Demolition Man Renzi Rattles Rome With Plan to Axe Senate

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, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Feb. 24 issue. All but certain to become Italy’s next prime minister as soon as today, 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 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.

“The primary concern in those days was to avoid quick decisions and a concentration of power in a single pair of hands,” says Francesco Galietti, founder of Policy Sonar, a political research firm in Rome. “What we need now is quick decisions.”

Chauffeured Cars

Since the center-left Democratic Party withdrew its support for current premier Enrico Letta on Feb. 13, Renzi has signaled his intention to squeeze out smaller fringe parties that attract scant support but often hold up legislation. One idea he’s floating: bonus seats in parliament for parties that get more than 35 percent of the vote, ensuring that a plurality becomes a majority.

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 tough 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.”

Wheel of Fortune

Renzi made his way from 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 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 and enjoys needling his colleagues for losing elections to the billionaire.

Trevi Fountain

On Jan. 18, the two met privately 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. That tacit blessing of the new government might help nudge the older generation toward the door, though getting close to Berlusconi won’t ensure Renzi can keep his unruly allies in line, said Federico Santi, an analyst with Eurasia Group in London.

“The main impediment now isn’t Berlusconi,” said Santi, “but rather any opponents in his own party.”

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