When I read Italian newspapers and other publications, I studiously avoid articles about Italian politics. Way too confusing…same with Italian football. But recently the New Yorker published a long article about Matteo Renzi, the Prime Minister of Italy. It was quite fascinating, and I will try to distill some of the highlights.
Italians who admire Matteo Renzi call him “our best hope.” More skeptical Italians say, “Well, maybe our only hope.” The Western press uses terms like “brash” but “confident.” And his enemies use the term il rottamatore, the demolition man.
Renzi agrees with his enemies. “I’m cleaning up the swamp.” By swamp, he means the waste, the deadly bureaucracy, the swelled ranks of Italy’s public administration, the unemployment now at 40% among the youth, the outrageously slow pace of the justice system, and the culture of cronyism, perks, payoffs, tax evasion, and cheating—not to mention the various mafias, from the Cosa Nostra to the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta, that dominate too much of the economy of the south and even part of the north.
“We love Italy, everybody loves Italy…and this is the risk for my country,” says Renzi, the youngest prime minister in Italy’s history. It’s a way of saying we’re used to the swamp we have, we know our way around in it, and why bet on a future that might be worse? Many, if not most, Italians distrust government to make positive change. “Italians love their past and their present, but they need a vision of their future,” Renzi adds.
Renzi, who had been mayor of Florence, moved into the Palazzo Chigi, the Prime Minister’s official residence, with a to-do list. “A reform a month,” he promised. He was going to radically change the labor market in Italy, reduce the maddening ineptness of public administration, reform the justice system to shorten the process for civil cases, remake a parliament that had grown to more than a thousand extravagantly paid members, generate foreign investment that is half the EU average, confront corruption with “values,” rewrite the election laws to produce a majority-rules system, and so on.
Renzi has made progress. For example, tax evasion—a national pastime that Berlusconi had decriminalized in 2002 and Renzi recriminalized this year—has been redefined to include under-the-table jobs that account for up to 20% of Italy’s economy.
However, none of these reforms will mean much unless he can turn around the fiscal and economic crises that he inherited. At the beginning of 2015, Italy’s sovereign debt—money owed to all public and private lenders—was 2.16 trillion euros. These reforms will be difficult in a country in which ideology has long taken precedence over negotiation and compromise.
Renzi is committed, charming, and tough. He’s not very deep intellectually, but he has a fantastic ability to absorb good ideas, say some people. He is not afraid to fight and is very competitive. He has none of the vices that Italians have come to expect in their politicians. He isn’t a womanizer and he isn’t corrupt, and by all reports, he isn’t even interested in money.
Renzi’s one vice may be his interest in controlling what he would call “the narrative” of his entitlement. He likes to cultivate his image as a gentle knight on a noble crusade. He believes that he is the only person who can save Italy. Of course he has political enemies—the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement on the left, and Matteo Salvini’s new Lega party on the right. Renzi likes to cultivate his image as a man beleaguered by these crazies because it makes him seem more essential to saving Italy. At this point, we hope he can.