Italian premier Letta quits after ‘palace coup’

Italy’s prime minister Enrico Letta announced his resignation yesterday after surrendering to a leadership challenge from party colleague Matteo Renzi, who now looks set to become Italy’s youngest ever premier.

Matteo Renzi will be the youngest prime minister. Picture: Reuters

Mr Renzi, 39, was overwhelmingly backed by Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party yesterday after he demanded a “new government” to lead Italy out of a “quagmire”, following ten months in which Mr Letta has led a shaky, cross-party coalition government that has struggled to push through key reforms.

Mr Renzi, the popular mayor of Florence who was recently appointed head of the Democratic Party, thanked Mr Letta in a speech to party officials, but said Italy was at a “crossroads” and pushed to lead a new government until 2018.

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Mr Letta said he would hand in his resignation to Italian president Giorgio Napolitano today, after which Mr Napolitano will is likely to consult Italy’s political parties about a possible Renzi-led government taking power. If Mr Napolitano finds consensus, Mr Renzi will be asked to form a cabinet which will be put to a vote of confidence in parliament, meaning it will be days before a new government takes office.

Mr Letta, also a Democratic Party member, was named prime minister last April by Mr Napolitano.

This followed inconclusive elections in February which saw the party unable to control parliament because of a strong showing from comic Beppe Grillo and a resurgent Silvio Berlusconi, who had resigned as prime minister in November 2011.

Now, if parliament approves Mr Renzi, he will become Italy’s third prime minister in three years to be appointed without a popular vote, after Mr Letta and his predecessor Mario Monti, a reflection of continuing political stalemate in the recession-hitcountry.

Mr Renzi has frequently said he would only seek to take power through a general election, after polls showed 74 per cent of Italians were opposed to another unelected leader, but yesterday he indicated he was ready to risk taking over from Mr Letta, even as critics condemned it as a palace coup.

“Many have written to me saying ‘Watch out, you will burn yourself’,” Mr Renzi said about his sudden decision to make a bid for power. “But whoever enters politics is obliged to take risks sometimes,” he said, adding if he not taken risks, “I would now be in my second term as head of the province of Florence.”

This year, Mr Letta’s cross-party cabinet, which featured Berlusconi-backers as well as Democratic Party members, became a frequent target for criticism from Mr Renzi after he was elected secretary of the Democratic Party in a December primary, a victory which placed him in the uneasy role of running the party to which prime minister Mr Letta belonged.

Often compared to former UK prime minister Tony Blair for his soundbite appeal and charm, Mr Renzi has called for a generational change in Italian politics, which has long been dominated by men over 60. In a country tired of corrupt parliamentarians he has also benefited from never serving in parliament, although he has also been mocked by Italian comedians for his perceived lack of substance.

A keen admirer of Barack Obama, Mr Renzi is an enthusiastic user of Twitter who plays U2 tracks at his congresses and recently posed in a black leather jacket and white T-shirt emulating Fonzie from the US TV show Happy Days.

After two decades in which Italy has been evenly split between fans of Mr Berlusconi’s brash, anti-taxation politics, and squabbling left wing politicians united only by their fierce loathing of the media mogul, polls show Mr Renzi is the first centre-left politician who appeals to Berlusconi voters, suggesting he may now find the consensus to reform Italy’s creaking bureaucracy and legal system.