Matteo Renzi is called the “Demolition Man” of Italian politics, a nickname he earned by endlessly lampooning the political establishment and calling on aging politicians to make way for the next generation. The old guard hasn’t budged, so the 39-year-old mayor of Florence intends to force the shift, starting at the top. All but certain to become Italy’s next prime minister since the center-left Democratic Party withdrew its support for Enrico Letta, the current premier, on Feb. 13, Renzi pledges to bring order to the country’s chaotic political system. “We have had the worst group of leaders in all of Europe over the last 30 years,” Renzi said in December after winning more than 1.5 million votes to assume leadership of the Democratic Party. They “use the word stability as a pretext for their own immobility.”
“Renzi is the first Italian leader since Berlusconi who has a realistic prospect of connecting with voters.”—Alex White, analyst at JPMorgan Chase
Renzi has said that within 100 days he’ll radically reshape the country’s fractious Parliament. Italy has endured decades of short-lived governments because it’s often impossible for legislators to assemble a reliable majority. The writers of the 1948 constitution, more concerned with avoiding another Benito Mussolini than creating a workable government, made it hard for anyone or any group to take control. Renzi wants to squeeze out smaller fringe parties that attract scant support but often hold up legislation. He also says he’ll shrink the Parliament by abolishing its upper house, the 320-member Senate, which he says is unnecessary. To do that, though, he’ll have to persuade those senators to vote themselves out of their jobs.
This would be an absurd request in any country, and in Italy even more so. Italian lawmakers are among the most coddled politicians on earth, with generous salaries, housing stipends, and chauffeured cars. Renzi hasn’t said how he expects to pull it off. “I’ll shake his hand if he gets it done,” says former Senator Elio Lannutti. “Having a little experience in that field myself, I’d say it will be very difficult.”
Renzi made his way from midsize-city mayor to national leader by breaking ranks and mocking his superiors in the Democratic Party, usually with a smile. His ease in front of cameras—at 19 he was a contestant on Italy’s version of Wheel of Fortune—has drawn comparisons to the dominant Italian politician of the last 20 years, three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “Renzi is the first Italian leader since Berlusconi who has a realistic prospect of connecting with voters,” says Alex White, a political analyst for JPMorgan Chase (JPM) in London.
Of course, any perceived similarity between Renzi and the 77-year-old media magnate, convicted tax fraudster, and bunga-bunga party host could wind up a curse, but Renzi may benefit if it helps him win over Berlusconi loyalists. The two appear to have developed an understanding, if not quite a friendship. Berlusconi has called Renzi “ironic and funny,” saying he reminds him of his younger self. Renzi refrains from poking fun at Berlusconi’s legal problems.
On Jan. 18, Renzi met privately with Berlusconi at Democratic Party headquarters near Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Berlusconi, out of power but still influential, has said his Forza Italia party won’t be part of Renzi’s coalition. But his tacit blessing of the new government may be just what the incoming prime minister needs to begin showing Berlusconi’s generation the door.