Can ‘Demolition Man’ fix Italian politics?
Matteo Renzi is a force of youth – but he may have rebooted Berlusconi
Mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi during a ceremony at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence yesterday. President Giorgio Napolitano is expected to give a mandate to Mr Renzi to form a government. Photograph: Maurizio Degl’Innocenti/EPA
In a country with a strong tendency towards gerontocracy, one can only welcome the figure of 39-year-old Matteo Renzi. After all, this is a country where the president, Giorgio Napolitano, is 88 and where centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi is 77.
In that context, Renzi’s relative youth and energy are welcome, even allowing for his obvious sense of personal ambition. There are many, not just in his own Democratic Party (PD), who believe he might be able to kick-start tired, almost immobile Italian politics back into life. In the process, he could take Italy down the road to the sort of radical electoral and institutional reform needed to get the country out of what he calls the “misty bog” of politics.
Young, energetic and with a bewildering gift of the gab that results in endless effective soundbites, Renzi appears to be totally on top of every brief. For example, one of the accusations made most often against him is that he is not really on the left, that he is a recycled Christian Democrat in disguise who has changed the PD, once the old communist party (PCI), forever. His answer is immediate:
“I am not in politics to change the party, I’m here to change the country . . . As far as I am concerned, it is much more leftist to make broadband wifi available and increase the number of kindergartens, than to insist that transport companies have to remain public companies . . .”
Given Renzi’s ability to progress up the greasy pole of a party in which he had neither historic links nor family pull, it is very tempting to see him as Italy’s answer to Tony Blair. Has he just pulled off a (not-so) friendly takeover of the PDs in the manner of Blair with the British Labour Party?
For most of us, Matteo Renzi burst on to the national scene in November 2010 when, as mayor of Florence, he organised a three-day Scrap Them All convention in Florence attended by almost 7,000 enthusiasts. His winning catch cry was that the entire, ageing ruling class of the PD party should be consigned to the scrapheap. From that moment on, he became known as the Rottamatore (Demolition Man).
Remarkably, within four years, he appears to have done just that with long-time dominant party figures such as Massimo D’Alema and Walter Veltroni and many others now seemingly marginalised. So, under his leadership, is Italy about to step bravely into a new age where 40 per cent youth unemployment, a national debt of €1.9 trillion and a stalled economy are a thing of the past?
Not quite. For one thing, there are one or two worrying aspects to the Demolition Man’s rise and rise. For a start, throughout the last 10 months he has performed a not-so-subtle Brutus to Enrico Letta’s Caesar, rarely missing an opportunity to offer “Enrico” advice that more often sounded like barbed attacks. From the moment he won the PD primaries last December, just 55 days ago, those attacks became more insistent as he sensed the electoral momentum was with him.
A second issue is the manner in which he orchestrated Letta’s final downfall this week, which prompted one senior PD figure, Pippo Civati, to compare Thursday’s PD meeting to the killing of that unfortunate giraffe, Marius, in the Danish zoo. This was a political “killing”, said Civati.
A third and perhaps more worrying concern is that the Demolition Man, the man who wanted to consign all the old farts to the scrap heap, has spent much of the last month discussing electoral reform with Silvio Berlusconi. In the process, he has so effectively rehabilitated Berlusconi that the media tycoon will be up in the presidential palace this weekend having his say on the future of the country.
So much for Berlusconi’s tax fraud conviction last summer and his subsequent expulsion from the Senate last November – and all thanks to Renzi.
As for his taking office as Italy’s youngest ever prime minister, that too prompts worries. He inherits a poisoned chalice in which his coalition must attempt to govern recession-lashed Italy against a background of social unrest and with an uncertain parliamentary majority. All of this for a man who has never even been elected to parliament, let alone served in national government.
However, those who know Renzi well believe in him and see him as a winner.
After all, his first appearance in the public eye came as a 19 year old in 1994 when he won €24,000 on a TV quiz programme called Wheel of Fortune . Perhaps he can win the lottery for Italy too.