Florence mayor set to become Italy's premier

21:42, Feb 17 2014
Italy's Prime Minister-designate Matteo Renzi speaks to reporters after a meeting with President Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinale Palace in Rome.

Italy's president has asked the brash young leader of the Democratic Party, Matteo Renzi, to try to form a new government after Renzi managed to oust the previous premier in a power grab.

Renzi, the 39-year-old mayor of Florence, met for more than an hour with President Giorgio Napolitano. Afterward he said he would go to work immediately on forging a new coalition, with talks with potential partners formally beginning on Tuesday.

Renzi said he would need a "few days" before seeing whether he can succeed.

But he told reporters by the end of the month he would propose new legislation to reform Italy's electoral law to make the country more governable. By March, he promised new measures to create jobs in a country where 40 per cent of young people are without work. April and May would bring other reforms, he vowed.

"I will put all the courage, energy, and enthusiasm I can muster to deal with the most important emergency: that of the labor market," he said after the meeting.

Renzi had orchestrated a mutiny within the Democratic Party to oust Enrico Letta as premier last week, accusing him of failing to jumpstart Italy's economy, even though Italy reported its first positive GDP in nearly three years that same week.


Renzi's first challenge is to form a coalition government that can win confidence votes in both houses of Parliament. That's no easy task, given that his aggressive power-grab has alienated even some within his own Democratic Party.

Outside the Quirinale palace on Monday, the small center-right Italy Brothers party staged a protest shouting "Elections! Elections!" The party's leaders were incensed that Renzi was likely to become Italy's next premier without having ever run in a national election.

He would be the third straight premier to get the job that way.

More importantly, the New Center Right party of Angelino Alfano, who had served as Letta's deputy premier, is holding off on giving Renzi his support until he sees the premier designate's plan of action.

Silvio Berlusconi's much larger Forza Italia party has said it would remain in opposition, while the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement has boycotted the transition process altogether.


Renzi is a politician from Tuscany with — in his own words — oversized ambition. Just a decade ago, he was elected to his first post, president of Florence province. In 2009 Florentines elected him their mayor. His campaign slogan in the local Democratic Party primary for that post: "Either I change Florence or I change careers."


If Renzi succeeds in cobbling together a coalition government, he will, at age 39, be the youngest premier among the dozens who have led often "revolving door" governments in Italy since the end of World War II. Detractors who consider Renzi power hungry note that Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was the same age in 1922 when asked by Italy's king to put together a Cabinet.


Renzi raised eyebrows last month when he cut a deal on crucial electoral reform with his party's arch enemy — Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced former premier now banned from holding public office because of a tax fraud conviction. One reason why Berlusconi ventured into the enemy's den: Renzi's not a former Communist like many prominent figures in the Democratic Party. Berlusconi loathes Communists.


Baby-faced Renzi is one of a handful of Italian politicians in the postwar era who wasn't serving in Parliament when asked to form a government. For many Italians fed up with the entrenched and largely geriatric political class that's a breath of fresh air.


Like many of his fellow Tuscans, he has a sharp tongue. He also speaks in sound bites Italians can readily understand instead of the often convoluted sentences Italian politicians favor to avoid saying much of substance.


One of the hashtags Renzi coined that has entered everyday Italian lingo is "rottamare," a verb meaning "consign to the junk heap." Renzi is vowing to chuck Italy's sclerotic politicians who vow to get Italy working again but never do. When he gave the heave-ho to outgoing premier Enrico Letta, a fellow Democrat, jokes popped up saying Renzi had gotten carried away and sent his own ally to the junkyard.


Renzi credits his many years in the Boy Scouts for his leadership qualities. Critics, stunned by how he promised Letta he'd never take power without elections, then ousted the premier a few days later, wisecracked that Renzi might come up short in the Scouts' loyalty quality department. Another hero is Tony Blair. Months before Renzi won his party's leadership, Renzi paraphrased the former British prime minister, saying: "I love all the traditions of my party, except one: losing elections."


In Florence, he darted between mayoral appointments the way many Florentines move in their Renaissance city — on bicycle. Since becoming the top Democrat in December, Renzi has been commuting on the "Freccia Rossa" (Red Arrow) high-speed trains that link Florence to Rome.

The chauffeur-driven dark blue sedans that politicians use to cruise around Rome have long become a hated symbol of what people see as a parasitic political class. Renzi has shunned such trappings of power — at least until recently. He was spotted this week being driven in a dark sedan when he came to party headquarters to pull the plug on Letta's coalition.


While Renzi has many enemies in his own center-left camp, he appears to have one unlikely fan on the right: Berlusconi — who has described Renzi as the only politician out there who would be able to beat him in elections.


White shirt, sleeves rolled up, no jacket, no tie — unless, maybe, when you're meeting the president. For TV talk shows, snug, low-fitting dark jeans, a short black leather jacket and short boots. Another must: cell phone in hand to tweet with even while you're giving a televised speech.