Dispatch

The Demolition Man Hits a Wall

Has Matteo Renzi lost his mojo?

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ROME — Last September, five months after he became prime minister, Matteo Renzi, with great fanfare, launched a website called Passo Dopo Passo (“Step by Step”). The site was intended to track Renzi’s progress on his many reform pledges during his first 1,000 days in office. But by late November, freelance reporter Alberto Crepaldi noticed something disconcerting: After just a few short months, Passo Dopo Passo had fallen into disrepair.

The latest update in the politics section, on a speech Renzi gave in London, was 50 days old at the time. The website’s section on justice hadn’t been touched since Aug. 21, making no mention of several major corruption scandals that had since hit Rome, including some involving members of Renzi’s own party.

There was one part of the website that remained up to date, Crepaldi wrote, tongue-in-cheek: The clock on the bottom of the homepage ticked on, mercilessly counting down the minutes until Renzi’s first 1,000 days were up.

Could a dusty website be a symptom of fatigue? A sign that energy and youth are not a credible alternative to a sound strategy to create jobs? That Renzi’s penchant for trendy shirts (his casual, white button-downs and disdain for jackets are a constant topic of discussion among Italy’s fashion press) cannot alone drag the country out of a stagnation that has now lasted more than 25 years, depriving an entire generation of la dolce vita?

Matteo Renzi turned 40 on Jan. 11. A former boy scout and member of the centrist Christian Democracy party — hardly the sort of background that appeals to Italy’s traditional communist left — Renzi still managed to energize his dispirited party base when he ran for leadership of the Partito Democratico (PD) in 2013, taking on unions, intellectuals, progressive pundits, and, most of all, Italian politics-as-usual. He won, and within a matter of weeks of becoming PD leader, he took down Prime Minister Enrico Letta, and assumed his seat in the Palazzo Chigi — becoming the youngest Italian prime minister ever, a youthful figure in gerontocratic Rome.

Any questions about Renzi petering out are dismissed by his aides with smiles and guffaws. At a recent meeting of the PD in early December, Renzi told his party headquarters he has no plans to slow down, boasting of looming “concrete reforms”: for instance, the recently passed “Sblocca Italia” (“Unlock Italy”) infrastructure spending bill, meant to support Italian companies hit by falling domestic demand, and his Jobs Act, a centerpiece of the Renzi campaign, aimed at revitalizing the country’s rigid job market.

But the man who came into office pledging to pass a reform each month in his quest to revive Italy faces a battle that is looking more uphill than ever. The figures on Italian unemployment remain awful: 13.4 percent, a sorry record set in November. (Youth unemployment, meanwhile, has reached a stunning 43.9 percent.)

Polls still show that a large percentage of Italians support the prime minister, but he’s been slipping: from 54 percent in a November 2014 poll to 49 percent in December. And yet the Italian establishment is still solidly behind the former mayor of Florence: “Italy’s troubles date back 40 years. You cannot expect Mr. Renzi to solve them in just 11 months,” said Ferdinando Beccalli-Falco, the CEO of General Electric Europe, in his recent lecture opening the academic year at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca. Beccalli-Falco’s sentiments are widely shared here, but the chatter among the traditionally skeptical Italian political press remains: Has Renzi lost his mojo?

Renzi’s plans to simplify Italy’s arduous legislative process, in order to make it easier to pass necessary reforms, have themselves been bogged down in the country’s quagmire of a parliament. Renzi’s Jobs Act, aimed at energizing Italy’s ossified labor market, enraged the unions, spurring them to a call for a general strike Dec. 12. Renzi managed to outfox the militant left by appealing directly to the young and unemployed, who are most hurt by the laws that protect Italy’s union workers. But now he has to deliver results — and it will not be easy.

Italy is the only Western country that has failed to make forward progress since the 2008 financial crisis. The country slipped back into recession earlier this year: GDP contracted 0.1 percent in the third quarter of 2014, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics. The post-2008 years are a particularly grim note at the end of a brutal period: Since the third quarter of 2011, Italy has posted zero or negative growth in every quarter. Over a sober dinner with Tony Blair on Nov. 27 — Britain’s Daily Mail called it “hardly a bunga bunga party” — Renzi chatted with the former Labour leader about how he dealt with midterm stumbles. Blair was gracious, but of course he did not have to launch his own reforms — he just rode the wave of growth generated by Lady Thatcher’s union-busting and deregulation. Renzi cannot surf: He has to reform the country.

In theory, Renzi ought to have the space to implement his agenda. The radical left in his party, though fascinated by the anti-austerity challenge Alexis Tsipras is mounting in Greece, remains in check, still too impressed by the 40 percent support the premier got in the European elections to unhorse him. And Renzi faces no serious political competition: Italians had once bet on maverick former comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose Five Star Movement won as much as 25 percent of the vote in the inconclusive 2013 political elections that ended in the Letta premiership. But Grillo failed to realize that voters were merely protesting the corruption within the establishment, not endorsing the Five Star platform, which at times focused on bizarre issues. (Five Star Congressman Luigi Gallo, for instance, proposed a bill to make it mandatory for all Italian students to attend daily mandolin classes.) Support has since dropped off — in regional elections in November, the party polled at just 5 percent in the bellwether region of Calabria, down from 23 percent — and more than two dozen senators and congressmen have defected to Renzi’s PD.

