Italy's new 39-year-old prime minister is in a race against time to save his country. Will Rome destroy him first?
In 1994, a nerdy-looking, bespectacled, 19-year-old kid wearing a suit way too big for him staged an impressive run on the Italian version of the American TV show Wheel of Fortune. Racking up correct answer after correct answer, the kid took home 48,000,000 Italian lira — at the time, about $40,000 — and even charmed the show’s host, TV veteran Mike Bongiorno, with his easy confidence: "Of course this kid has a way with words," Bongiorno cried. "He’s from Florence, guys!"
You can still enjoy the clip on YouTube, knowing that this affable kid is Matteo Renzi — the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, who was sworn in Feb. 22 as Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister. Renzi will beat even Benito Mussolini: Il Duce was also 39 when he came to power, but Renzi squeaks in at just a few weeks younger. His suits fit much better now.
Renzi’s critics call him a lightweight — one with no ideas or a well-conceived plan. His supporters see a young dynamo who could finally lift the malaise hanging over Italy. His career has moved so fast — just 10 years between his election as president of the province of Florence to prime minister — that his actual politics can be difficult to pin down. Some see in him a young Clinton or Blair, seeking to create a pragmatic left in Italy; others, including many in his own Democratic Party, see him as a Berlusconi clone in disguise, ready to sell them out to the forces they’ve fought against for decades.
What is clear is that, whatever direction he plans to take Italy in, Renzi wants to move fast — "to sweep away the old encrustations of Italian politics," as Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor at the LUISS School of Government in Rome, told me. "He knows the bureaucrats will bleed him white if he does not rein them in, and he will."
Italian media can’t help but view Renzi through the lens of his outsized personality: his bright white shirts, his beloved leather jacket (comedian turned political activist Beppe Grillo calls him "Renzie" — a play off the name of the Happy Days‘ character "Fonzie"), and the tremendous ambition he makes no attempts to conceal. The newspaper Corriere della Sera sent a reporter to his old high school, and the reporter came back reporting that even then, Renzi "inflated so many stories the other kids would call him La Bomba." As a character, Renzi is indeed fascinating — a new brand of politician in Italy: direct, brazen, with a what-me-worry attitude.
"Matteo has sharp elbows and rough manners," explains one grizzled leftist veteran now backing Renzi. "Italian politics is mean, but there used to be a code of conduct. The prime minister would knife you in the back, but not without saying, ‘After you, dear.’" And, of course, he would secure you a plum job afterward to cushion the blow.
Renzi, a married father of three, offers no such fig leafs to those he has cast out, and he makes no pretense of humility. For years, he has preached the rough gospel of rottamare, or "wreck them now!," gleefully ripping apart an older generation of leaders on both the left and right who have long been viewed as obsolete and ossified. He has sparred with Massimo D’Alema, a powerful former prime minister and leader in the Communist party; when it came time to choose a cabinet, he ousted the widely-respected Emma Bonino from her position as foreign minister, choosing instead the much younger Federica Mogherini. The Renzi cabinet would not contain anyone who might be considered a member of the old guard.
In a country that shuns ambition, "Renzi says, ‘I want to be leader. I want to be prime minister,’" the same veteran told me. "No shyness at all." In public appearances, Renzi brings new energy to the crowd, cracking jokes and peppering his speech with slang, all in his brash Florentine tongue. One Saturday in mid-February, on his last day in Florence before leaving for Rome, a supporter rushed up to Renzi at the soccer stadium where he was watching his beloved Fiorentina lose 2-1 to Inter Milan, "Matteo, Matteo, you are Italy’s last hope!" the man cried. Many Italian politicians might have seized the occasion for a bit of pomposity; Renzi instead cracked a wry smile: "Then we are ruined, buddy."
