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Renzi takes helm as Italy's youngest premier

Leads youngest-ever team, half of them women

22 February, 16:31
Renzi takes helm as Italy's youngest premier (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Rome, February 22 - Matteo Renzi took over Saturday as Italy's youngest premier, vowing to enact sweeping reforms to streamline government and boost the troubled economy.

Renzi, 39, jokingly played the role of teacher to open his first cabinet meeting. Ringing a little ceremonial bell, he told his ministers: "Recess is over".

The cabinet meeting lasted less than two hours, before Renzi had a break and went back to the premier's office on his own to start writing a speech that should earn him the last of two confidence votes Tuesday night.

He is expected to head back to Florence with his wife and three children Saturday evening.

Renzi is married to a teacher, Agnese Landini, with whom he has two sons and a daughter.

Landini, who teaches Italian literature in a Florence high school, was at the presidential Quirinale Palace earlier to see her husband crown a remarkable political rise to be sworn in by President Giorgio Napolitano.

But unlike the image-conscious Renzi, who has been likened to Fonzie for his taste in bomber jackets and called Demolition Man for his stated aim to swing a wrecking ball through entrenched elites and vested interests, she has no intention of being a first lady.

The Democratic Party (PD) leader and former Florence mayor leads a team of 16 ministers, eight of them women, with an average age of 47, also the youngest ever. Renzi has vowed to overhaul the jobs market and the tax and education systems in four months.

Living up to his all-action image, Renzi got down to business quickly with his first cabinet meeting after the traditional handover of the ceremonial bell from the Democratic Party (PD) colleague he ousted, Enrico Letta.

Letta apparently found it hard to look Renzi in the eye during the frosty encounter and brief handshake in the ceremonial handover of power, which was televised live.

Less than five minutes after Letta left the room, the PD leader rang the bell for the first cabinet meeting.

A new house-building plan was believed to be one of the items of the agenda.

Renzi pulled the plug on Letta, 47, after accusing him of moving too slowly on promised reforms to streamline government and jump start the economy, which is slowly emerging from its longest postwar recession, in order to cut record unemployment and help increasing numbers of 'new poor'.

Through Saturday and Sunday Renzi will craft the speech for a confidence vote in the Senate Monday and on Tuesday in the House, where a vote has been scheduled for that evening.

Renzi has already got a vote of confidence from Italy soccer coach Cesare Prandelli, a long-time friend and admirer.

Renzi is "world class," Prandelli said after the PD leader was sworn in.

The dynamic premier, a keen five-a-side soccer player, "is a champion, he's world class, and I'm sure he'll succeed," Prandelli said. "We hope he can be as good as he always has been," he said.

"I saw Matteo Renzi as a (potential) premier as long as 10 years ago so it didn't surprise me (when he got the premiership)," said the Azzurri coach, who watched Fiorentina play Genoa at the Florence side's stadium with Renzi last month.

Former Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) deputy director Pier Carlo Padoan did not get back from a G20 meeting in Australia in time to be sworn in to the key post of economy minister. Renzi thanked his supporters on Twitter ahead of his swearing-in. "Thanks for the messages. Tough, difficult task. "But we're Italy, we'll do it. "One vow: stay ourselves," tweeted the PD leader.

Security was tight around Rome's political offices with the memory of a mentally unstable gunman who wounded two Carabinieri police officers in front of the premier's office as Letta's cabinet was being sworn in up the Quirinale Hill on April 28.

But there were few people in the Quirinale Square hoping to get a peek at proceedings inside where the youthful ministers played with the small children and one, Civil Service Minister Marianna Madia, was proudly sporting an evident pregnancy.

Quizzed by reporters, one observers said he "didn't expect anything from this new lot, they're the same as the old".

Renzi, an energetic character who has been compared to the young Tony Blair, says his administration aims to last until the end of the parliamentary term in 2018.

The new government has the chance to achieve "reforms that have not be done for years," he says. "The country has no alternative".