Silvio Berlusconi, meanwhile, ever-present, has played it cool, cautiously avoiding a frontal assault on his younger rival. Berlusconi will not be able to run in the general elections, scheduled for 2018 — his judicial troubles continue — and so, he is content, for now, with the status quo. True, the Young Turks in his party, led by Apulian Congressman Raffaele Fitto, dream of a New Right, but they lack charisma and a leader with a national profile. Former Banca Intesa CEO Corrado Passera, a former minister in the cabinet of Mario Monti (prime minister from 2011 to 2013), wants to stage a bid unify the center-right around his newly born party, Italia Unica, but needs time to muster a coalition.

So Renzi has an open field, at least in theory. The only enemy that remains, alas, is reality, stupid — or, in the words of journalist Federico Fubini, writing in La Repubblica: “The real opposition to Renzi is the economy.”

In this battle at least, Renzi is well-served by a Clintonian knack for taming his opponents and a Reagan-esque gut feeling for the country’s moods. Italians pine for jobs, optimism, and an end to 25 years of pointless, unproductive war between the country’s left and right. Here, Renzi shines: His charming personality is positive and infectious. But he has struggled to deliver on his pro-growth plans. Not that he shoulders the brunt of the blame: The whole of Europe is stuck in a cycle of deflation, unemployment, and recession, while populist agendas flourish everywhere on fears of technology and immigration. Renzi is aware that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan for 315 billion euros in investment, mostly earmarked for infrastructure, sounds more like a Ponzi scheme concocted by Eurocrats than an economic strategy. And so Renzi bides his time, hoping that the European Central Bank’s stimulus policy will eventually rescue the EU’s economy.

Italy’s widely respected president, Giorgio Napolitano, has indicated he will resign in mid-January. That will make holding early elections in the spring, which would have secured Renzi a longer hold on power, a non-option: It will be impossible to hold the elections before the new president is chosen, and it seems unlikely that Renzi would ask whoever is chosen to dissolve parliament and call for early elections as the first act of his or her administration. Then again, the energetic premier has never been known for being predictable.

“The old guard does not get how Matteo makes up his mind. He talks to a lot of people, listens to many suggestions, leaks a few ballons d’essai (trial balloons) to confuse the press, then decides alone, shortly before the official deadline,” one of Renzi’s closest advisors explained in an interview.

After Federica Mogherini, his former minister for foreign affairs, became the EU’s foreign-policy chief, Renzi at first seemed to favor his longtime ally Lapo Pistelli to be foreign minister, the advisor said. Then, the job seemed sure to go to Marina Sereni, a PD veteran. With only a couple of days to go before the nomination was due, the name of Lia Quartapelle, a 32-year-old Ph.D. in international studies and a junior member of the House, was leaked — a move that would have boosted Renzi’s credentials as “Rottamatore,” or the “Demolition Man,” scourge of the old ruling class. Columnists scrambled to read Quartapelle’s dissertation — on African economics — and then Renzi nominated Paolo Gentiloni.

Gentiloni, 60, is a grizzled veteran of the environmental movement, the scion of a prominent Catholic family, and a former deputy mayor of Rome and minister of communications who now holds staunchly pro-American views and favors a strong pro-NATO Europe. Renzi decided he was the right man for the job and bet on him anyway. He will again decide — alone and in the wee hours, most likely — on his candidate for president of the republic.

Appointments aside, Renzi’s energy will not be enough to save Italy. He must create jobs or attract investments — especially in the country’s economically moribund south. Innovation lags by any European standard and a brain drain has left behind a ruling class that is provincial and prone to corruption. Italy lags in technology, the digital divide is still massive, not enough scientists and engineers graduate each year, and many of those who do look for work abroad. This is a recipe for irreversible decline.

Because he faces no serious opposition, Renzi is almost guaranteed certain victories: Ultimately, he will elect a president of his choice, steer a new electoral law through parliament, and tame what is left of Grillo’s hapless army. For the next six months he will be Italy’s master — but then time will run out. His political talent may keep him in office; Italians may still decide he is the lesser evil. But his ambitions and energy to jump-start the nation will wane.

Nor will the opposition be forever dormant. Eventually, the Italian right, Berlusconi’s old fiefdom, will coalesce around a new leader and platform. Meanwhile, on the fringe, new figures are trying to ride the anti-European waves. Matteo Salvini, the new leader of the populist, far-right Northern League, rescued the party from oblivion after corruption charges took down its founder; he now plans to try to import Marine Le Pen’s winning formula from France to Italy, focusing his fire on “Brussels’s stinginess.” Salvini is a fiery figure on talk shows, and has brought a renewed energy to the far right. During the recent local elections in Emilia-Romagna, Salvini’s car was attacked by leftists while he campaigned against Gypsies. The outrage that followed and the lingering populist resentment convinced at least 30,000 voters to switch their allegiance from PD to the Northern League, a sign that Renzi’s supporters may be as prone to deserting him for a talk-show-ready leader and an anti-foreigner platform as anyone on the right should he fail to deliver real changes.

After the news broke about Renzi’s defunct website, Filippo Sensi, the cabinet spokesman and popular blogger, reacted immediately, that the website would be run attentively from then on. (It has since been cleaned up and briskly updated.) Alas, resurrecting Passo Dopo Passo was easy. To restart Italy in 2015 will be far more difficult. In 2013, while the country was mesmerized by Grillo or betting on the fortunes of a Letta technocratic cabinet, I bet that Matteo Renzi was the guy to watch. But now he has to run fast and act faster.

As a Florentine, of course, Renzi has read his Machiavelli. Fortune is fickle for politicians, even at 40, or dressed in well-tailored white shirts.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

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