Has Italy's Left Found its Own Obama?

  • Share
  • Read Later

Matteo Renzi

Italians are normally not good at waiting in line. During the weekly trip to the bank or post office it helps to have sharp elbows and a sense of entitlement. Getting on a bus or train can be more like packing down in a rugby scrum. But when those big moments in life arrive — the next step in your career, a business idea to launch, moving out of your parent's home — Italy is afflicted by a troubling surplus of patience.

Nowhere is that more true than in politics, where Italy's gerontocracy and unwritten party rules co-opt the young with the false promise that they should wait for a few years and their turn will come around. By the time they do finally step up, once aspiring (and inspiring) leaders have long since lost their mojo and forgotten the new ideas they once had. (See pictures of Italy's good life.)

What Italian politics desperately needs is a queue jumper, and it may have found just the man. On Feb. 16, Matteo Renzi, 34, beat out two establishment figures in the Democratic Party primary ahead of the race for mayor of Florence. This is the second time Renzi has pushed his way to the front of the line. Five years ago, at just 29, he bested experienced rivals to win the post of President of the Florentine province, a somewhat less influential role that is, nevertheless, normally occupied by gray-haired men.

Renzi's rise comes at a difficult time for the Democratic Party, the main center-left opposition to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition government. At the national level, the party is in utter disarray, mired in petty battles of personalities and unable to cast aside the remnants of bygone labels and ideologies. This week, Democratic party chief Walter Veltroni resigned after the party's sitting member in Sardinia was walloped in regional elections by Berlusconi's hand-picked candidate. After Veltroni's resignation, Berlusconi quipped that he is "getting used to not having an opposition."

Renzi is the Democratic Party's chance at change. Florence's mayoral election is in June and he is expected to easily win the left-leaning city. "If he becomes mayor of Florence, he becomes the hope," says one Rome-based opposition insider. "Then people start talking about the Italian Obama; start saying 'I've seen the future of Italian politics.'" (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.)

The son of a Tuscan small business owner, Renzi has focused his efforts on making the provincial government more efficient and delivering services. In particular, he's improved Florentine school facilities, expanded recycling and seems to have a solution to flooding along the Arno river.

A practicing Catholic, Renzi says he won't let the Vatican guide his policy. In the primary, he ran a classic grass-roots campaign using the Internet, Facebook and other tactics drawn from Obama's successful presidential run. "I'm a politician," he says. "I don't perform miracles. I've just tried to make the administration of government work better, day in and day out."

Sometimes boisterous and, yes, still a bit baby-faced, Renzi was first featured in TIME three years ago when I profiled Italy's crippling generation gap ahead of the 2006 poll that pitted Romano Prodi against Berlusconi, two candidates then pushing 70. We caught up again last summer when Renzi was watching Barack Obama's unlikely story unfold and preparing to defy the party bosses in Florence and Rome with his bid for the mayoralty. "Everyone was telling me to stay put, that the smart move was to run for another term at the province," Renzi says. "I said 'no thank you. I'm running for mayor.'" One regional party boss in Tuscany even told him explicitly: "Respect the line, buddy, wait your turn. I said 'No, in fact, I'm cutting the line!'"

This weekend, in the wake of Veltroni's departure, Democratic leaders will gather in Rome to discuss the way ahead. The party has no real strategy to take on Berlusconi, and no real new ideas to fix Italy. Perhaps it's time to think the unthinkable and hope that Renzi cuts the line again.

See pictures of Rome's famous and fabulous coffee bars.

Read a TIME story on Renzi.