Renzi is certain to be asked by the president to form a government
after Letta hands in his resignation on Friday.
The 39-year-old mayor of Florence has never hidden his ambition to
lead Italy, but until this week it was assumed that he planned to do
so by winning an election, not by a political maneuver that polls
say most Italians disapprove of.
The new leader of the Democratic Party (PD) presents himself as a
straight-talking outsider who despises Rome's baroque political
deals that have seen five of the last seven prime ministers
appointed without a direct mandate from voters.
He either decided that he had too much to lose by biding his time or
that he has the ability to push through strong reforms to revive a
stagnant economy and Italians will soon forgive him.
"Putting oneself on the line right now carries an element of risk,
but a politician has the duty to take risks at certain moments,"
Renzi told the PD leadership committee on Thursday in his speech
asking them to withdraw their backing from Letta.
An opinion poll by the Piepoli institute published on Wednesday
showed only 14 percent of voters supported the idea of Renzi taking
over from Letta without a vote.
The PD backed its leader, but the overwhelming vote in favor of
Renzi's coup masks deep misgivings within the party.
"This is a gamble that risks damaging not only Renzi, but also the
PD and the country," said Giuseppe Civati, a high profile deputy who
was defeated by Renzi in a primary for the party leadership in
Renzi will be the youngest head of government in the European Union.
Not only has he never run for prime minister but he has never even
been elected to parliament and will be the first prime minister not
to have a seat since former central bank governor Carlo Azeglio
Ciampi in 1993.
Having gained power without a direct mandate, Renzi knows he will be
even more criticized if his government flounders. Yet one thing he
has never lacked is self-confidence.
Recognized as a superb communicator, he cultivates a youthful image,
likes to talk and dress casually and is often described as brash,
cocky and lacking in substance.
Known for arriving at public events in Florence on his bicycle,
Renzi prefers to gulp down coca-cola and pizza rather than dine in
the discreet Rome restaurants traditionally favored by senior
In a popular impersonation by Italy's best-known comedian, Renzi
captivates his audience with a mesmerizing sequence of catchy but
totally meaningless phrases.
Renzi espouses market-friendly policies like reducing public
spending and taxes, cutting red tape and easing firing restrictions.
He has also said that while pursuing structural reforms Italy should
allow its budget deficit to exceed European Union limits.
[to top of second column]
He is backed by a large part of Italy's industrial and financial
elite, though he has no experience of national government and his
policy prescriptions remain vague.
Since his landslide victory in the PD primary in December Renzi, a
former boy scout who began his political career in a now defunct
Catholic centrist party, has never been out of the headlines.
He moved fast to try to broker a cross-party deal on a reform of
electoral rules blamed for Italy's chronic political instability,
and those proposals are now before parliament.
He has also shown considerable steel in consolidating his grip on
the PD by facing down internal dissent from the leftist arm of the
party which has always campaigned against him.
But at the same time he systematically weakened Letta and his
government with constant sniping from the sidelines, blaming the
prime minister for moving too slowly to reform the euro zone's most
sluggish economy over the last decade.
Renzi could hardly be more different from the solid but dull Letta
and the two men have a thinly veiled disdain for each other despite
both coming from the centrist, Catholic arm of the PD rather than
the larger left-wing component.
It was widely thought that Renzi wanted to broker a deal on
electoral reform and then win an election in 2015 — when Letta had
repeatedly hinted he would step down — at the head of a strong
majority that would allow him to govern effectively.
His change of strategy suggests he either thinks he can do better
than Letta at the head of the same fragile left-right coalition, or
he believes he can change the coalition to include parliamentarians
from parties currently in opposition.
He has appealed to lawmakers from the anti-establishment 5-Star
Movement to abandon their hard line opposition and support PD
Renzi is certainly not afraid to make enemies and rode roughshod
over protests from shopkeepers and motorists to pedestrianise the
historic center of Florence.
He may find it much harder to trample down the web of political
resistance and vested interests that have hampered economic reform
at the national level for decades.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.