Three weeks can be an awfully long time in politics. Last Thursday, Matteo Renzi, the new leader of Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) – the largest member of the country’s ruling coalition – announced that there needed to be a change at the head of the government, led since last April by Renzi’s PD colleague, Enrico Letta. It was time for Letta to go and time for Renzi to become prime minister. The members of the PD assembly agreed, backing him by 136 votes to 16.
This of course was the same Renzi who had spent much of the previous two months since his election as party leader in December insisting that he had no desire whatsoever to replace Letta. On January 17, for example, Renzi had stated on a popular television chat show: “Enrico, relax. Nobody wants to take your place. Continue. Do what you have to do” (listen out at 18:35 for Renzi saying “Enrico stai sereno” in a reassuring tone). He later re-iterated in the same interview: “I am not trying to take his place”. This week, Renzi will almost certainly take his place.
“Ambitious politician waits until the right moment to reveal desire to become prime minister” is hardly an earth-shattering newsflash for anyone used to political life. Prime ministers know that some of those in their party’s elite or around the cabinet table believe the top job should be theirs. They also know that pretenders to the throne may not be willing to wait for it to be passed on to them, but will try to seize power by orchestrating a takeover.
Challengers may create the conditions for this by providing damaging leaks to friendly journalists and subtly canvassing support among party colleagues while all the time repeating in public that the PM has their full support. Then they make their move, casting it as essential for the party’s future prospects. It might sound underhand. But it’s all in the game.
Nonetheless, many Italian commentators both in print and social media have claimed in the last few days that what Renzi has done is not “normal” elsewhere and that in other parliamentary democracies prime ministers come into power only after having won elections. This is obviously nonsense. Two of the last four prime ministers in both Britain and Ireland took office without going to the public first to get a mandate (John Major and Gordon Brown, John Bruton and Brian Cowen, in case you were wondering). While Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd in Australia both became prime minister at the expense of the other (in 2010 and 2013) thanks to the votes of the Labor caucus, not the people.
Indeed, Renzi’s protestations that he was not interested in displacing Letta recall those of Rudd last year. Take this interview in February 2013 when Rudd said those suggesting he was after Gillard’s job needed to take ice baths. Four months later, he took her job.
Changing the prime minister without an election is risky, but there is nothing illegitimate or overly exceptional about it. In fact, not having the leader of the largest party in a ruling coalition as prime minister is probably far more anomalous. What is unusual, however, is Renzi’s lack of experience. He has never served a day in parliament and his most significant institutional role to date has been as mayor of Florence since 2009.
With all due respect to my Florentine neighbours, running a city of less than 400,000 inhabitants is not necessarily the best preparation for leading one of the world’s top ten economies (especially as it struggles to emerge from a long financial and political crisis).
Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic about Renzi’s prospects. He is the best natural political communicator in the country. He is full of enthusiasm and drive. And, unlike his many predecessors on the centre-left, he does not seem to suffer either from a political inferiority or overbearing moral superiority complex towards the man who has dominated Italian politics for two decades: Silvio Berlusconi. In fact, Renzi has rightly waved aside howls of indignation from those on the Left and met Berlusconi in order to try and reach an agreement on the institutional and electoral system reforms which Italy so badly needs.
And Renzi is young. At just 39 he will be the youngest ever prime minister in a country which may finally be starting to lose its status as “a country for old men”. Italy’s political, business, civil service, academic and media elites remain gerontocracies – and will probably continue to do so for many years – but Renzi’s emergence and rise to the top is a very positive development in this sense.
Being young however does not mean he has time on his side. The next six months will be crucial for him – can he manage to pass reforms in one of the most reform-adverse political systems in Europe? Can he overcome his lack of experience and not just talk the talk (which he does so well), but walk the walk? All the while, he will be well aware that there are many within his own party who, although they are backing him now, would delight in seeing what they consider an overly centrist egocentric fall flat on his face. And they would be very quick to begin the exact same kind of back-biting and manoeuvres that led to Renzi displacing Letta.
So far, Renzi has barely put a foot wrong in his career. Everything he has done has appeared perfectly calculated and timed. Even the fact that he seems set to become prime minister just as the first days of Spring are arriving in Italy seems almost too coincidental for one so concerned with image and presentation. As does the proximity of his taking office to the announcement last week that the country’s economy was growing again for the first time since 2011. Renzi’s time in power will begin amidst positive omens. If he can build on them, few will care about how he got there.