Matteo Renzi, the golden boy of Italian politics about to take power

Matteo Renzi, bold and with a touch of arrogance, awaits a tap on the shoulder so he can set about lifting Italy out of its economic quagmire

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 2:48pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 5:19am

In 1994, the year that Silvio Berlusconi won his first general election, a bespectacled 19-year-old with luxuriant hair and an earnest expression appeared on one of the billionaire's channels as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, or, as it is known in Italy, La Ruota della Fortuna.

Watching the clip today, the teenager in his brown suit and carefully fixed tie is not immediately recognisable, but his voice is. At a certain point during the show, he is heard to declare: "I would like to give the answer."

Twenty years on, Matteo Renzi is still saying the same thing - only now the problem isn't a word game, but Italy itself.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was due to hold talks with political parties yesterday before choosing a new prime minister, with the nomination seen as a cinch for leftist leader Renzi.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta was forced to quit his post after his own Democratic Party (PD) backed the 39-year-old former Boy Scout in pushing for a new government to help lift Italy out of its economic quagmire.

The presidency said Napolitano would move "quickly" to name a new government.


Observers have said a politician who built his persona on a rejection of the old political guard appears to have put himself in pole position with skills that could have come straight from the rulebook of fellow Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli.

And, while most supporters understand why he had to act now under the old system, many would have preferred to see him continue his work to push through a replacement electoral law from outside parliament, and keep his golden-boy image untarnished by the trouble that almost certainly lies ahead.

In his speech to the PD's national committee on Thursday, Renzi made it clear he was taking what he saw as a necessary gamble to save Italy "from the quagmire" and set it, finally, on a path of radical reform. Such was the urgency, he said, that he needed to take the risk.

"He who is in politics has the duty of taking a risk sometimes," he said. "If I had not taken risks at certain points in my life I would still be in my second term as president of Florence province."

Frank, bold and with a touch of arrogance, the comments were Renzi down to a T. Moreover, they referred to what is considered a defining moment: the point in September 2008 when he decided that, having become Italy's youngest provincial president at 29, he wanted more: the mayorship of Florence.

To do so, however, he had to enter the PD primaries - something he was given to understand was not on his party bosses' agenda. In his 2011 book, Fuori! (Out!), the man who came to be known as Il Rottamatore - The Scrapper - for his disregard for the old political machine recalled being told to "wait in line".

"I didn't want to submit to their rules, the rules of a generation that has already given all it had to give," he wrote. Renzi stood, and won.

His blend of chutzpah and dynamism seduced many voters, who felt he articulated their own exasperation with an ageing, sclerotic political class. His position as a moderate within the PD allowed him to appeal to centre-right voters tired of Berlusconi and centre-left voters who had lost hope for their own party.

His eye then wandered to an altogether different place: the headquarters of the PD.

At the end of a long and vigorous battle for the party leadership in 2012, Renzi lost out to Pier Luigi Bersani, the candidate of the PD's old guard.

But Renzi continued his celebrity-like political career. He was photographed in a leather jacket and dark glasses and appeared in a television talent show. Some said he was a kindred spirit of Berlusconi, too slick to be serious, that his policies were not always clear and that he lacked experience.

Despite these reservations, Renzi finally won over his party in December, winning his second leadership contest by a landslide.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse