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Matteo Renzi: Italy’s fake revolution

Last week, Matteo Renzi’s government obtained the backing of the Italian Parliament, aiming to revolutionise the country's old politics. But can his political style and smart tweeting be enough?

Michele Barbero
5 March 2014
Demotix/Donatella Giagnori. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Donatella Giagnori. All rights reserved.

Last week, Matteo Renzi’s government obtained the backing of the Italian Parliament. In just a few months, Renzi has registered an impressive series of personal successes, moving from mayor of Florence, to secretary of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), to new premier. Now, the man who has proclaimed himself as the “rottamatore”, the demolisher of an old and corrupt political class, behaves like he is ready to carry out his revolution. 

Some differences with the past are remarkable indeed. True, polemics have erupted over the judicial troubles of some recently appointed, low-rank officials, showing that establishing a new course is easier said than done. But the executive chosen by Renzi is the youngest in Italy’s Republican history, and has the highest number of female ministers. 

The real revolution, anyway, seems to lie in Renzi's style and communication. His public image is fresh and lively as no other centre-left leader's in the past twenty years. The contrast with previous premier Enrico Letta couldn't be more striking. To use a school metaphor, Letta would be the over-cautious pupil who always does his homework, Renzi the Fonzie-like guy who breaks hearts with his charm and boldness. 

With his casual wear and his headline-catching statements, the new PM seems to have mesmerised the nation. The media shows an obsessive interest in anything he does or says, and Renzi skilfully exploits this attention to his own political advantage. Thus, while everybody talks about his blunt tweets, his Smart car and his playful facial expressions, much less energy is expended on discussing the feasibility of his (usually vague) promises.

But if Renzi’s style is revolutionary, especially by leftist standards, other more substantial aspects of his political adventure are not. In particular, his takeover of Letta's job has been carried out through another, humiliating self-defeat of the Democratic Party - which has recently become quite used to such political suicides. Matteo Renzi withdrew his support to the fellow Democrat and took his place while keeping the same, broad coalition that includes forces of the centre-right. The previous executive was facing a stalemate on many fronts, but Renzi, in spite of his rottamazione rhetoric, has had a hard time explaining how things are going to be any different now. His move has thus been perceived by many as yet another example of the endless conflicts of power that consume the Democratic Party, very little of it having to do with political programmes or ideology.

Although his latest actions have backfired on Renzi in the polls, in the medium-long term this negative impact will probably be compensated for by the new PM's unrivalled potential for employing his communication talents, from the country's most visible vantage point. But in the meantime, the PD's credibility has suffered another heavy blow. Sacrificing the party on the altar of his own political career, Renzi has officially enrolled the PD into the club of highly-personalised parties, which count little more than as stages and springboards for their leaders. This is another reason why Renzi’s revolution, at closer scrutiny, does not seem so revolutionary after all.

In the past years, Italians have repeatedly thrown themselves into the clutches of charismatic leaders. Silvio Berlusconi's two-decade domination over the country’s politics is the most obvious example. But even after the tycoon’s popularity started to wane, many voters have shown similar attitudes towards other political figures, such as former comedian Beppe Grillo. From this perspective, Renzi may be just another comet in the Italian political sky, whose brightness may dim quickly enough once he fails to rise to the high expectations he has created.

It is often said that Italians always need a strong leader to follow blindly, but after a while they get tired of him and hang him upside down -  a reference to the end of Mussolini's regime. For now, Renzi is still enjoying the enthusiasm of a big part of the Italian electorate. But he will have to do more than smart tweeting if he wants to keep the fire burning.

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