As Renzi takes reins in Italy, a Herculean task awaits

Many Italians hope their new prime minister – who has never held national office – can get the country moving again.

Giampiero Sposito/Reuters
Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sits during a confidence vote in the lower house of Italy's parliament in Rome Tuesday. Mr. Renzi, the former mayor of Florence who has no national political experience, is set to take up the daunting task of leading Italy out of its political and economic malaise.

Matteo Renzi has never served in parliament, nor in any office of national government.

And now, as the youngest prime minister in Italy’s history, the former mayor of Florence is tasked with leading the country out of its political and economic malaise.

But despite Mr. Renzi's political inexperience, many Italians are hopeful about his call for “radical and immediate change.” They see his sense of risk-taking, confidence, and pledge to take responsibility for how his efforts go down as necessary to end years of political dysfunction and economic stagnation.

“Renzi has this capacity of gambling, and going beyond the typical compromise of Italian politics that might give him an edge in the beginning,” says Giuseppe Veltri, a lecturer at the University of Leicester who co-edited “Italy Today: The Sick Man of Europe.”  

"People are tired of waiting for improvement," Mr. Veltri says. "They want to believe that a leader like Renzi can change things.”

Renzi's meteoric rise from mayor to head minister faces one final hurdle, a confidence vote this evening in the Chamber of Deputies, before he can get to work. Renzi was sworn in on Saturday and his coalition won its first confidence vote early Tuesday.

If that vote passes as expected, Renzi's work will truly begin.

A Herculean task

Italy's economy is still in the doldrums thanks to Europe's sovereign debt crisis, with hundreds of businesses going under and unemployment numbers reaching highs not seen since the 1970s. Joblessness has been particularly bad for Italy's youth, topping 40 percent for those 25 years old and younger. And Italy's intermittent political deadlock has inhibited progress toward reforms needed to deal with the economy.

Renzi has called for a "bold vision" of reform for a “rusty country.” Among his promises are electoral and constitutional reform to restore Italians’ confidence in the political class, payroll tax cuts, more schools, and more benefits for the unemployed.

“What many people think is ... he is the only one [with a chance] to introduce some innovation in labor market policy or to change the electoral system," says Sergio Fabbrini, the director of the school of government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.

The tasks before Renzi are gargantuan.

Critics fear Renzi is a neophyte with little idea of how to govern at the national level.

He will have to convince political parties both of the need for urgent reform and to pass his implementation thereof. And he will have to do so without overwhelming political support: his majority in the Senate on Tuesday was not larger than the one that his predecessor Enrico Letta's government secured.

Further, Renzi cannot even count on reliable support from his own Democratic Party. In his rush to succeed Mr. Letta, who was asked to lead the country in a political vacuum after inconclusive elections last year led to months of political gridlock, Renzi ruffled the feathers of many of his fellow Democrats.

And like Letta, he takes Italy's helm without winning an election – the third time in a row that has happened.

'A break with Italian politics'

But Renzi might be the right person at the right time.

Mario Monti emerged onto the scene in 2011, in the midst of the larger EU crisis, after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated Italian politics for nearly two decades. Mr. Monti came in with a reform agenda, but he lost the support of the electorate for being seen as a face of Brussels at a time when association with the EU raised suspicions.

“The problem was he is not a politician. He is a technocrat coming from Europe at a moment when Europe only means economic sacrifice,” says Mr. Veltri.

Letta, likewise, was a good administrator and compromiser, but he was unable to move Italy toward crucial reforms.

“In Italy you have to take risks,” which is what is fueling optimism about Renzi, says Mr. Fabbrini. “He is considered a novelty… he represents a break with Italian politics. In a way, he is a Barack Obama of Italian politics.”

Italy not only needs a risk-taker, analysts say, but one that takes risks now.

“He is in a race against time now – and has around between 100 days to six months to shock the Italian political system,” Alberto Gallo, head of macro credit research at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, said in a research note published by Bloomberg. 

So far, Renzi has shown a symbolic penchant for fast reform, by filling his coalition cabinet with young leaders. Many of them are new to national government and half of them are women. Political observers will await concrete details, however, on how Renzi ultimately is able – or not – to reform Italy.

“Skeptics fear that the actions of the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence are just cosmetic – a charge he will deny,“ writes Francesco Grillo, an author and visiting scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, in an opinion piece for the Guardian.

“But the only real yardstick against which his success should be measured is whether he can offer to millions of Italians – mostly female and mostly young – the possibility of contributing to the growth of a society that has been stagnating for two decades."

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