Baptism of fire for Renzi, Italy's unelected new PM

ITALY is poised to take its biggest national gamble in generations by installing a new government led by the youngest prime minister in its modern history, a man who not only has never been anywhere near a ministerial office, but is not even an MP.

Mr Matteo Renzi, 39, who was asked by President Giorgio Napolitano on Monday to form a new government, certainly has a lot going for him: Boundless energy, good looks and a winning streak.

He will need all these and much more if he is to navigate successfully through the shark-infested waters of Italian politics, which have swallowed no fewer than 67 governments since World War II. The odds on his success are, at best, even.

Not having dirtied his hands with "Rome politics" - as the power games played out in the capital are known - provides Mr Renzi, mayor of Florence since 2009, with a huge advantage.

For the interminable, tedious soap opera of Italian political life, played out nightly on national TV with the same images of the same personalities who have been around for decades squabbling about posts and blaming each other for failures is now off-putting for most of the electorate.

Anyone like Mr Renzi who has kept himself away from that cesspit is therefore regarded as promising: That is why his two predecessors as premiers were also recruited from outside the political system, and why the largest single party in the current Italian Parliament is a movement led by a former comedian whose obscene jokes are not even funny.

But, notwithstanding his juvenile toothy grin and informal attire, Mr Renzi is not quite a political novice. He started with the centre-right People's Party, the successor to the Christian Democrats, universally known as Italy's ultimate political mafia.

He then moved to the centre- left Democratic Party. But while his political career slowly shifted from the right to the left, his policies are shifting from left to right: He believes in market economy solutions and speaks the language of managerial competence.

Although he would hate the comparison, Mr Renzi's career resembles that of Mr Silvio Berlusconi, the now-discredited, womanising billionaire and former prime minister, who also believed ideology was there to serve politicians, and not the other way around.

Mr Renzi's carefully nurtured nickname as the "scrapper", the man pledged to sweep away Italy's entire political system, is a stroke of genius, for it gives the impression of a radical reformer without the need to specify what this means. But the snag for the Prime Minister-designate is that this "out with the old, in with the new" slogan now has to be translated into action.

Indeed, he said he would begin coalition talks today as he promised to apply all his "energy, enthusiasm and commitment" to reform the Constitution, the labour market and the tax system.

But before that, he has to get his government approved by Parliament, and that entails dealing with Mr Berlusconi, who is barred by a criminal conviction from holding office, but still controls his lawmakers. In short, Mr Renzi's new government will begin as all its Italian predecessors have done: With grubby deals in which money and jobs are bartered for power.

And even if he were to maintain his political reforming zeal, amending the Constitution is a job for years to come, while the economy needs attention today.

Italy only narrowly avoided bankruptcy in 2011 and, although its finances have since stabilised, its debt is still a crushing 120 per cent of GDP.

More importantly, as columnist Antonio Polito of the daily Corriere della Sera noted: "Italy has experienced 15 years of stagnation, followed by five years of recession. Not even Japan has had a similar situation."

Latest data shows the Italian economy grew in the last quarter of last year, giving Mr Renzi some hope. Yet, growth is still below the European Union average, and 40 per cent of Italians aged under 25 are unemployed.

In order to reassure financial markets, Mr Renzi has to slash government spending. But to kick-start the economy, he also has to increase spending.

Navigating between these two contradictory pressures is what paralysed Italy's two previous leaders, both of whom had far more experience than Mr Renzi. None of this means the wildly popular new premier is doomed to fail.

But the biggest advantage the new government has is that Italy's political class realises just how much is at stake: If even Mr Renzi fails, the future will belong to the collection of comedians, rabid nationalists and disaffected populists now lurking on the margins of Italian political life.

Mr Renzi may be the last throw of the Italian dice.

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