No major country has gone through as many dramatic changes in recent years as Italy – and this weekend it went through one more. Matteo Renzi, the charismatic mayor of Florence and leader of the centre-left PD, has made his move. Still not 40, Renzi will almost certainly be Italy’s new prime minister. Half the age of Silvio Berlusconi and with none of the, shall we say, “baggage”, he could offer Italy the fresh start many believe it needs. He’s young, he’s charismatic and he’s popular. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot, actually.
For a start, while Renzi may be popular, his move to oust Enrico Letta is not. A poll last week suggested three quarters of Italians disapprove. Renzi’s desire to rule for four years without elections is unlikely to go down too well either. 2018 is a long way away. And while he may have gained the support of his party’s parliamentarians, the same cannot be said of his party. Perhaps most importantly, he will be hamstrung by the same parliamentary mathematics and electoral law as his predecessor.
Renzi is Italy’s third unelected prime minister in just three years. What’s more, he is the third leader the PD has had in 12 months. At last year’s election, Pierluigi Bersani was the front man before he was ditched for Letta. Renzi’s anointment may be constitutional but it is not necessarily right.
Then there are the problems of government. Italy’s economic crisis may not be as bad as it was but the underlying problems remain. How will Renzi deliver growth, bring down unemployment and modernise Italy? He is the man responsible now – and if it goes wrong he will be the one carrying the can.
Despite his age, Renzi has been the prince over the water for some time. He caught our eye back in 2010 when we named him one of our politicians to watch. As Italy’s main politicians have struggled to cope with the country’s economic crisis, Renzi’s stock has only grown. His age and his “otherness”, his anti-politics-as-usual shtick, has stood him in good stead.
And, oddly perhaps, this is where he shares some similarities with the man he is now being touted as the antidote to: Silvio Berlusconi. Both know how to communicate: Renzi is often pictured on his bike on in a small car, usually tie-less. Both have nicknames that the Italian press love to use (Renzi goes by the name of Il Rottamatore, or the scrapper. And both have set themselves up us outsiders; Berlusconi, remember, was the anti-politician back in 1994, a title he desperately tried to stick to despite his long stints as prime minister.
If Renzi is to succeed – and even Enrico Letta will hope he does – he will have to hope he also shares Berlusconi’s ability to survive, if not his willingness to connive.
Otherwise, As Gianni Riotta so perfectly put it on this weekend’s edition of The Foreign Desk, “The Roman swamps will swallow him in a matter of weeks”.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s foreign editor.