Matteo Renzi, Italy’s youngest-ever Prime Minister, has some very tough battles to wage in the coming months: The European Union (EU) authorities will be closely watching the 39-year old Renzi as he sets out to implement his promises to revive the Italian economy. Internally too, the new premiere will have to fight it out with workers’ unions that are already voicing their opposition to some of his proposals aimed at overhauling the sagging labor sector.
The youthful Prime Minister has caught the fancy of the Italian people by positioning himself as a maverick keen on implementing radical reforms to the constitutional and electoral framework of the country. Renzi has also vowed to ameliorate the puffed up public administration, labour market and the tax systems within the first quarter of his tenure. Renzi climbed the ranks within the center-left Democratic Party (PD) through his vocal condemnation of former prime minister and party rival, Enrico Letta’s complacency in reforming the economy. In the end, Letta was forced to resign last week making way for Renzi to be sworn in, just months after he gained leadership of the PD in December 2013.
Daring as this ouster seems, it comes from a man whose experience in governance is limited to his tenure as the mayor of Florence. The bitter fallout and power struggle between the two party colleagues was apparent during the handover ceremony that lasted barely a few seconds. Outgoing prime minister Letta was seen grim-faced and both leaders did not meet eye to eye as they briefly shook hands.
Renzi now heads a small cabinet of 16 ministers, whose average age is just 49 years. Also, this is the first Italian executive to achieve parity between the sexes: Eight of the 16 ministers are women. Apart from the appointment of reputed economist Pier Carlo Padoan as the Economy Minister, the cabinet is largely low-profile with many of its appointees being political novices. The former chief economist at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, who missed the swearing-in ceremony as he was in Australia, will pay a key role in Italy’s relationship with partners like the European Central Bank and foreign investors. The cabinet also includes Roberti Pinotti, Italy’s first woman Defense Minister and Marianna Madia, the minister who will simplify Italy’s bureaucracy.
But the Renzi cabinet is bogged down by an unwieldy coalition with the center-right NCD party, in the same way Letta’s government was. The small NCD party is important because the Renzi government depends on it for a majority. It seems likely that the new prime minister will also be faced with an often uncontrollable and fractious parliament as was his predecessor Letta. Having met with his new cabinet on Saturday for the first time, Renzi will go before the Senate on Monday to seek the first of two votes of confidence over the course of the week. He is also expected to give more information on his policy program.
Italy, the third largest economy in the euro zone, is still struggling to recover from its biggest economic slump since the second World War. The country’s economy faces a massive $2.75 trillion public debt, soaring youth unemployment (almost 40 percent) and a wobbly industrial base that began crumbling over a decade ago. The young and charismatic Renzi will have to prove to the Italian electorate that he has actually converted his promises into palpable change. This is particularly relevant as he is the third Italian Prime Minister in a row to be sworn-in without the people’s mandate. Media Mogul Silvio Berlusconi and Enrico Letta before him were also unelected prime ministers.
For the moment, Renzi enjoys high popularity ratings probably because he is yet to be mired in any political or corruption scandals and epitomizes the fresh start slogan over which he built his campaign. He is seen as being particularly popular amidst Italy’s youngsters who admire him for his social media-savvy, informal approach to politics.
Renzi’s critics have slammed him for being brash and for his overarching ambitiousness. Many also wonder if it would have been better for the country to go for an early election.Repeated warnings have come in from business and union leaders that unless the Renzi government took immediate measures, it was impossible to save Italy’s economy.
The highly crippled economy is reeling under tens of thousands of business closures that have left several million Italians unemployed. Outside the country, the EU has expressed concern over Renzi breaching the longstanding EU deficit limit of three percent of economic output, set by the Maastricht Treaty. Olli Rehn from the EU Commission even made a satirical comment that the economic competitiveness of Italy didn’t seem to improve with more and more debt being piled upon its already high level of public debt.
According to reports in the Italian media, Renzi’s choice of a low-key cabinet will hinge his government’s performance almost entirely on his charisma and image as the rising star of Italian politics. Whether the young Renzi will be able to actually deliver on his grand promises will be closely followed.
By Aruna Iyer