The latest political developments in Rome have all the elements of drama that would not be out of place in the Eternal City’s most turbulent times. The young, ambitious mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, moved with masterful strategy: First he won the leadership of his party and, as we saw on Thursday, is reaching for the post of prime minister, betraying his fellow party member Enrico Letta, who governed for less than 10 months. Renzi, 39, took center stage waving a banner proclaiming “Everything must change.” In Italy, however, no one forgets the immortal cynicism of a character in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s masterpiece, “The Leopard,” who comments, “If we want things to remain as they are, we must change everything.”
Italy is at a crossroad, as Renzi noted on Thursday. Developments will show whether he has started a revolution that will push the eurozone’s third-largest economy out of its stupor or the drama will end with a change of players in government roles. Will everything change or will it stay the same?
Providing special depth to the action is the shadow of the most corrupt expression of the political system – Silvio Berlusconi. Renzi pulled his party’s support from the government that it leads after coming to an agreement with Berlusconi to reform the electoral law and change the constitution. “We have to offer a way out of the marshes” and implement a “radical program,” Renzi told his Democratic Party’s National Committee on Thursday. Letta, 47, chose to wait in his office for the outcome of the meeting – a vote by 136 to 16 for his government to be changed. On Friday Letta will offer his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano and it appears that Renzi will become prime minister. The Guardian’s website reported that Berlusconi will head his Forza Italia party’s team in talks for a new government. If that is the case, Letta is out and Berlusconi is back.
For months, Renzi was critical of Letta’s government, saying that it it was not moving toward necessary reforms. The irony, which will not have evaded Renzi, is that for months Letta was trapped by the need to handle Berlusconi, who was threatening to bring down the coalition if it did not support him in his effort to stay in politics after being convicted of tax fraud. In November, Letta won a confidence vote with the support of deputies who split from Berlusconi’s party and it appeared that Italy was finally free of the man who had played a leading role in its politics for the past 20 years and was widely seen as representing its inertia.
In choosing to bring down Letta, Renzi will have to prove that he is cooperating with Berlusconi only in order to implement serious reform. He runs the risk of finding out that it was easier to betray his meek comrade than to get the better of the wily old tomcat of Italy.