Italy is creeping out of recession but the recovery is weak and economists say structural reforms are needed to give business a lasting boost and cut record unemployment of over 12%, with over four in 10 under-25s out of work. Napolitano - who had engineered Letta's government to end months of deadlock after last year's inconclusive general election - has said he fully backs the new administration, denying reports of tension between himself and the new premier. The head of State said he also agreed with Renzi that the government should last until 2018.

Renzi is the third consecutive premier not directly elected by the Italian people.

Deals between parties led to the creation of Letta's administration and the emergency technocrat government of Mario Monti in 2011.

The new administration is supported by the same majority as Letta's, with Interior Minister Angelino Alfano's New Centre Right (NCD) as junior partner.

Alfano is the leader of a group of centre-right moderates who split from Silvio Berlusconi's revived Forza Italia (FI) party when it rejected the ex-premier's bid to scupper Letta after the PD insisted on a Senate ban for the media magnate following a tax-fraud conviction.

He was deputy premier and interior minister in Letta's executive, but he will only serve the latter role under Renzi.

Renzi said this week that his government would seek to achieve one major reform every month until May, starting this month with a new election law to replace the dysfunctional old system that was declared unconstitutional in December.

But on Saturday the NCD said Renzi's government would not immediately move to reform the electoral law. Instead, it said Letta has agreed to tie the reform to a wider Constitutional overhaul, requiring more time and including the abolition of the Senate.

Transport Minister and NCD heavyweight Maurizio Lupi, said the NCD and Renzi had signed a deal envisaging that "the (reform of) the electoral law will go in tandem with institutional reforms and will work when the Senate is abolished".

He pointed out that the reform - fruit of a deal between Renzi and centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi - was "conceived for a single chamber, otherwise the reform doesn't work".

The reform bill before parliament sets entry bars for small parties to force them into alliances and limit their power of veto and a 15% winner's bonus for a coalition that gets 37% or more to ensure it has an unassailable majority.

As well as linking electoral reform to scrapping the Senate and other moves, the NCD is pushing to raise the bars of 4.5% in a Berlusconi-led coalition or a currently unattainable 8% on its own. In addition to the election-law deal, Renzi also agreed with Berlusconi to change the Constitution to strip the Senate of its lawmaking powers to make it easier to pass legislation, turning the Upper House into a leaner assembly of local-government representatives, and to abolish the country's provincial governments and bring some powers back to central government from the regions.

The other demands the NCD set for joining a Renzi-led administration were an economy minister who would not raise taxes and a justice minister to act as 'guarantor' for suspects' and defendants' rights.

Berlusconi, who is leading his reanimated Forza Italia (FI) party despite a ban from office on a tax-fraud conviction, said Saturday that a reform of Italy's slow-moving, three-tiered justice system was "absolutely urgent" to compete with other countries and attract foreign investment.

The 77-year-old three-time premier, who is appealing a conviction for paying an underage prostitute for sex and on trial for allegedly bribing a Senator to change sides, is expected to lead the centre right into the next election.

If Renzi achieves his goal of lasting till 2018, Berlusconi would be 81.

Despite recent sparring, the NCD is expected to team up with FI, having consistently vowed to support Berlusconi's campaign against the allegedly left-leaning magistrates he says are persecuting him.

FI and the NCD had a war of words last week, calling each other "useful idiots" in a term fraught with Leninist overtones, but observers think they are trying to bolster their respective bases to offer alternative images which will then be merged under the charismatic Berlusconi once again.

Berlusconi has a track record for alliances with parties who ran against him, such as the Northern League, whose ex-leader Umberto Bossi used foul-mouthed rhetoric against him as a media magnate who had no place in politics. Berlusconi, whose empire includes Italy' largest publishing house and its top three private TV channels, has said FI will conduct "responsible opposition" to the government while cooperating with Renzi on reforms.

But he had a swipe at Renzi and the unelected governments that preceded him after he was forced to step down with Italy heading over a fiscal cliff that threatened the eurozone in November 2011.

"A government not elected by the people is not democratic," he said.

An FI-NCD coalition is currently ahead of a PD-led one in most polls.