Matteo Renzi: Wind of Change?

Some say his confidence is all he has; some say he is Italy’s Barack Obama. Matteo Renzi, Italy’s new Prime Minister, presents himself as a fresh breeze in the stale world of Italian politics. His determination got him the office through what really seemed like a coup de théâtre to the detriment of previous PM Enrico Letta (both politicians are members of the moderate, left wing Democratic Party). But if with great power comes great responsibility, Mr Renzi is taking a huge gamble.  He will have to face up to the major challenges of keeping the government stable and bringing significant reforms to country desperately in need. The stakes are as high as ever. Italy cannot afford another politician armed with empty promises and blinded by their thirst for power.

Image courtesy of Pallazochigi © 2014, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Pallazochigi © 2014, some rights reserved

At 39, Mr Renzi is welcomed with open arms to an environment that has always been predominantly gerontocratic, and in desperate need of generational change. The new Prime Minister speaks the language of social media and is promising radical reforms. Contrary to previews leaders of the Democratic Party (PD), he is not simply a former kingpin of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), or of the CGIL (Italy’s main trade union). Mr Renzi has vowed to move the PD towards the centre in order to cooperate more closely with the opposition and, at the same time, to gain some of the latter’s votes. While some have argued that he would be a more suitable member for a right wing or centre party, his vision could positively reform the Italian Left. In fact, while the claim that left wing parties in Italy do not have the capacity to govern is highly debatable, there is a widespread feeling in the country that, during the past twenty years, left wing parties have focused too much on accusing Mr Berlusconi of mismanagement, rather than on proposing effective alternatives.

Perhaps the most important reforms promised are the long overdue changes to the electoral law and the project to reform the Senate. Before becoming PM, Mr Renzi reached an agreement with Mr Berclusconi, who, despite having been expelled from the Parliament, is still the leader of one of Italy’s main parties (Forza Italia). The law is currently being discussed in the Parliament. Its principal points would give more power to the main parties, to the detriment of smaller parties. It would significantly limit the legislative power of the Senate, and it would reduce the number of parliamentarians from 945 to 630.

Such reform would reduce the unpopular “cost of politics”, simplify the now complicated legislative process, and break the pattern of instability that has characterised Italian governments since the end of the Cold War. Other reforms include relaxing the laws regulating the hiring and firing procedure, in order to encourage the many small industries to hire more (Italy has a 40% rate of youth unemployment), as well as starting the process of privatisation of the national postal service (if you have ever queued in an Italian post office you will understand the need).

His image as a herald of change and a fresh face, and his dynamism, are Mr Renzi’s strengths. However, they are also his major weaknesses. Despite his determination, he lacks experience. Mr Renzi’s quick rise is even more surprising when looking at his political career. Italy’s new PM has in fact never been elected in the Parliament; his latest position was the mayoralty of Florence. His only previous governing responsibility before that was the presidency of his province. In other words, Mr Renzi has gone from dealing with matters concerning public transport, kindergardens, and bike routes in a city with just 370 thousand inhabitants, to governing a country of almost 60 million people, which is desperately trying to drag itself out of the financial crisis, with a public debt that is second only to Greece.

Moreover, Mr Renzi’s good intentions fail to mask the fact that there is something not quite democratic in the way he became prime minister. As he first was elected head of the PD through open primary elections, meaning that even those who were not members of the party could vote, it is somewhat puzzling that he pushed for a vote of no confidence in Letta rather than for new parliamentary elections. As a result, the Renzi is inevitably stained through being the third president in three years without a popular mandate.

Mr Renzi will undoubtedly face tough obstacles, and his lack of experience will not be of little help. Since no elections have taken place, he will now have to govern with the same coalition that made things difficult for Mr Letta. His famously abrupt manners might not be effective diplomatic tools when negotiating with the leaders of the opposition. He will also have to bring change from within a system that seems to be structured against reform.

One of the causes of Italy’s continuous political instability lies in its constitution. Written after years of fascist dictatorship, it was designed to prevent the rise of a strong executive power. Power was given to the Parliament, where it was equally distributed between the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. While this system aimed at excluding the possibility of a new dictatorship, it also opened the door to fragmentation and instability. Yet, it is now evident that this system is not working and that Italy needs a strong leader. This could be the opportunity of a lifetime for Mr Renzi, and he knows it. But Italy is a country that needs results, and it needs them soon. Will he be able to live up to his promises? Italians have been waiting for change for a long time; has the time finally come?