Dawn of a new era: Italy’s ‘Tony Blair’ shakes up centre left with youthful team

Italian politics is in for a change, with the youthful new leader of the Democratic Party heralding an end to a system moribund with cronyism
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Italy’s reviled political system – largely dismissed by voters as an old boys’ club – appears set to enter a youthful and diverse new era, thanks to a charge this week led by the Partito Democratico, Italy’s answer to Britain’s Labour Party.

Having been elected as its dynamic new leader at the weekend, 38-year-old Matteo Renzi has immediately set to work stamping his authority on it, by announcing a front-bench team with an average age of 35.

The Italian press labelled Mr Renzi’s team as politics’ “Erasmus generation” in reference to the international student exchange programme that was born in 1987. But jokes aside, Mr Renzi’s team is shaping up to offer Italian voters an alternative to the cronyism, corruption and male chauvinism many so keenly associate with the country’s politics. 

Even more unsettling for the crusty corridors of the Italian parliament at the Palazzo Montecitorio must be the news that seven of the party’s 12 “spokesmen” are, in fact, women.

In truth, the populist Five Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, which stunned the traditional parties in February’s general election, might be said to have already broken the mould by bringing dozens of young faces, many of them female, into parliament.

The movement’s momentum, however, has since crumbled, since most involved had almost no political experience. For the PD, which only offered up known faces associated with past governments at the February poll, it was an opportunity missed that the party now appears to be learning from.

In fact, Mr Renzi came to prominence when he challenged Pier Luigi Bersani for the party leadership in last year’s primary. Some analysts say if Mr Renzi had won then, the election would have looked quite different.

The ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi will no doubt say that he, too, promoted young women into positions of power during his tenures in office. But when he appointed the ex-topless model Mara Carfagna as equal opportunities minister, and his attractive dental hygienist Nicole Minetti as a regional councillor, political skills did not appear to be foremost in the tycoon’s mind.

Mr Renzi, who currently holds the post of mayor of Florence and has been declared “Italy’s Tony Blair”, insists his young team has been chosen on merit.

“Thank goodness. At last we’re changing generations,” said Alberto Martinelli, a politics professor at Milan University. “This might help get more people – and more young people – interested in politics.”

Professor Martinelli said he believes that Mr Renzi has indeed appointed on merit. “Filippo Taddei with responsibility for economics is very good, for example; so is Federica Mogherini, his spokeswoman on Europe. I don’t think there are any Nicole Minettis or Mara Carfagnas in this group.”

Among Mr Renzi’s appointees is spokeswoman for employment Marianna Madia, 33, and the law and order spokeswoman Pina Picierno, 32, who both of whom have political track records and plenty of media savvy.

It is Mr Renzi’s ability to relate to ordinary Italians that is celebrated as one of his main strengths, a trait that he also appears to have made a priority in those he has appointed.

“Yesterday after the meeting with the Prime Minister Enrico Letta, he didn’t wait to be chauffeured off in an official car; instead he jumped into a taxi,” said Professor Martinelli. “That’s what politicians in London would do. He’s giving the message that he’s less pompous and formal and also more dynamic.”

State perks and in particular, the proliferation of official chauffeured cars are a touchy subject in Italy. In 2010 it emerged that the number of dark blue executive saloons that appear to ferry around public officials of all levels, had swollen to 72,000.

In comparison, UK had just 198 chauffeured cars permanently at the disposal of state officials.

However, some analysts say that though Mr Renzi and his team have style, their policies, which have yet to be fleshed out, lack substance. Mr Renzi has pushed for more cuts in spending on bureaucracy, capitalising on widespread anger over high salaries for public officials even during the painful economic climate. He is also keen to place a greater focus on education, but how he will set out to achieve these goals has yet to be determined.

Someone he may be able to turn to for guidance is Enrico Letta, the 47-year-old PD politician and respected reformist who is currently Italy’s Prime Minister.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he might appear with a senior ministerial role in a Renzi-led centre-left government.

Nearly everyone on the left and right of the political spectrum agrees urgent reform is needed for Italy, not least for its electoral system, which gives equal power to both chambers and tends to produce hung parliaments.

If anyone can help Mr Renzi with this, it is Mr Letta – perhaps an example of how youth does not always trump experience.

On the front bench: ‘Erasmus generation’

Pina Picierno

MP in Campania

Born in Caserta, near Naples, Ms Picierno, 32, is the PD’s spokesman on law and order and  also on southern Italy.

Federica Mogherini

MP in Emilia-Romagna

The 40-year-old politician, who comes from Rome, is the Partito Democratico’s spokeswoman for European and global affairs.

Filippo Taddei

Economist and lecturer

A lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s campus in Bologna, Taddei, 37, is the PD spokesman on economics and finance.