addressing Bersani directly as 'Compagno Bersani' [compagno - the correct form of address for an Italian communist, ed.] Renzi stated the requirement for the older party members, those who Rosy Bindi has, unforgivably, called 'indispensible', to retire from the Parliament and from Party office. Despite years and years in power they have never brought tax evasion, criminality and corruption to book and now they seek alliances with politicians and parties marked by involvement in the prolungation of these evils.
The other highlight came in the section on foreign affairs in which Renzi stated flatly that the treatment of women in Mediterranean countries, particularly the north African Mediterranean countries and their particular cultures, was no longer tolerable. It is bad enough in Italy where more than 100 women have been killed by those in their domestic circle since the beginning of this year; but the ending of cultural violence inflicted on women must be a central part of Italian and, thus European, foreign policy.
At the end Bersani did not move from his podium but Renzi bounded across to him, offered his hand and gave him a big hug. Bersani should take a step back this week, ask his aging supporters to vote Renzi on Sunday, and receive the credit and respect that will only be his with a last act in favour of ensuring the election next year of a respectable, reformed democratic Party.