Matteo Renzi (pictured) looked like a smug schoolboy as he and his new cabinet were sworn in by Giorgio Napolitano, a president more than twice his age, under the elegant chandeliers and frescoes of the Quirinale Palace.
Dwarfed by the grandeur of the 16th-century palace, which has housed popes, kings and presidents, Italy’s youngest ever prime minister couldn’t stop smiling on Saturday as he formally assumed the position he has always wanted. But the brash 39-year-old — who has promised to overhaul the Italian economy and transform the political landscape — is well aware of the massive job ahead.
“Tough and difficult task,” was how the former Florence mayor described his new job on a tweet on the way into the palace. “But we are Italy, we can do it.”
It’s been just over a week since the secretary of the centre-Left Democratic Party ousted Enrico Letta in a party coup. Letta barely looked at his successor when they met for a chilly official handover after Renzi was sworn in. Out on the streets Italians are still reeling from watching their third unelected prime minister appointed in three years and questioning whether this is democracy.
“My friends say this is not a democratically elected government. But what are we going to do — hold elections every six months?” said Danny, a waiter who works in a cafe just down the hill from the presidential palace in the heart of Rome. “I think we have to be positive — for the first time we have a politician who is not 105 years old.”
Barista Michele Galasso says nothing will change. “He’s just like all the others, we are only changing the name,” he said.
Renzi is known as the “Rottamatore”, or the demolition man, for his desire to smash the political establishment and has made no secret of his admiration for former British PM Tony Blair. But the energetic boy scout leader and one-time winner of Wheel of Fortune is not a member of Parliament and has no national political experience.
“Being outside the political establishment has been a big advantage for Renzi as a campaigner and someone who has always cast himself as an outsider who will come in to clean things up,” said Dr Duncan McDonnell, a research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. “But now he will have to deal on a daily basis with the intricacies of Parliament, the civil service and the state in all its Baroque glory, he may find the lack of experience to be a handicap.”
Renzi is certainly ambitious, last week outlining a plan for fast-tracked financial and political reform to reshape the country in his first few months in office. “By the end of February I will prepare an urgent timetable on constitutional and electoral reforms to bring to the attention of the Parliament,” he said.
To make that happen Renzi will be relying on the loyalty of his coalition partner, Angelino Alfano, head of the New Centre Right party he founded when he broke away from centre-right former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi last year.
Alfano forged a workable alliance with Letta and has kept the powerful interior ministry and two other portfolios for his colleagues in the new coalition government.
Renzi has said he would seek to achieve one major reform every month until May, starting with a new election law, and was accused of betraying the Left when he recently met Berlusconi to discuss it. Berlusconi still heads his centre-right Forza Italia party, and many are furious about the billionaire tycoon’s continuing clout.
“The government is their private affair, Berlusconi-Renzi, and it is hidden from the public. They consulted for six minutes on what? To decide what?” said comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, who heads the radical Five Star Movement.
Grillo’s unrelenting criticism has struck a chord with disaffected voters who are sick and tired of a political class they believe is more concerned with their own survival than the concerns of the people. The economy is struggling to emerge from its worst recession since World War II, and unemployment is running at 12.7% .
“He’s done a deal with Berlusconi, nothing will change,” said Marco, who sells fruit and vegetables in Piazza San Cosimato in Rome. And another vendor: “Who knows how long it will last?”
Renzi should have no trouble winning a confidence vote in the Parliament this week. But Italians are already questioning the longevity of the new government.
“He’s like one of those professional poker players in whose ability others trust and invest their money,” wrote Angelo Panebianco, in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “Now the time has come to see his cards. If the score is good, everyone will benefit. If it’s only a bluff, it will be poor old us.”