Another year, another Italian prime minister. The good news is: such is the new-found calm in the eurozone, the resignation of Enrico Letta yesterday caused barely more than a ripple in financial markets. Although Italy’s problems remain profound and the country is set for its third unelected leader since Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in November 2011, there has been no sign of the roiling panic that so recently threatened to engulf the single currency. What is altogether less certain, however, is whether the stellar rise of Matteo Renzi – the Democratic party leader who ousted Mr Letta and is all but sure to replace him – offers any real solutions.
There is no question that Mr Letta, also a Democrat, has struggled to make an impact since he took the top job, at the request of President Giorgio Napolitano, last April. He achieved his initial aim, pulling together Italy’s first-ever grand coalition in the aftermath of elections that produced a hung parliament and claimed the scalp of his party’s then-leader Pier Luigi Bersani. But subsequent attempts to force change through a parliament without a pro-reform majority have made little progress.
Meanwhile, unemployment – particularly among young people – continues to soar and, despite economic growth now inching back into the black, years of crippling recession have dragged down living standards. Mr Renzi, who took over as the Democratic leader in December, has styled himself, with considerable panache, as just the new broom that Italy so desperately needs. If he manages to form a new government in the coming days, as is widely assumed, he will, at 39, be the country’s youngest ever Prime Minister. He is charismatic, dynamic, ferociously ambitious, and his outspoken criticisms of Mr Letta’s inefficacy have echoed the frustrations of many ordinary Italians.
Yet Mr Renzi’s strengths are also weaknesses. His political rock-star image and far-reaching promises of change have created expectations that will be difficult to fulfil. He has vowed to reform parliament, rewrite Italy’s electoral rules, liberalise the labour market and shake up the state bureaucracy. Each alone is a challenge that has defeated all who have gone before. Yet this is a man whose experience extends only to his current position as the Mayor of Florence, who has never been elected to parliament, let alone served in national government.
Ultimately, though, it is the manner of his rise to power that may prove to be the most significant hurdle. By staging a palace coup, rather than waiting until the elections expected next year, he not only inherits the same parliamentary log jam that proved such a hindrance to the seasoned Mr Letta, but he has also opened up questions of legitimacy that his opponents will not allow to slip from the public’s mind. His cold dispatch of his deputy’s premiership, despite public promises to seek power only through the ballot box, may prove a dangerous precedent.
And yet Mr Renzi remains Italy’s best hope. It can only be hoped that his haste will not prove his undoing. Hints of recovery elsewhere in Europe may have dulled the impact of the latest farrago in Rome. But the need for reform is as urgent as ever.