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Renzi crowns swift ascent with premiership bid

Florence mayor and PD leader would be Italy's youngest PM

13 February, 19:32
Renzi crowns swift ascent with premiership bid (By Sandra Cordon and Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, February 13 - Italy's likely new premier Matteo Renzi appears to have crowned a rapid ascent to the country's top job on the basis of a strong reform platform which has broad popular appeal.

If he is handed a government-formation mandate by President Giorgio Napolitano, the 39-year-old Renzi could become Italy's youngest-ever premier.

Thanks to his relative youth and lack of national experience, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is seen as representing the kind of generational change that corruption-weary voters just might be looking for.

Renzi, Italy's third straight unelected premier, is mayor of his native Florence and has never been a member of parliament - which to many, is a strong advantage in Italian politics, tainted by decades of scandal, pork-barrel policies and political entitlement.

He was defeated in his first bid in December 2012 to take the PD leadership, ending well behind Pier Luigi Bersani, who resigned after he failed to create a coalition government following February 2013's inconclusive general election and gtwo months of stalemate.

Renzi persevered and in December 2013, won a subsequent PD party primary by a landslide.

He continues to ride the wave of strong approval ratings that have led some to compare him to a young Tony Blair, the telegenic former Labour prime minister of Britain who was criticized by some for steering his party away from its leftist roots. The law-school graduate from the University of Florence plays up his youthful and dynamic image, usually appearing on stage in black jeans and a white shirt, cuffs rolled back to indicate his willingness to get down to business. In a photo spread for the Italian issue of Vanity Fair magazine published shortly before the December primary, Renzi appeared in a similarly styled outfit, demonstrating his preparedness for the hard work of governing Italy.

He is also frequently photographed in a leather bomber jacket, a contrast to the usual buttoned-down designer suits of Italy's political class.

Similarly, he is often seen riding a bicycle or driving a Smart car, nods to his environmental awareness.

Renzi's ascent has been relatively swift despite claims he has little real-world experience other than a stint working for his family's marketing services firm.

The father of three children and a Catholic Boy Scout for 20 years, Renzi boasts a precocious appearance on Italy's most popular game show and is known for his common touch and fast-talking command of policy briefs - though critics claim he is too fond of sound-bites.

He is often seen dominating political chat shows, while the cameras have followed him in his passions for running and five-a side soccer.

Renzi cut his teeth in the Italian People's Party, the successor to the Christian Democrat (DC) party that ruled Italy from the war until the Bribesville scandals of the early 1990s.

He joined the PD in 2007 and is seen as having the strongest centrist Catholic roots in the party's leadership history, dominated by post-Communists.

He was distrusted by old-guard leftists but the party swung solidly behind him when he proved his cross-party appeal as the PD's best answer to centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, only ever defeated by another former Christian Democrat, Romano Prodi, on two occasions. Renzi first served as president of Florence province, a job he held for five years, before he was elected mayor of the city of Florence itself in June 2009 by a strong vote, almost 50% compared with his rival's 32%.

Only a year after being sworn into that post, Renzi began to talk about the need for great change at the national level, and of the necessity of scrapping the old way of doing business while presenting himself as a voice for a new generation of Italians. As a result, some media began to give him the nickname Rottamatore (Scrapper).

Since becoming PD secretary two months ago, Renzi repeatedly - until very recently - dismissed suggestions he might also try to scrap Enrico Letta, his PD colleague who has been premier of a roughly crafted coalition government since last April.

Letta, the PD's deputy leader behind Bersani, had been recruited by President Giorgio Napolitano to lead an unprecedented left-right coalition government following last year's post-election deadlock and Bersani's failure to woo the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, the third force in Italian politics.

Letta steered a tricky path under constant sniping from the other senior coalition partner, the now-defunct People of Freedom (PdL) party of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who eventually stormed out after failing to bring the government down when the PD insisted on the three-time premier's ejection from parliament on a tax-fraud conviction.

Letta appeared to making faster progress on much-needed reforms with a more streamlined coalition where the PD was a far bigger partner of the New Centre Right, a new breakaway party from Berlusconi's revised Forza Italia (FI) party. But Renzi recently stepped up criticism of Letta's style, lack of progress on reforms to election law and improvements to the economy.

He pulled off a coup in January when he teamed up with Berlusconi to draft a new election law, replacing one that was quashed as unconstitutional last year.

Renzi hailed the deal as achieving in "a week" what politicians had failed to agree on for almost a decade, but the agreement with the left's old enemy drew anger from some in the PD, who accused Renzi of helping Berlusconi rehabilitate his political image after the 77-year-old billionaire's ban from holding office.