Matteo Renzi’s Italian Job

Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi’s recent thumping victory in a vote to lead Italy’s center-left party is the first true ray of political hope the country has seen in years. Italy may at last get a leader with a popular mandate and the appetite to make economic changes the country needs.

Renzi, just 38 years old, is willing to move fast, as he showed when he quickly appointed a young team to run the Democratic Party -- including, as his chief economist, Filippo Taddei, a 37-year-old Johns Hopkins University professor. Still, Italy’s political system has defeated smart and well-intentioned reformers before, and the road ahead will be hard.

Because of his youth, charisma and readiness to take on the leftist dogma of his own party -- he’s promised to reduce the power of Italy’s unions and free up labor markets, for example -- Renzi is widely compared to former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A vital difference, however, is that whereas Blair’s challenge was to help his party accept the transformative changes to the U.K. economy that Margaret Thatcher had already made, Renzi will have to make those changes himself.

Also, unlike the Labour Party when Blair made his modernizing challenge, Renzi’s party is already in power. If he wants to rule, he will have to replace as prime minister a fellow party member, Enrico Letta -- himself only 47 and no slouch in the viper’s pit of national politics, as he showed recently in maneuvering Silvio Berlusconi out of Parliament.

To succeed, Renzi will need to overcome resistance from wily older legislators in his party, made suspicious by his express intention to “scrap” them. Blair was likewise viewed in his party as an interloper from the right, but he had a partner in Gordon Brown to whom traditionalists were willing to listen.

As crazy as it might sound, given how poisonous the Blair-Brown relationship later became, Renzi will need his own Gordon Brown. And Letta is the natural candidate.

In an ideal world, Renzi would collapse Letta’s fragile government and trigger elections as soon as possible. But a recent constitutional court ruling that struck down essential, majoritarian parts of Italy’s election law has removed that option. Renzi should instead do all he can to support Letta’s fragile government and make him an ally in driving through Parliament a new electoral law capable of producing a clear majority to rule.

At the same time, he should push for constitutional change to fix the institutional deadlock that was built into Italy’s 1947 constitution and has plagued the country ever since. The drafters aimed to ensure that no future Mussolini could gather too much power, but that threat is out of date.

A new electoral law is achievable. Changing the constitution will be harder, but it is just as essential. Renzi has said he wants to go so far as to eliminate the Senate -- an institution that duplicates and therefore often blocks the powers of the lower house -- and he should follow through.

The prize of a homegrown mandate for change by 2015, should Renzi emerge as prime minister with a working majority and effective institutions, is well worth the effort. There is no reason to believe Renzi would be more dedicated to slimming Italy’s inefficient public sector or creating a more flexible labor market to boost jobs, productivity and growth than former Prime Minister Mario Monti was. But Monti was unelected and seen as a cipher for the European Union. With both a popular mandate and an effective legislature, Renzi would have a better chance of success.

Mussolini said, “It is not impossible to govern Italians, merely useless.” Renzi should aim for the chance to prove that decades-old cynicism wrong.


To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.