It might seem strange that a rising star of the Italian left would jump into bed with right-wing firebrand and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Andy yet that’s exactly what Matteo Renzi, the Florence mayor who was elected to lead the center-left Democratic Party (PD) after it tanked in last year’s elections, has been doing, apparently convinced the three-time prime minister’s support is essential if he is to push through electoral reforms and revive an economy that has been dormant for a decade.
Together, the two have an ambitious proposal that would federalize transportation and energy powers currently held by regional governments, eliminate direct elections to the Senate (and reduce its power, which is currently equal to the lower house, creating a constant logjam), and provide a boost to parties with strong showings to help them achieve governing majorities. Last February’s disaster forced ideological nemeses into a grand coalition under Prime Minister Enrico Letta that continues to govern the country — albeit not very effectively — and added a sense of urgency to the reform drive, as did the emergence of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which holds that most political elites in Rome are evil.
Now Renzi is chastising lawmakers for their hesitation, warning that the failure to enact these structural reforms will sap the grand coalition of its purpose and kick the can down the road once again when it comes to breathing life into Southern Europe’s weakest economy (after Greece, of course). Polls show the public backs this agreement, even if longtime Italian political observers remain dubious of Berlusconi’s intentions. Should he succeed, Renzi would suddenly be on the fast-track to replace Letta, currently PD’s deputy secretary and more of a technocrat than movement leader. But his biggest impediment might ultimately be the very thing that elevated his stature: partnering with the most despised man on the Italian left, one who may be out of government and yet remains a major fundraising and media draw for conservative candidates and an archetype of corruption. It’s hard to imagine the PD, teaming as it is with former Communists and activist progressives, going along. The same can be said for Five Star, which one suspects would absolutely love to run against a Berlusconi crony, albeit a charismatic one. Renzi clearly can play the inside game, but has yet to face extended national exposure as a potential premier. Nonetheless, if he can clear the plausibility threshold, and Berlusconi doesn’t pull the rug out from their alliance, he has to be considered the early favorite to lead the next government.