Matteo Renzi, leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic party

“Tonight we are young so let’s set the world on fire” – with the lyrics of the American pop group Fun as his campaign theme song, Matteo Renzi is whipping up the support he hopes will bring about the biggest shake-up in Italy’s leftwing politics for more than 20 years.

The 37-year-old reformist mayor of Florence is the ambitious upstart taking on the “dinosaurs” of the Democratic party (PD) as Italians prepare to vote in primaries on Sunday, with five candidates vying to lead the centre-left into general elections expected next March.

Opinion polls give the lead to Pierluigi Bersani, 61-year-old former communist and PD leader who has tacked to the left to tap the party’s base. But Mr Renzi appears on course to take the contest into a second round run-off.

“15 minutes to change Italy” is his latest slogan at a rally in a converted railway station in Florence. “Better to waste 15 minutes in the queue [to vote] rather than the next five years.”

Criss-crossing Italy and running an American-style campaign with his sleeves rolled up in the image of Barack Obama, Mr Renzi has been slammed by party stalwarts for betraying the values of the traditional centre-left and threatening to “scrap”, in the sense of old cars, the gerontocracy running the country.

Mr Renzi has a record of “scrapping” that is generating momentum. He was elected head of the Florence provincial government at 29 and at 34 became mayor, defeating the PD leadership’s chosen candidate along the way. His call for renewal recently claimed the scalps of Walter Veltroni, former party leader, and Massimo D’Alema, former prime minister, who have pledged not to stand again for parliament.

“We proposed [scrapping] because we believe in a braver, simpler and more beautiful Italy,” Mr Renzi declared.

He clearly appeals to younger voters and those fed up with years of political stagnation. But doubts linger over his lack of experience and what he really represents.

Victory at the polls will hang on a large turnout, at a time of widespread disillusionment with politicians in general, and attracting outside moderates, even from Silvio Berlusconi’s disintegrating centre-right where some see the Florentine reformist as a better hope than their own leaders of blocking a return to power of a leftist government under Mr Bersani.

“So what if Renzi attracts people who are not from the PD? It’s good, we need them. The PD needs to open up,” says Elena, a pensioner. “We cannot change the old bad things of the last decades without new faces,” adds Tommaso Nannicini, a 39-year-old university lecturer.

The Renzi agenda would cut the number of parliamentarians, slash their pension privileges and end public financing for parties. Tony Blair’s launch of New Labour in the UK is one of his models for a break with the past.

Mr Renzi is careful to praise Mario Monti, appointed as technocrat prime minister to replace Mr Berlusconi a year ago. But he attacks the government for lacking courage and opposes a second term for Mr Monti as called for by various centrist groups.

“Our biggest advantage is that we are the only ones that have the right to change things because we were not involved in the failed management of the last years,” says Mr Renzi.

His pro-Europe economic proposals include sales of state assets, spending cuts and a continued crackdown on tax evasion. Unlike the centre-right he would not abolish a property tax reintroduced by Mr Monti, while he differs from the far left’s call for a one-off wealth tax.

Among his supporters are financiers and business leaders. A practising Catholic and former boy scout, he has also cultivated the powerful Church establishment.

Should Mr Renzi confound predictions and defeat Mr Bersani, some on the left foresee a party schism and the biggest reshaping of Italy’s political spectrum since the Christian Democrats and Communists disintegrated in the early 1990s.

“I think Renzi is the only positive thing Italian politics has to offer with all his pros and cons,” comments Pierfrancesco Mei, a young reporter following his campaign.

“But the likelihood of his defeat leaves a dangerous vacuum in the weeks to come,” he adds, seeing a shift to the left by the PD under Mr Bersani.

“Don’t forget how conservative the Italians are – on the left as well – and how the political system adapts to this, creating conditions for a miserable status quo, denying the uncertain path of change.”

Get alerts on when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section