Italy's JFK is poised to take power

Renzi: Savior or Godfather?
Vittorio Zunino Celotto

BRUSSELS, Belgium — "A Shakespearean drama, with daggers in the back and all that," was one Rome-based ambassador's verdict on the political machinations that led to Thursday's removal of Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

He was kicked out in a vote by his own center-left Democratic Party (PD) after a power struggle with his thrusting young rival Matteo Renzi.

The man who has led the country since April last year handed in his formal resignation on Friday. Renzi's nomination as Italy's youngest-ever prime minister is expected to follow soon.

Dynamic, photogenic and from the moderate center of the party, 39-year-old Renzi has been likened to Tony Blair and John F. Kennedy.

He is widely seen as the best hope for cleaning up a political establishment viewed by many Italians as corrupt, self-serving and ineffectual in the face of the country's deepest economic crisis since World War II.

"It's time to decide what sort of Italy we want. It's time to climb out of the swamp,” Renzi told the party meeting that voted 136 to 16 to oust Letta.

Although Renzi can be a inspirational speaker, the manner in which he is coming power — in an effective coup against the well-respected if unspectacular Letta — is creating unease.

The conspiratorial infighting among two leading moderates in Italian politics could favor the opposition.

That’s made up of three main parties: Forza Italia, led by media magnate, three-times prime minister and convicted tax fraudster Silvio Berlusconi; the populist Five-Star movement headed by rabble-rousing ex-comedian Beppe Grillo; and the right-wing Northern League, whose members have been running a racist campaign against the African-born doctor whom Letta brought into government as Italy's first black minister.

The opposition has been quick to criticize Renzi's power grab and reveled in the Democratic Party's divisions.

"The new political era starts with trickery," said the daily Il Giornale, part of Berlusconi's media empire.

The paper ran a headline saying "Renzi nominates himself prime minister" above a portrait of a smiling Berlusconi that took up much of Friday's front page. Grillo likened Letta to Al Capone perpetrating a St. Valentine's Day massacre of Letta's government.

If appointed, Renzi will be Italy's third successive non-elected prime minister.

After Berlusconi was forced to quit in November 2011, former European Union commissioner Mario Monti was called in to lead a technocratic administration. Elections in February last year following the collapse of Monti's government produced no clear winner, and the little-known Letta emerged as a compromise head of a fragile left-right coalition.

Renzi had lost Democratic Party primaries ahead of last year's election, but after the party failed to secure the expected victory, it turned back to him. He was elected party chairman in December.

A successful mayor of Florence, Renzi is a man in a hurry.

After becoming party leader, he quickly announced plans to overhaul the electoral system — which is blamed for Italy's succession of weak governments — and rewrite the constitution to streamline the government by radically reducing the power of the Senate.

Although many paint Renzi as the villain in the plot to overthrow Letta, his supporters say the outgoing premier was weak, part of the entrenched system and unable to push through the changes Italy desperately needs.

Renzi is now poised to get his chance to enact a reform agenda.

He’s a polished communicator who favors open-necked shirts instead of the silk neckties and fancy suits sported by most mainstream male Italian politicians. He’s won fans by bucking political conventions. And in the land of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, his Facebook profile picture features him riding a bike. He's even posed Fonzie-style in a leather jacket for a popular gossip magazine.

But his popularity is far from universal.

A poll taken on Monday showed only 22 percent of Italians favor Renzi’s replacing Letta. Even within his own party, many are queasy over the way Letta was removed and suspicious of Renzi's ambitions.

Unlike many Democratic Party members who have roots in the old Italian Communist Party, Renzi — like Letta — comes from a center-right Christian Democratic background, making him something of a outsider.

That center-right heritage has endeared Renzi to Berlusconi, who’s declared him a man he can do business with.

Renzi reached out to Berlusconi earlier this year to find a consensus on a new electoral law, a move the left denounced as helping rehabilitate the billionaire who was forced out of the Senate and banned from holding office after his conviction for tax fraud last year.

Berlusconi is also facing several ongoing legal proceedings, including for bribery and paying for sex with an underage girl.

Democratic Party members fear Renzi may be manipulated by the 77-year-old tycoon who seems determined to mount a political comeback — Berlusconi's Facebook page is headlined "Still in the game for Italy."

His antics, together with those of Grillo and others, on top of the government’s seemingly perpetual instability, leads many foreigners to dismiss Italian politics as a joke — more opera buffa than Shakespeare.

Nevertheless, the country remains a major player. It's the world's ninth largest economy, the second biggest industrial manufacturer in the euro zone after Germany and the home of major companies such as Chrysler’s owner Fiat.

When the country's $2.73 trillion debt appeared to be pushing Italy toward bankruptcy in the final weeks of Berlusconi's premiership, Europe and the world trembled.

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Italians are now looking at Renzi as a savior who would rescue their politics along with the economy.

"Italians distrust politicians but at the same time they expect a lot from them," Giovanni Orsina of the School of Government at Rome's LUISS University said in an interview last week. "There is a tendency for them to become deluded when they don’t achieve what they want."

The pressure on Renzi is immense, and he knows that Berlusconi, Grillo and the Northern League will be waiting in the wings if he fails.

As he presses for an Italian rebirth, the mayor of Florence may well need more of the ruthlessness he demonstrated in removing Letta.

As Orson Welles once recalled, the Renaissance produced not only Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but also 30 years of "warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed."