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By Marya Pasciuto
In the months since Matteo Renzi took over as Italy’s prime minister, he has received plenty of praise from English-language and mainstream Italian news outlets alike. At 39, he’s the youngest premier since the unification of Italy in 1861, a fact he’s certainly embraced: Youthful vigor is the name of the game in Renzi’s office. Sporting leather jackets and preaching reform, the former mayor of Florence has plenty of appeal for a nation tired of stuffy old men making backdoor deals.
For all his promises of a new era in Italian politics, however, Renzi is not as distant from his older counterparts as his public image suggests. The means by which he took office, for example, is ample indication that Renzi could be more of the same. Spouting his distaste for shady political dealings, Renzi was a supporter of political appointment by election—earlier this year, he even declared that he would not become Italy’s prime minister without a proper election. A mere two weeks later, however, Renzi ousted then-premier and fellow Democratic Party (PD) member Enrico Letta behind closed doors and took office on February 22.
While this move certainly raised eyebrows, most observers seemed to support Renzi as the new prime minister; this acceptance is likely due in no small part to his ambitious agenda of sorely needed reform. Renzi took a few promising measures as he settled into office, including the replacement of many government-owned companies’ CEOs with women and the sale of a number of state-owned luxury cars on eBay. Unfortunately, however, the months that followed have seen more stalling than steps forward—the Italian political blog Valigia Blu has created a page demonstrating how few promises Renzi has kept and counting down the days to looming deadlines.
The media are quick to brush these failures aside, instead applauding Renzi’s declarations that Italy’s old and corrupt politicians should step down. Renzi continues, however, to work with disgraced members of the old guard. A standout is Silvio Berlusconi, the infamous three-time PM who is currently carrying out a community service sentence for tax fraud and who, in a recent surprise ruling, was cleared for soliciting an underage prostitute.
Al Jazeera’s coverage of the recent court decision mentions that Berlusconi’s lucky break is good for Renzi, who is counting on votes from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party for constitutional reform. That this young new prime minister fraternizes with the face of corrupt Italian politics is troubling, especially considering his outspoken dedication to leaving old politics behind.
Despite Renzi’s weak promises and moral fiber, he received further praise at the end of May when the PD took over 40 percent of the vote in the European elections. Renzi’s critics are quick to point out, however, that it was the party, not its leader, that garnered these votes. Many PD members are skeptical of the ambitious premier.
Italian journalist and writer Francesco Conte sheds some light on this skepticism, saying of Renzi, “His idea of changing the constitution in a fast and furious way [in June] sparked accusations by 13 senators of his own party.” According to Conte, the PD “was indeed not very supportive of Renzi… The centre right [including Forza Italia] instead is quite supportive of Renzi.”
As Italy, and thus Renzi, took the six-month rotating European Union presidency on July 1, Italy and other Eurozone members can expect to watch the charismatic leader speak passionately in favor of relaxing the organization’s current fiscal austerity measures, which he says hold back the struggling Italian economy. His odds of success, however, are bleaker than La Repubblica and Financial Times suggest; Renzi is quickly learning that it takes more than charisma and eloquence to move the EU to give him what he wants. While rubbing elbows with Angela Merkel has helped Renzi to garner further legitimacy, a friendly relationship with the popular German PM will likely be insufficient to loosen the restrictions to the degree that Renzi desires. Thus, the Italian people will likely suffer on the European stage as their eager leader’s lofty goals fall short.
If Renzi has failed to deliver on so many of his promises, and support from even his own party is somewhat shaky, why is he being touted as “Italy’s savior,” or even “the man to save Europe’s soul?” These shamelessly optimistic views on the Italian PM could be the result of a long period of leaders who ran the country poorly, allowed corruption to run rampant, and even committed crimes while in office. Certainly, Renzi is an improvement over some of his predecessors: He hasn’t been on trial for numerous offenses like Berlusconi, and unlike Berlusconi’s successor, Mario Monti, he hasn’t been scorned as a technocratic elitist.
But refraining from criminal behavior does not render Renzi worthy of acclaim. From his path to power and his first 100 days in office to his handling of the European Union thus far, Renzi is proving not to be the godsend that both English-language and mainstream Italian media make him out to be. Rather, it is much healthier to view him is as the latest, and possibly the most promising, in a string of questionable Italian leaders. While Renzi certainly has the capacity to enact change in Italy, the praise he has received does not reflect the actual work he has accomplished. Observers both in Italy and abroad should be careful not to conflate a clean criminal record and command of rhetoric with the ability to quickly solve Italy’s deeply-rooted and complex issues.
Given its ongoing economic crisis, rampant corruption, and suffocating bureaucracy, there is no doubt that Italy desperately needs a leader who can bring about meaningful change. Instead of merely delivering inspiring speeches about what needs to be done, Renzi must step up and deliver on his promises to prove that he is the man for the job. He stands to significantly influence the nation’s trajectory, according to Conte: “Renzi's reforms of the Senate and of public administration, if successful, would bear fruit in years, decades even. So, the dream (or nightmare) will be long.”
Conte gives voice to millions of skeptical Italians when he refers to Renzi and his vision for Italy as “a dream with no obligation to come true,” but this does not have to be so. If he can direct his energy to more meaningful action than amassing unwarranted praise, Renzi could become the breath of fresh air that the Italian people hope he can be.
Marya Pasciuto is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.