It has been an extraordinary 72 hours in Italian politics. At 39, Matteo Renzi is set to become Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister. For someone elected leader of his party on the promise of scrapping the establishment, Renzi takes power in the most Italian way possible. The Mayor of Florence orchestrated with party heavyweights behind outgoing PM Letta’s back, and today, in a landslide vote, the Democratic Party rubber-stamped his plan. A political party de facto voting against the government it leads is quite extraordinary. Frank Underwood would be proud of the former boy scout turned leader.
Enrico Letta officially resigns Friday. President Napolitano will then consult the parties before giving a mandate to Renzi to form a government. Renzi will then head to parliament for a confidence vote. This is merely procedure, and surprises aside, this time next week Renzi will be Prime Minister.
Mr. Renzi took an enormous risk. He claims Italy is stuck in a swamp, and needs a plan of reforms, institutional changes and a new voting law, before heading back to the polls in 2018. Renzi’s analysis is impeccable. I remain of the belief that, on paper at least, he is the right person to lead the country. Italy needs courage and a risk taker. Renzi has both.
The Renzi PM will though need to govern with the same partners and parliament as the Letta PM - he will be playing with the same cards Mr. Letta was dealt, and the concern must therefore be if he can produce different answers to those that he clearly believes Letta wasn’t able to find.
Was the problem really the man at the top?
In addition to this question, Renzi’s second challenge will be that of maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of voters. While it is true that Italians don’t directly elect PMs - they receive a mandate from the president on the back of a parliamentary majority - it is also a matter of fact that since 1992, Italy has had eight (nine with Renzi) PMs, of these only two won elections - Silvio Berlusconi and Romani Prodi. Within this context, telling voters they won’t be able to vote again until 2018 - 10 years after the last PM won an election - is a tough sell. This is a message that Forza Italia and the M5S will repeat every single day from now until election day. A tactic which obliterated Mario Monti’s short-lived career in Italian politics.
The fear is that Matteo Renzi may have the right medicine, but administering it to the patient may well be out of his control.
In my view, a more realistic - bare minimum - scenario is ensuring that the voting law that Renzi agreed with Silvio Berlusconi passes, and then returning to the polls in 2015. In fact, beyond his declared intention to govern until 2018, Renzi’s move could more likely have to do with electoral reform. Fearful that the voting law too would have been stuck in the swamp, Renzi decided to take matters into his own hands. Centrists Scelta Civica, and despite the early posturing, Angelino Alfano’s New Centre-Right are likely to both tow the line. Yet, for the change in voting law to happen we’ll need to find out where Mr. Berlusconi stands in all this, and if he’s still prepared to support the changes to the voting system now that Renzi is PM. Forza Italia has already come out against the change in government and called for elections, but what we don’t yet know is if that also means a change of heart when it comes to electoral reform.
Matteo Renzi has decided to spin the wheel, and place all his bets on one colour. Soon, we’ll find out where the ball lands.