Renzi’s big moment

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The timing, manner and substance of Matteo Renzi’s rise to power is troubling, writes Kevin Lees.

Kevin Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and the editor of the comparative politics blog Suffragio.org.

"With Europe's attention focused on Ukraine, Italy's new prime minister Matteo Renzi put the final touches on his new government over the weekend.

It was clear from the moment of Renzi's election in December 2013 as leader of Italy's main center-left party, the Democratic Party (PD), that he was on a collision course with prime minister Enrico Letta. When Renzi hammered out a tentative deal over changing the Italian electoral law with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in January, largely behind Letta's back, it should have been clear that Renzi would shortly be gunning to become prime minister in his own right.

Renzi's rise to power is impressive, and it's comparable to Berlusconi's own rise in the early 1990s.  Italian politics today has become been mired in gerontocracy, with its 88-year old president Giorgio Napolitano and the continuing dominance of 77-year-old Berlusconi -- it was only last year that Giulio Andreotti, the old master of postwar Italian politics, died at age 94, influential to the last moment.  So there's no doubt that Renzi brings a welcome dynamic energy to Italian politics.

Furthermore, Italian policymaking needs a shakeup after the ennui of Berlusconi's governments in the 2000s, the unsteadiness of Romano Prodi's short-lived government from 2006 to 2008, and the technocratic, unelected coalition governments of Letta and, previously, Mario Monti.  Italy's GDP growth hasn't exceeded 2% since 2000, its unemployment rate is a 37-year-high of 12.7%, its youth unemployment rate is a staggering 41.6%, and the country is plagued by longtime massive regional inequalities.

Renzi, at age 39, has argued for the past two years that he is the right person to effect that shakeup by sweeping away the failed leadership of the Italian right and the Italian left, a position that's left the barons of his party's many factions nervous. 

But for a politician whose brand is based on breaking with Italy's past, his rise to power represents a very familiar path.  The putsch to oust Letta, executed behind closed doors, is reminiscent of many government reboots of Italy's past.  Renzi, moreover, hopes to hold power until 2018, giving him four years in office without seeking the mandate of a popular vote.  That's more 'politics as usual' than rupture.  Over the weekend, a planned meeting between Renzi and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the protest Five-Star Movement devolved into a clownish shouting match.  Though the blame rests more with the mercurial Grillo than with Renzi, the Five-Star constituency includes the kind of voters that Renzi must win in order to truly transform Italy's economy.

The timing of Renzi's decision is also puzzling, as is his determination to pass into law a new election law, labour market reforms, tax reform and public administration reforms in his first four months in office.  For the past two months, Renzi admonished Letta almost daily for his inability to make any progress.  But Renzi will be working with the same arithmetic, and the same unwieldy coalition, as Letta.  He'll do so under the penumbra of the European parliamentary elections in late May.  With Berlusconi promising to run a spirited 'anti-Germany' campaign for his newly rechristened Forza Italia, the next four months seem particularly unsuitable for enacting reforms that have eluded Italian governments for over a decade.

One possibility is that Renzi has made a deal with Berlusconi, who has not been shy to argue that he prefers Renzi to other PD leaders.  It's possible that Berlusconi sees in the wily Renzi a worthy successor.  But Berlusconi nearly led the Italian center-left to victory in the February 2013 election, notwithstanding his myriad scandals and legal problems, and he certainly believes he has at least one more general election in him.

For someone who's been plotting a move to Palazzo Chigi for two years, Renzi's cabinet is far from inspiring.  In light of the male-dominated nature of Italian politics and business, it's promising that Renzi's 16-member cabinet contains an equal number of men and women.  While the idea was to select a cabinet of young, energetic ministers, the cabinet doesn't have the feel of an all-star assembly.

Renzi's finance and economy minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, since 2007 the deputy secretary general of the OECD, has a strong pedigree as a economist, advising Italy's center-left governments in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the requisite reforms to bring Italy into shape to join the eurozone.  But he falls into the same line of technocratic experts as his immediate predecessors, Fabrizio Saccomanni, Vittorio Grilli and Monti.  

Renzi ignominiously dumped Letta's foreign minister Emma Bonino, a longtime champion of women's rights abroad and good government at home for the 40-year-old Federica Mogherini, first elected to the Italian parliament in 2008 and who has never held a ministerial post.  

Renzi 's cabinet also excludes Cécile Kyenge, Letta's minister for integration.  Letta demonstrated significant courage in appointing Kyenge, Italy's first black minister.  Though racist slurs against Kyenge often drew negative headlines, her appointment inaugurated an overdue conversation about racism in Italy, especially as it regards integration and immigration, Kyenge's portfolio.  Dumping Kyenge hardly seems like bold leadership. 

Though Angelino Alfano remains interior minister, Renzi stripped Alfano of his title as deputy prime minister, and he cut all but two other members of Alfano's New Center-Right (NCD) from the cabinet.  Those decisions may haunt Renzi when things get tough in the Italian Senate, where the Democratic Party lacks a majority.

Italy should be rooting for their new young premier's success, and his government may represent Italy's best chance for advancing true reform.  But the past two weeks shouldn't convince anyone that Renzi's success will be inevitable."

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