Yet, tempting as it is, to focus too much on Renzi’s frenzied charisma is to miss the point. Renzi is the first leftist leader to come of age in a post-Berlusconi world — the first with the chance to run Italy without building his entire political strategy around Il Cavaliere. For two decades, the Italian left fought an all-encompassing crusade against Silvio Berlusconi and all he stood for: materialism, decadence, anti-intellectualism. Now, their leader is a man who claims to actively enjoy the enemy’s TV shows.
Since taking the helm as prime minister for the first time in 1994, Berlusconi has been the focus of a sort of pathological political obsession for Italy’s center-left. Consider the example of the long-planned Strait of Messina bridge project, which would unite Italy and Sicily. For years, it was understood as a progressive darling that would generate jobs, help boost growth in the poorer south, and modernize Sicily’s economy. Leftist economists like former Prime Minister Romano Prodi endorsed the idea — and then Berlusconi gave it his stamp of approval 15 years ago. Suddenly, the poor Strait of Messina bridge was anathema. Cooler heads on the left, like Prodi and President Giorgio Napolitano, could not restrain those who looked at the bridge proposal and saw only Berlusconi. The fight raged for years; the bridge was never built; the money the European Union allocated to Italy for "special projects" never invested.
Renzi came on the scene at the tail end of all this and carries none of this baggage. Elected president of the province of Florence in 2004, he didn’t become a national figure until 2009, when he was chosen mayor of the city of Florence, hometown of Dante, Machiavelli, and Emilio Pucci. Renzi does not believe in two Italys: Guelfi pro-Berlusconi, Ghibellini anti-Berlusconi. Up to a third of Italians voted for Berlusconi at the peak of his power; even today, even after Berlusconi has been sentenced to prison and even stripped of his passport, his Forza Italia party enjoys support from almost a quarter of voters in the polls. Where past leftist leaders turned up their noses at this chunk of the electorate, Renzi welcomes them and makes clear that he doesn’t see them all as tax evaders, Mafiosi, or seducers of teenagers. He understands how to speak to the center-right: He appeals to them as professionals who can help boost Italy’s economy. He knows how to gently admonish the left, telling them that the days of crazy populist ideas are in the past and that it’s time to restore good sense. He has embraced previously unthinkable notions: that Italian taxes are way too high, that European fiscal policy must be more flexible (former prime ministers Mario Monti and Enrico Letta supported EU-backed austerity measures), that unions must negotiate less rigid contracts. Barbara Spinelli, a leading leftist columnist at La Repubblica, has even gone so far as to claim that Renzi’s grand plan is a "Great Alliance" with Berlusconi.
Renzi’s signature legislative pledge, the "Jobs Act" — Italian politicians often adopt English to give a dusting of modernity to old ideas — is meant to modernize the country’s notoriously sclerotic job market. Despite the best reform efforts of Prime Minister Monti in 2012, it remains near impossible for companies to hire new people when the economy improves, because rigid tax laws and contracts still provide, on paper, job security for life. The result is youth unemployment at 40 percent and, in parts of the south, 60 percent for young women. Job security on paper has meant a precarious life for millions of Italians. Yet companies and unions often shun reforms, preferring to give the edge to incumbents rather than liberalizing in a way that would give job seekers and start-ups a foothold. The Jobs Act will be a bellwether for the Renzi premiership: If it passes within the year it will be a triumph; if it is buried in congress, a crushing defeat.
For 20 years Berlusconi promised reforms, and never delivered. Now it will be up to Renzi. He lost his first run at the primaries to be leader of the Democratic Party: Veteran Pier Luigi Bersani, backed by the party’s cadres, defeated him soundly in 2012. Last December, however, after inconclusive February elections had left the government divided and had weakened Bersani’s leadership, Renzi ran again. This time he won with a resounding 68.1 percent of the votes. He won in Tuscany, in Emilia-Romagna, in Marche — all strongholds of the old Communist Party. These places shunned Renzi in the 2012 primaries, flocking to the party stalwart. After the disappointment at the 2013 elections, however, even the most die-hard leftists accepted that the country had moved on and — grudgingly — voted for a new approach.
