Forza Matteo? The Leadership Capital of Matteo Renzi

One of the few political leaders to emerge stronger out of last month’s European elections was Italy’s Matteo Renzi. In his first electoral test since becoming Prime Minister in February, Italy’s ‘young’ and ‘dynamic’ leader has scored an impressive win, seemingly vindicating his plans for radical reform and dealing a blow to Beppe Grillo’s ‘anti-system’ Five Star Movement-see the statistics and breakdown from James Newell here.

Renzi came to power following an internal party battle (or palace coup), after being Mayor of Florence and a regional leader. He has offered a new vision of change promising to modernise Italy politically, socially and economically. In fact, he has committed to one radical change a month. He has invited, and encouraged, comparisons with Tony Blair (see an interview here and a BBC profile here).

So, looking across at the LCI, what are his prospects? How much leadership capital does he have and what can he do?

On the one hand, he has the communication and vision, two powerful capital building tools. Renzi’s relaxed communication style is very ‘of the people’ and is part of his popularity-even Armani’s recent advice to smarten up may help him. His style, to Italian eyes, appears rather ‘Anglo-Saxon’, with constant TV appearances, tweeting and a near ubiquitous media presence. Renzi’s resemblance to Blair can also be seen in his modernising vision-it is progressive, promising centre-left/centrist political, social and economic change. In the context of Italy’s ‘stagnation’, Renzi agenda is striking.

On the other hand, his relations with his party (or parties) are rather complex. Renzi, elected only by his party, is leading a rather fragile ‘Grand Coalition’ of Right and Left, within an even more complicated and fragmented party system.

This also plays into his reputation and his policy. Renzi’s ‘transforming rhetoric’, this article argues, has not yet translated into realistic detail. His promise of a ‘reform a month’ set out a strict timetable of priorities: ‘By the end of February, I will prepare an urgent timetable on constitutional and electoral reforms to bring to the attention of the parliament…Immediately after that, in March, employment reform; then in April, public administration; and in May, tax reform.”

The results appear to have fallen a little short so far. His one off payment of 80 Euro to low paid workers helped but there is concern at progress on the deeper reforms to the labour market, especially as the Italian economy proved unexpectedly sluggish in the first quarter of 2014. Early drafts of his much vaunted ‘Jobs Act’ have been heavily criticised.

His political reforms have also been somewhat underwhelming. The original electoral law was set to reform both Houses to end the ‘asymmetric bicameralism’ and ensure there is no more ‘deadlock’. Reform has now focused on the Senate, a lesser deal brokered with the help of Silvio Berlusconi. Interestingly, Renzi (like Blair) claims the reform of the Upper House is just stage one-with stage two, the trickier part, left for the future.

As this FT piece points out, there is concern at a lack of detail behind the slogans of change. Renzi faces a rather difficult context and it claims he is ‘already behind schedule on several fronts, held up by a fractured parliament, divisions within his own centre-left Democratic party and a powerful bureaucracy that is resistant to change’. His vision, also like Blair’s, is somewhat woolly and vague. Those hoping for a sharp discontinuity with Berlusconi, or radicalism to match Grillo, may find themselves disappointed. His recent speech describing the EU as an ‘elderly Aunt’ was ‘replete with colourful metaphors but short on specifics’.

So where next for Renzi’s leadership capital? His vision, combined with his communication skills and ‘credit’ from his Euro victory are likely to extend his honeymoon-with leadership capital success breeds success. The political context of crisis and gridlock in Italy further emphasises Renzi’s ‘difference’ from previous leaders.

As this article points out however, Renzi’s reform agenda is ‘no sure thing’. He will need to begin achieving, to fill up the statute book to maintain the energy and support over the longer term and hold together his coalition. The lurking Obama-esque danger is of a visionary who cannot match their reforming rhetoric. As an unelected leader, interestingly, he has rejected one obvious way of building his leadership capital-via electoral mandate. He rejected calls for a ‘snap’ election, promising to govern until 2018. Can Renzi avoid the fate of so many other ‘unelected’ Prime Ministers?