Renzi replaces letta as italian prime minister

Article published on Feb. 20, 2014
Article published on Feb. 20, 2014

After just ten months as prime min­is­ter, En­rico Letta is al­ready out. In comes Mat­teo Renzi. He has in­spired a vague sense of op­ti­mism, but this op­ti­mism over­looks the in­cove­nient truth that, just like his two pre­de­ces­sors, Renzi was not elected by the Ital­ian peo­ple. So who ex­actly is Italy's new Flo­ren­tine leader un­elect?

The Amer­i­can Scout Boys’ oath is en­thu­si­as­tic, eager, and per­haps a lit­tle naive. "I will do my best to do my duty, to God and my coun­try,” it says, and “to help other peo­ple at all times, to keep my­self phys­i­cally strong, men­tally awake, and morally straight.” In an early episode of Happy Days, Fonzie, with sim­i­larly bright and de­ter­mined rhetoric, an­nounces: "You ain't no­body until you do what you want.” In both, the op­ti­mism is tan­gi­ble. The drive is al­most con­ta­gious. The self-as­sured­ness and spirit of ini­tia­tive are paired with a cer­tain cock­i­ness that one could find ei­ther en­dear­ing or in­suf­fer­able. Any­body who em­bod­ied all these fea­tures would un­doubt­edly di­vide opin­ion and ig­nite de­bate.

Con­ve­niently, Ital­ians – who excel at com­plain­ing – now have the man who matches said de­scrip­tion per­fectly. This Boy Scout - Fonzie hy­brid is called Mat­teo Renzi, and on Mon­day he be­came Italy's new Prime Min­is­ter. Al­though a re­mark­able achieve­ment in it­self for the young mayor of Flo­rence – a rel­a­tively small city – it should be noted that Italy has re­cently be­come renowned for her streak of un­elected Prime Min­is­ters whose job was to keep the coun­try afloat until bet­ter eco­nomic times. Berlus­coni stepped down from power dur­ing his fourth cab­i­net in No­vem­ber 2011, and since then the coun­try has wit­nessed a steady flow of Heads of State: Mario Monti, the tech­no­crat; Pier­luigi Bersani, the De­mo­c­ra­tic Party leader who found him­self in the eye of the storm after the in­con­clu­sive Feb­ru­ary 2013 elec­tions; and En­rico Letta, who was asked to lead a shaky coali­tion gov­ern­ment once Bersani bailed out. And now Renzi re­places Letta: the third Prime Min­is­ter in two and a half years who was not elected by the Ital­ian peo­ple.

There are sev­eral things that dif­fer­en­ti­ate Renzi from his pre­de­ces­sors. Two of them have be­come hack­neyed through their in­ces­sant rep­e­ti­tion by the media: yes, he is “young”, and yes, he is “am­bi­tious”. At 39, he can al­ready boast a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as Pres­i­dent of the Province of Flo­rence, Mayor of Flo­rence, and Sec­re­tary of the De­mo­c­ra­tic Party – not to men­tion his phe­nom­e­nal rise from a provin­cial po­si­tion to that of most talked-about politi­cian in the coun­try. His name be­came as­so­ci­ated with the Ital­ian elec­torate’s ex­as­per­a­tion fol­low­ing decades of po­lit­i­cal dom­i­na­tion by the same se­nior politi­cians: in 2012, Renzi seemed un­in­ter­ested in climb­ing the po­lit­i­cal lad­der, fo­cus­ing in­stead on the fight for re­newal of the rul­ing class. Largely under the radar until then, he un­sur­pris­ingly lost the cen­tre-left pri­mary elec­tions in De­cem­ber 2012. But, with hind­sight, the de­feat was a bless­ing: Renzi was widely praised for his grace­ful ad­mis­sion of de­feat in a coun­try where ob­jec­tion and crit­i­cism of prac­ti­cally any­thing are the norm. For some time, he went back to his beloved Flo­rence, and re­sumed his light-hearted but fre­quent Face­book and Twit­ter ac­tiv­ity.

Fast for­ward to today. Renzi’s so­cial media stream has died down in the past few weeks, but the Ital­ian pub­lic let loose on all plat­forms as soon as he an­nounced his de­sire to de­throne Letta. Sar­cas­tic com­ments ap­peared along­side snip­pets of old in­ter­views in which Renzi had de­clared his un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for the Prime Min­is­ter; peo­ple dug out his pre­vi­ous as­sur­ances that he would never be Head of State. For some, Renzi has now shown his true face as a power-hun­gry vul­ture; for oth­ers, he has given proof of am­bi­tion and ini­tia­tive at a crit­i­cal time. Many more sim­ply shake their heads, re­signed, and wait­ing to see whether Renzi will last – or if the Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter’s seat is truly cursed.

Renzi’s heart is prob­a­bly in the right place. He is de­ter­mined, en­er­getic and un­doubt­edly con­fi­dent that he will suc­ceed where oth­ers have failed – in the task of pre­serv­ing a del­i­cate ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, which he will have to share with Berlus­coni’s for­mer heir ap­par­ent, while chang­ing sev­eral flawed laws and keep­ing the Ital­ian econ­omy afloat. The most com­mon crit­i­cism that has been lev­elled at him is that his flow­ery rhetoric and catchy slo­gans will not help him gov­ern a coun­try that, right now, is out­do­ing her­self in terms of row­di­ness and chaos.

In­deed, it is true that Renzi will have to prove he is more than a pre­ten­tious Fonzie who charges head­first to­wards his ob­jec­tives, and that gov­ern­ing Italy will not cost him his health and morals - which is a very real risk for as­pir­ing prime min­is­ters. Just ask Berlus­coni about the Bunga Bunga par­ties and the seedy tri­als, or ask Letta, who seems to have aged at record speed in the past six months.

Strangely, the chief ar­gu­ment of both his de­trac­tors and his sup­port­ers is one and the same: Renzi is a per­fect prod­uct of his time. His cool, young, de­ter­mined self might turn out to be as flimsy as his in­spi­ra­tional de­c­la­ra­tions and hash­tags about “chang­ing Italy to­gether”: but, until now, it is pre­cisely this fleet­ing vi­vac­ity that has at­tracted the at­ten­tion of those who, like many of us, have a dis­turbingly short at­ten­tion span, happy to skim through the day’s head­lines, pre­fer­ring sen­sa­tional, su­per­fi­cial state­ments over any real sub­stance. No one will be shocked if Renzi turns out to pri­ori­tise the sur­face over the con­tents. But many will be pleas­antly sur­prised if it emerges that, in fact, not only can Renzi make his promises sound bet­ter than his pre­de­ces­sors, but that he can also trans­late into ac­tions the en­thu­si­asm and live­li­ness that got him where he is today.