Italy's Renzi Has Ideas, Energy and Bad Timing

Renzi talks a great game and Italians like him -- for now. Photographer: Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images

Matteo Renzi is the right man to lead Italy, but if called to form a new government on Friday, as expected, he'll have gotten the job in a way that doesn't bode well: unprepared, without a popular mandate, and reliant on the same fractious coalition that hobbled his predecessor.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta, overthrown by his own party, looks like the victim of a Medici palace coup, yet it's hard to quarrel with the plotters. Letta had become stuck in the political morass that undid his own predecessors. His government was deadlocked and unable to make the changes that Italy so badly needs. Renzi, known as "the Scrapper," is young and dynamic. Business leaders are mostly enthusiastic: They think he'll get things done.

As ambitious as he is, Renzi hadn't planned to become prime minister just yet. The 39-year-old mayor of Florence, a center-left modernizer in the style of Britain's Tony Blair, won the Democratic Party leadership last year, and he had intended to lead from behind. Before triggering elections in 2015, he wanted a new electoral law and constitutional reforms. That way, he'd take office with a clear mandate and new rules that would make effective government possible. None of that has happened.

Instead, breaking an earlier promise, Renzi will become the third Italian prime minister in two years to take office without winning a general election -- and he says he'll see out the current legislative term to 2018. He'll be in a far weaker position than he'd hoped. His ascension to the top job is less a sign of success than of the continued obstructive power of Italy's political system.

Renzi's first priority must be to pass an election law. Without new rules, he can't force his agenda through by threatening snap elections to put legislators' comfortable parliamentary seats at risk. That reasoning, of course, goes to show how difficult passing a law will be.

Then Renzi will have to push through economic reforms, such as the one he recently outlined to free up Italy's labor market. He'll have little public money to spend on easing that process: Italian government debt already stands at around 130 percent of gross domestic product. To avoid Letta's fate, he'll also need to form a cabinet that commands respect despite weak parliamentary support.

There's no question Italy needs the shake-up Renzi has promised. Rome's political institutions and the country's enterprise-crushing layers of regional bureaucracy are crippling the economy. But getting the top job too soon will make it that much harder for the Scrapper to prevail.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Clive Crook.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at