Feature

Italy: Can ‘Fonzie’ save the day?

This week Italians got their third unelected prime minister since Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in 2011.

Another day, another Italian government, said Philippe Ridet in Le Monde (France). Italians “have as many words for different types of political crises as they do for pasta dishes,” and right now they’re in una staffetta, or a relay race. This week they got their third unelected prime minister since Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in 2011. First came the technocrat Mario Monti, then last year the president appointed Enrico Letta. Now Letta has been pushed aside, in an internal Democratic Party vote, by Matteo Renzi, at 39 the youngest prime minister in Italian history. The voters weren’t consulted; even Parliament wasn’t consulted. It was almost like a palace coup. The upstart, who is not a member of Parliament and has just five years of political experience as mayor of Florence, won his party’s leadership just two months ago. According to Letta, Renzi had pledged to support the government through 2014, to give Letta’s reforms a chance to work and to see Italy safely through its turn in the EU presidency, which starts in July. No wonder Letta is now calling Renzi a “traitor.”

The youngster is clearly in a hurry, said Guy Dinmore in theFinancial Times. He admitted as much in 2012, when he made his first, failed bid for Democratic Party leadership. “I feel a bit arrogant to want to govern Italy,” he said, “but then I look back at the governments of the past 20 years and think that we cannot give in. We need some healthy impatience.” That message has already “galvanized a despairing younger generation” of Italians who can’t find jobs after four years of recession. They love Renzi’s verve as well as his “cultivated image of the modern rebel,” complete with leather jacket and iPhone. Yet he won’t alienate the old guard, as he’s also a Catholic, a former Boy Scout, and a married father of three.

Renzi is something new for Italy: “an American-style politician with an easy smile,” said Gavin Hewitt in BBC.com. He has been compared to Britain’s Tony Blair for his center-left pragmatism and to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy for his arrogance and star quality. Some Italian papers refer to him as “Fonzie” because he dresses like the Fonz from Happy Days; others call him “the Scrapper” for his brash style or even Speedy Gonzales because of his rapid rise to power. The hope is that as a political outsider, he will be able to smash the old power networks that have kept Italy in gridlock. He has promised to pass a sweeping electoral reform within two months, and he is rumored to have entered into a pact with the still-influential Berlusconi to overhaul the separation of powers between the central government and the regions.

Even Italians are reeling from the suddenness of this coup, said Cesare Martinetti in La Stampa (Italy). We actually thought we’d reached “some kind of stability” in our eternal political stalemate. But Renzi warned us from the beginning that he wasn’t the type to sit on the bench and that he would take his shot as soon as he saw it. “Now the ball is in the air. We’ll soon see whether it scores a goal or bounces into the street.”

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