02/07/2014 05:12 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

The Man Who Aims To Break The Italian Political Stalemate


ROME -- Confident, self-assured, at times even a little arrogant, 39-year-old Matteo Renzi has in recent months conquered the Italian political scene. His planned electoral and constitutional reforms hold the potential to break a deadlock that has engulfed the country for years.

Since assuming the leadership of Italy’s Democratic Party in December, Renzi has already changed its face: in his office, women now outnumber men, and many are in their 20s and 30s -- a stark contrast to the middle-aged and older males who traditionally dominate Italian politics.

As Renzi by many accounts mounts a bid to become prime minister, he is staking his reputation on two complex reforms: he aims to alter Italy's formula for creating its government, requiring the party that ultimately rules to secure a larger percentage of the vote, and he seeks to compress the two chambers of the legislature into one.

Renzi became party secretary by capturing nearly 70 percent of the votes cast in primary elections, in what analysts have widely construed as a broad mandate to pursue his chosen reforms. He swiftly delivered a draft of the proposed electoral law to parliament. He has championed it by collaborating with the very man oft-derided by the Italian left as the primary culprit for Italian paralysis: Silvio Berlusconi, the ex-prime minister and leader of the right-leaning Forza Italia, now convicted of financial fraud and forbidden from holding public office.

Their collaboration horrified many politicians and activists, yet held the potential to break a stalemate that has been in place since late 2005, when the current electoral law was approved by parliament. Ineffective and deemed partially unconstitutional by the courts, the 2005 law failed to make Italy’s electoral process any simpler, and was later dismissed by the politician who drafted it, Roberto Calderoli, as "a piece of crap."

The new proposed law is by no means perfect, experts say, but it appears to address some of the previous law’s weak points.

The old law handed majority powers to whichever political party garnered the most votes, while the new proposal requires a party to secure at least 37 percent of all votes to achieve majority status. The proposal also limits the power of so-called blocs -- groups of candidates selected by the parties -- and gives voters greater chances to select candidates individually.

Renzi aims to get the electoral law approved by May. At the same time, the secretary of the Democratic Party is also aiming to pull off a reform of the Senate: a true revolution for the Italian political system that would involve overcoming its so-called "perfect bicameralism."

The Italian parliament is composed of two houses -- the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate -- both of which actually serve the same purpose. This balance of powers was set up in the wake of World War II by lawmakers who were attempting to protect the country from a return to fascism.

Renzi’s proposed reform would transform half of the parliament -- the Senate -- into a chamber for regional issues, a change he believes would save the state large amounts of money and render decision-making processes shorter and less muddled.

Renzi’s third strongpoint is a plan for reducing unemployment among young people and creating new jobs.

Italy’s current unemployment crisis is dramatic. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, unemployment continues to rise among young people. In November 2013 (the most recent figure available), it reached 41.6 percent -- up 0.2 percent from October and 4 percent from November 2012. These are the highest figures since 1977, when this kind of data was first collected.

Although some critics say Renzi's plan is too vague and lacks innovation, Renzi claims it will make Italy’s job market more flexible and dynamic. For example, he says it will become easier for employers to lay off new hires within their first years of employment. Under the current system, companies are often reluctant to provide new jobs because of how difficult it is to fire someone.

Renzi’s insistence on constitutional and employment reforms reflects his determination to become prime minister in 2015 (or even earlier), when the next general elections will likely be held.

There are no easy predictions for 2014. Relations between Renzi and Prime Minister Enrico Letta (who belongs to the same party) are tense. Letta's government has been in precarious equilibrium since its inception, and he was invited to take office by the country's president -- rather than being elected by Italian voters -- which weakens his position considerably.

Renzi, on the other hand, enjoys strong public approval. The immaturity of the Five Star Movement -- a political party led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, which surprised many by winning 25 percent of the vote in the last elections -- has played to Renzi’s favor. At first, the party attracted voters disillusioned with Italy’s political status quo, but it quickly proved that it's incapable of debating in parliament and is ill-equipped to handle the work of actually governing. The center-right, currently divided into three parties but ready to reunite in the case of elections, has the advantage in the polls, but will likely suffer in the long run from the lack of a charismatic leader to replace Berlusconi, who is 77 years old.

If he plays his cards right, Renzi will have a smooth road to Chigi Palace. The main obstacle may be Renzi himself, if he succumbs to the temptation of propaganda instead of focusing on giving substance to his economic proposals.