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Will the Tony Blair of Italian Politics Get the Country Out of Its Slump?

Matteo Renzi was appointed Prime Minister last week, making him Italy's youngest ever leader.

by Leonardo Bianchi
21 February 2014, 7:00am

Matteo Renzi at the 2013 Democratic Party national assembly (Photo by Federico Tribbioli)

Last week, after a pretty dull couple of months, Italy's political landscape was rattled back into action. On Friday, following an internal party coup, Prime Minister Enrico Letta – a member of the Democratic Party – resigned after less than a year in office.

Letta's coalition government was formed by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano after none of the country's three main political parties – Berlusconi's People of Freedom, the Democratic Party and former comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement – won a majority of votes in last year's February elections. Unsurprisingly, teaming Berlusconi's centre-right party with Letta's centre-left organisation created a few problems – something the former prime minister told press he could handle six months before he resigned.

Of course, it turned out that he couldn't handle those problems. Now, Matteo Renzi – the Mayor of Florence and Secretary of the Democratic Party – has been appointed by President Napolitano to form a new government, making him Italy's youngest ever prime minister. It's news that the Italian press haven't taken particularly well, with some accusing Renzi and his potential new ministers of being puppets for Carlo De Benedetti, one of Italy's most prominent entrepreneurs, Berlusconi's historical rival and owner of Italy's second most-read newspaper, La Repubblica.

Enrico Letta at the 2013 Democratic Party national assembly (Photo by Federico Tribbioli)

The public aren't too likely to welcome Renzi as their new prime minister with open arms, either. Following Letta and technocrat Mario Monti before him, the 39-year-old is the third consecutive leader appointed by the authorities rather than by the public vote. His coming to power might be legal and legitimate, but the Italian people haven't had a say in the matter, and even members of his own party are questioning whether Renzi has the political maturity to succeed.

Born in 1975, Renzi started his political career in a small, Christian, centre-oriented party, before progressing into the moderate centre-left Italian People's Party. From 2004 to 2009 he was the President of the Province of Florence, and in June of 2009 was appointed mayor of the city. With that, he instantly became a household name and soon began to grow popular among the Italian media.

In 2010, by now a member of the Democratic Party for a year or so, he directly attacked his own party's leaders, accusing them of corruption.

His pledge to drag his party into the modern age earned him the nickname "Il Rottamatore" (the demolisher), and from then on Renzi was able to garner the support of artists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, as well as earning him a larger fan base within the party, especially among the younger contingent. Distancing himself from the traditional flamboyance of Italian politics, Renzi prefers to present himself as a great communicator and a pragmatic policy-maker. He wants to be the change – the new voice of Italian politics who will wipe out the country's old guard and restore the country to its pre-recession glory.

Silvio Berlusconi in November of 2013 (Photo by Federico Tribbioli)

During his last campaign for the primary elections in 2013, Renzi took inspiration from Barack Obama in his slogans and speeches (the New York Times even called him the “Italian-style Obama”). He has also often quoted and praised Tony Blair and his New Labour concept, using him as a point of reference for how sees the future of left-wing politics in Italy.

The return praise followed soon after, first from David Miliband, who, on Tuesday, tweeted that "Matteo Renzi has earned his chance. He is intelligent and passionate about Italy's needs. New new Labour." Then, on Monday, Tony Blair himself weighed in, telling Italian news agency ANSA that "the challenges are formidable, but Matteo has the dynamism, the creativity and the strength to overcome them".

I don't know whether I agree with Miliband – that Renzi represents an Italian incarnation of new Labour – but Blair certainly has a point: the challenges really are formidable. The general situation in Italy is bad and getting worse; the public deficit is up to €2.1 trillion, the economic crisis wiped out hundreds of thousands of companies, fiscal pressure is among the highest in the world, the unemployment rate is stuck at 12.7 percent and youth unemployment is at 41.6 percent.  

On Sunday, as soon as he had been appointed, Renzi set out an ambitious timetable of "urgent" financial and political reforms. But despite starting out with some optimistic promises, he still faces the same parliamentary majority that tore apart every one of Letta's attempts to pull the country out its slump. And if he fails to deliver on his "radical changes", we could see the situation becoming even harder to deal with. In fact, Italian historian Guido Crainz believes the static nature of Italy's political climate "could further sharpen the country’s detachment from politics, provoking a complete distrust that is a deadly element for a democracy".

Beppe Grillo in December of 2013 (Photo by Davide Pambianchi)

It's no surprise that Italians are putting an increasing amount of confidence in populist movements that blame the Italian financial crisis on the EU and the euro. According to a recent poll on the upcoming May elections, Grillo and Berlusconi's parties – both of which are staunchly anti-EU – are picking up more support. The Democratic Party would still take first place, with 27.6 percent of the vote, but is followed closely by Grillo's Five Star Movement (25.4 percent) and Berlusconi's People of Freedom (24.3 percent).

For now, the new Premier is busy drafting his new list of ministers and conducting talks with other parties, hoping to establish an agreement that would allow his government to reach the end of the current legislature in 2018. If he'll manage to do so is still up for debate, and the latest stats and figures aren't in his favour; on Monday, Fitch Ratings agency kept Italy on a "negative credit rating outlook" because of the "uncertainty about the durability of (Italian) governments and their capacity for structural reform and fiscal consolidation".

Ultimately, though, only the next few months will tell us if the "demolition man" can save Italy, or whether he'll turn out to be yet another narcissistic, power-hungry politician throwing the country to the dogs at the altar of ambition. 

Follow Leonardo on Twitter: @captblicero