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Will Matteo Renzi be Italy's saviour?

The new prime minister promises an ambitious agenda, but he faces an uphill struggle.

Last updated: 07 Mar 2014 12:39
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At age 39, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is the youngest leader in the nation's modern history [AP]

Rome, Italy - Matteo Renzi's rise to the top of Italian politics has been nothing short of spectacular.

The former mayor of the medieval city of Florence, Renzi has billed himself as a man of swift action and big words. With his signature style rolled-up sleeves and no-nonsense banter, Renzi has made no secret of his contempt for the murky politics of Rome, with its backroom deals and a political class detached from the people it should serve. Yet Renzi entered this same political class through just such a Machiavellian backroom deal by ousting his own party's premier, Enrico Letta. 

In the subsequent cabinet reshuffle, Renzi, who at age 39 is the youngest leader in the nation's modern history, named a government that is both young and gender-equal, consisting of eight men and eight women. Despite earlier promises to not become a leader without elections, Renzi did just that - and continues with the same narrow parliamentary majority that Letta did. But Renzi's main message is that of change. 

"Renzi's idea is that everyone else has failed - the right, the left, the elected as well as the technocratic governments. He thinks he and his young cabinet are Italy's last and only hope," said Giovanni Orsina of Rome's LUISS School of Government. Renzi has managed to create a cult of personality, said Orsina, coming across as a young, energetic doer. But it is ultimately his deeds that will determine his success. 

Renzi's agenda 

Renzi has promised a reform agenda whose timeframe is so unrealistic that no political commentator in Italy has taken it seriously. He promised one sweeping reform per month, starting with changing Italy's unconstitutional electoral law, followed by restructuring Italy's rigid labour market. By the end of April, he has pledged to tackle the country's bloated public administration, and in May to introduce comprehensive tax reform. 

Italians divided over Renzi's ability to lead

"He has produced a long list of big goals which he claims he can achieve in a very short period of time. Experience tells us that Italian national politics just does not move that fast," said Duncan McDonnell of the European University Institute in Florence. He argues that Renzi will need the support of the still-popular right-wing leader Silvio Berlusconi to realise many of his biggest reforms.

"Will Berlusconi be as willing to play ball with Renzi as prime minister as he was when Renzi was outside the government? That's a huge question," McDonnell said.

For Renzi, the most important reforms are also the most difficult ones. Italy's economy, while showing some signs of recovery, is still among the worst-performing in the industrialised world, with a public debt in excess of 2 tn euros ($2.75tn). To boost economic growth, analysts say Renzi needs to liberalise the labour market, lower the cost of labour, cut both corporate and consumer tax rates, and revive the flow of credit to the small- and medium-sized enterprises that form the backbone of Italy's economy.

In order to liberalise the labour market, Renzi needs to go against many vested interests and the country's powerful unions, not to mention against the wishes of many in his own party. To do the rest, he needs money he doesn't have. And all the while, Brussels is watching his every move to make sure he doesn't exceed the 3 percent budget deficit limit mandated by the eurozone.

"Italy will ask Europe for more flexibility, which Europe will only give if it sees real reforms," predicts Orsina. He said Renzi could not rebel against European-led austerity, noting that France has also had to succumb, despite French President Francois Hollande's campaign rhetoric against such policies during his presidential campaign.

According to Orsina, Italy needs to radically reform its political institutions. "This country has too many rules, it has layers upon layers of rules. Politics and institutions penetrate too many spheres of life. This paralyses and restrains people."

Words alone cannot save Italy

Renzi is undoubtedly a skilful orator whose style has been compared both to Tony Blair and Barack Obama. But Italians are tired of hearing promises after promises - they want results. 

"He can talk all he wants, but I think that's all there is to him. Just because he's young and a good speaker does not mean he can fix this mess," said 26-year-old Fabio, a medical science student from Rome. 

Italy's Renzi expected to lay out electoral reforms

"Renzi's government has a paper-thin majority in the Senate [Italy's upper chamber]. He can stay in power only by forming alliances and keeping everyone happy. This means compromises, not radical reforms. I like the fact that he's young and does not speak like other politicians, but that won't change anything," predicted Cristina, a 32-year-old lawyer from Milan. 

Despite promises to serve a full term in office, Renzi's government will have a hard time surviving. It does not have the necessary majority to implement far-reaching reforms, except for perhaps electoral reform, on which there is a tacit agreement between him and Berlusconi. In the absence of results, Renzi would become weak and vulnerable to attacks both from Berlusconi as well as from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

"I just don't see how the Renzi government will stay in office until 2018. My bet is that, once an electoral law is passed, the various major players - especially Renzi himself if the poll ratings are good - will be seeking an election. In fact, I'd be very surprised if we got to the end of 2015 without a general election," said McDonnell.

Orsina agreed. "Italy is very disillusioned, very sceptical. It won't forgive Renzi if he fails to deliver concrete results. I hope Renzi will be Italy's saviour, but I am extremely sceptical."

Renzi is aware of the huge expectations placed on him, and has promised to bow out if he fails.

"This government has no alibis," he himself has said. "If we succeed, we will have done our duty. If we fail, it will be our own fault."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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