This Time Is Different

Why Matteo Renzi's Italy Won't Be a Basket Case

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi talks during a confidence vote in Rome on February 24, 2014 Courtesy Reuters

In the weeks prior to last month’s elections for European Parliament, Italy’s chattering class was looking forward to a neck-and-neck race. The polls seemed to suggest that Democratic Party candidates loyal to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi would struggle to defeat candidates loyal to Beppe Grillo, a former television comedian and founder of an anti-EU protest movement called Five Stars. The anticipated tie didn’t inspire confidence. Italians, commentators argued, were destined to become ever more skeptical of the EU, and the prospects for political reform would be severely diminished. In the influential weekly magazine L’Espresso, Piero Ignazi, a professor of political science at the University of Bologna, wrote that “Grillo’s approval will keep rising” until the Italian government submitted to his demands. 

The elections proved the pundits dead wrong. Renzi’s party scored an impressive 40.8 percent of votes, a feat that was last achieved in 1958 and that initiated 50 years of rule by the Christian Democratic Party. Grillo, by contrast, scored only 21 percent, five percent less than in the last national election. Renzi’s other competitors fared little better. Former Prime Minister Mario Monti’s party failed to qualify for the parliament; former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party earned only 16 percent. 

After the elections, Renzi was no longer just Italy’s prime minister -- he was a beacon of a brighter future. Renzi, a 39-year-old ex–Boy Scout from Florence, won the allegiance of the Italian electorate by promising to reform Italy’s sclerotic political and economic systems. He pledged to modernize Italy’s labor market by allowing companies to hire on three-year temporary contracts. He vowed to drastically cut public spending by a total of 10 billion euros ($13.5 billion), and balance the budget by prosecuting tax dodgers defrauding the Italian chest of an estimated 100 billion euros ($135 billion) annually. He also wants to simplify the country’s notoriously complex political system by abolishing the upper house of parliament and passing a new electoral law that would ensure that,

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