For a couple of months, Renzi, as party leader, and Enrico Letta, as prime minister, seemed resigned to the arrangement: two grumpy roommates, barely talking to one another. It was, you could say, not an alliance built to last. Renzi, always in a hurry, did not want to squander his popularity by deferring to Letta’s cool technocratic style. Many in the country, it seems, agreed: Confindustria (a pro-business lobby), the unions, and even mainstream columnists all began to gnaw at Letta until he finally quit in mid-February, after 10 months in office.
Now the challenge is on young Matteo’s shoulders. He gambled, he won, and now he has to rise to the occasion. He has the people for it; his youthful team is star-studded and well-organized and reflects his own pragmatism. Maria Elena Boschi, a 33-year-old lawyer, is in charge of writing a comprehensive plan for a variety of reforms, from high-profile changes to Italy’s electoral law to a plan to ax Italy’s venerable Senate. Her looks often prove a distraction for crusty old reporters (she has been subjected to a wave of sexist nicknames: "Miss Parliament," "The Jaguar"), but she is solid as a rock and a tough negotiator. At 53, Graziano Delrio, former mayor of Reggio Emilia and secretary of regional affairs under Letta, is slighter older than the typical renziani but is valued for his steady support and, as the first non-Communist mayor of Reggio since 1945, shares Renzi’s moderate view of the future — something like the Third Way that won the day 20 years ago in the United States and Britain. Many were surprised in Rome when Renzi selected Filippo Sensi, a popular Roman blogger, as his spokesperson. A shy, retired journalist who is tremendously knowledgeable about foreign affairs and is unabashedly pro-American, Sensi shares Renzi’s liberal views. He has also been tough on Iran and more pro-Israel than the average European leftist.
For all their brilliance, Renzi and his team have a tough spring ahead. In Parliament they’ll have to grapple with Angelino Alfano on the center-right, fend off Grillo’s challenge, and unify a turbulent Democratic Party. Renziani are still a tiny minority in Congress; Renzi will have to play alongside former Democratic Party leader Dario Franceschini, who is still close with many congressmen and senators. Once nominated, Renzi will have to keep his promises: "I will pass a reform each month" he has boasted. This means passing election reforms — supported by Berlusconi — that give Italians a clearer say in who governs them and enacting his Jobs Act to stimulate Italy’s listless economy. Another important test will come in the fight around reforms designed to curb Italy’s profligate local governments and give Rome final say over taxes and spending.
The real test of Renzi’s leadership will not be how white his shirts get, how well he can pull off a leather jacket, or whether he can make crowds laugh. He will live or die based on his success with reforming the economy. The stakes are high. The country has been virtually without growth for more than a generation. Italian productivity still lags behind that of the rest of Europe. Public debt remains at more than 130 percent of GDP. Only about a third of Italy’s medium-sized companies sell to the global market — most of them are relegated to the domestic market due to their poor-quality goods, poor management, and a lack of international connections. Should Renzi fail, Italy will see a rise in populism — the leftist version of Grillo — or the new concoction Berlusconi is brewing on the right. Renzi must keep his eyes on reforms — the holy grail that Berlusconi always promised but never delivered. If he loses focus, the status quo will eat him alive.
Almost a year ago, on this website, when he was still reeling from his 2012 primary defeat, I predicted that Renzi would be prime minister soon: "If the idea was to go back to the Renaissance after all," the April 2013 article read, "why not with a prince from Florence at the helm?" But even I didn’t quite know how soon.
Alas, he will not have time to enjoy the ride. Even at 39, time is not on your side when you sit in hot Palazzo Chigi, where more than 60 cabinets have rotated in and out since 1945. Will Renzi be able to reverse course? He has only a few months to jump-start the old country, and then the Roman swamps will start bubbling again, menacingly.