Mr Renzi takes over in Italy

Italy has a new prime minister, the third in a row to take the job without contesting an election. Matteo Renzi, leader of the Democratic Party and former mayor of Florence, was sworn in yesterday, replacing his party colleague, Enrico Letta.

I had a story in Crikey about a week ago explaining the manoeuvring that led to this and looking at the difficulties Renzi will face. Since the fundamentals haven’t changed, and Renzi will depend on much the same heterogeneous coalition as the outgoing government, the risk is that Italy’s problems will defeat him just as they did Letta.

As I put it, “Opportunities in politics have to be seized when they arise, and Renzi is clearly an ambitious man, but even he must have doubts about the magnitude of the task he’s taken on.”

And indeed, Renzi’s ministry, although younger and with more women, looks in party terms almost identical to Letta’s. The majority of ministers are from his own centre-left party; the only other significant presence is the New Centre-Right, the group under Angelino Alfano (who remains minister for the interior and number two in the cabinet) that broke last year with Silvio Berlusconi. A selection of centrists and independents complete the lineup.

A round of talks with other party leaders during the week failed to effect any change in the constellation of forces, although it did give Italians the entertaining spectacle of a live telecast of the meeting between Renzi and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the populist 5-Star Movement.

It was immediately obvious that Grillo had no intention of reaching any sort of agreement with Renzi and was just playing for the camera. That made Renzi increasingly exasperated, at one point telling Grillo “why don’t you step out of your blog for a moment.” Grillo’s subsequent press conference added to the surreal atmosphere; he ended by suggesting that the journalists “Go home and hang yourselves up by your feet hooked onto a beam and look at this upside down world. You’ll understand loads of stuff!”

Grillo aside, Renzi starts with a decent amount of goodwill, but he will need it. The present parliament, being barely workable, is not expected to last a full term, but Renzi won’t want to risk fresh elections until he’s got some positive achievements to his credit – particularly in relation to the economy. He would also very much like a more favorable electoral system, although that project poses risks of its own.

Speaking of the current parliament gives me the opportunity to correct a mistake in that last Crikey article, where I said that “the Democratic Party has a majority in its own right” in the lower house. In relation to the centre-left as a whole that’s true, but not the Democratic Party on its own. And since the left-most part of the original centre-left coalition, “Left Ecology Freedom”, cannot be relied on to support the government, in practice Renzi depends on the centrists in the lower house as well.

Nonetheless, his position there is much more comfortable than in the Senate, where if he loses the support of Alfano’s group he will be at the mercy of Grillo and Berlusconi.

And I might mention that I’m not the only one to make mistakes. The BBC story on the Renzi-Grillo confrontation is now headed “Anti-elite activist Grillo lambasts Italy PM-designate Renzi”, but when first posted it read “MP” rather than “activist”, and it included the line “Mr Grillo and his fellow MPs have refused to reach any coalition deals with the mainstream parties.”

But Grillo is not an MP: he leads his movement from outside, due to his policy that no-one with a criminal record should be in parliament (he has a 1980 conviction for involuntary manslaughter). An easy mistake for a sub-editor to make; what’s remarkable is that it took the BBC at least two days to fix it.

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