* "Poteri forti" seen easing Renzi's coup
* Call from business lobby taken as signal to act
* Dinner with president led to Letta's removal
By Massimiliano Di Giorgio and Steve Scherer
ROME, Feb 21 Matteo Renzi espoused two rules on
his path to power: don't govern without being elected, and don't
rely on the establishment that has long called the shots in
Italian politics. Then he saw a chance to act.
In the past fortnight Renzi, who leads the centre-left
Democratic Party but is not a member of parliament, has
surprised even close allies with an abrupt change in tactics.
Capitalising on signs of support from special interest
groups in industry and the media, he has staged a bold power
play that should see the 39-year-old installed as Italy's
youngest prime minister next week.
This carries risks for the man who will now govern one of
the euro zone's sickest economies, as Renzi himself
acknowledges. "There is an element of personal risk in putting
myself in play right now. Politicians must take risks at certain
moments," he told the Democratic Party (PD) last week.
The political coup to install Renzi as prime minister was
sealed on Feb. 10 at the Quirinale, the sumptuous presidential
palace that sits atop one of the seven hills of ancient Rome.
Dining with President Giorgio Napolitano that Monday
evening, Renzi said he could no longer wait to lead his country,
according to people briefed on their conversation.
Delay might squander the political momentum he had to drive
vital economic and electoral reforms, Renzi told Napolitano, who
is almost 50 years his senior and the man with the power to name
prime ministers in Italy.
Within 72 hours of the Quirinale dinner, Renzi had
engineered the fall of Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Renzi, whose current elected office is as mayor of Florence,
now expects to announce his cabinet shortly - a PD source said
he would present the list to Napolitano on Friday.
He will then face a first parliamentary vote of confidence on
Monday. Once that hurdle is crossed, he will become the third
Italian prime minister in a row to take office without winning a
Renzi declined requests to be interviewed while a spokesman
for Napolitano would not give any details about the dinner.
However, two dozen politicians, government officials and Renzi
allies gave Reuters an account of his move on the premiership.
A former boy scout and TV game show winner, Renzi has been
Italy's rising star since he pushed aside his former boss to
become mayor of Florence in 2009. He burst into national
politics only in December last year when he took the helm of the
PD, Italy's largest political group.
Asked last year in a TV interview how he wanted to gain
power, he replied: "By winning the elections and not through
But by last week he had revealed his immediate desire to
lead, catching his closest allies off guard. "People have
accused me and the PD of having an outsized ambition. I don't
deny this. We all need to have this, from me to the last party
member," he told the PD leadership committee. "I am asking you
to help us get Italy out of the mire."
Renzi had also promised to keep his distance from the
"poteri forti" - a loosely defined group of establishment
factions ranging from the Confindustria business lobby to the
Roman Catholic Church, from banks and big companies such as Fiat
to the opinion-forming newspapers Corriere della Sera and la
He has consistently presented himself as an
anti-establishment politician - and that extended to his own
party. In his climb to the top, Renzi's slogan has been that PD
chiefs should be "sent to the scrapyard". This proved popular
with voters fed up with the professional political class.
Nevertheless, it was criticism of Letta from some of the
poteri forti or powerful forces that brought his change of mind,
said the politicians, officials and allies interviewed for this
The most clear signal of growing establishment consent came
on Feb. 6 when the head of Confindustria said he was fed up with
the slow pace of reform under the Letta government.
On the same day, the leader of the biggest labour union
wrote Letta a caustic open letter, and there were also signs
that Corriere della Sera, Italy's most influential daily and a
strong supporter of Letta for months, was cooling on him.
"Over the last three months the Letta government stalled,
and Italy was put in a really tough spot," said Sandro Gozi, a
PD lawmaker. "We thought the best solution was to install a
"The world of businesses and even unions began pushing hard
for a change," Dario Nardella, a friend of Renzi's from Florence
who is also a PD lawmaker, said in a radio interview. "We
realised we needed something completely new."
By using the shifting establishment mood to help orchestrate
a change in government, Renzi risks tainting his
carefully-cultivated image of the dynamic outsider.
Beppe Grillo, head of the anti-establishment Five-Star
Movement that won 25 percent of the popular vote in elections
last year, jumped at the opportunity.
"You are not credible," Grillo screamed at Renzi during a
meeting on Wednesday that was streamed online. "You represent
banks and the poteri forti. You are young, but also old."
In 2008, against the wishes of the party, Renzi ran in the
PD primary for Florence mayor, defeating Lapo Pistelli, his
political mentor. In a book entitled "Matteo the Conquerer",
Pistelli was quoted as likening Renzi to the Road Runner cartoon
character: "He zips past, leaving everyone who is trying to push
him off a cliff in his dust."
Renzi ran for the PD leadership in late 2012 but lost to
Pier Luigi Bersani, who then failed to win last year's national
election. Letta's right-left coalition formed in April 2013 was
envisaged as a temporary government to tackle reforms, notably
an overhaul of the electoral law, which has bred unstable
governments for years.
Renzi waited in the wings and then in December he won 70
percent of the almost 3 million votes cast in a PD leadership
By the end of last year, the economy had scraped back to
growth after struggling through its worst recessions since World
War II. But deeper problems remained: Italy has been one of the
worst performers in the euro zone since its creation more than a
decade ago. The economy has shrunk more than 9 percent since the
global financial crisis began.
Letta's government, beholden to the right and left-wing
factions in parliament as Renzi himself will be, lacked the
weight to push through radical reforms.
On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 6, Confindustria President
Giorgio Squinzi warned Letta that if the government didn't act,
he would appeal to Napolitano "who will make the right decision
with his great wisdom". The 88-year-old president had already
orchestrated two changes of government since late 2011.
After speaking in a radio interview, Squinzi headed to
Florence for an event. And on that same day the leader of the
CGIL union, usually an opponent of Confindustria, also wrote to
Letta calling for urgent action.
In the shifting world of Italian politics, where friends and
enemies constantly watch each other for signs of weakness, Renzi
sensed it was the moment to make a move, several officials close
to the prime minister-designate said.
"When Confindustria and CGIL made statements that signalled
they had abandoned Letta, the conditions changed," said one of
these officials who said he was not authorised to speak publicly
about the political situation.
"There was an entire chorus, vast though not unanimous, that
declared an end to the previous government and invoked the
arrival of Renzi," said Paolo Gentiloni, a former minister and
PD lawmaker who has long backed the Florence mayor.
Renzi also had a concern: if the PD fared poorly in upcoming
European Parliament elections, his own chances in a subsequent
Italian national vote might suffer.
Most politicians agree that without a new electoral law,
there is little point in holding a national vote because it
would probably produce a stalemate. Napolitano has also said he
would not call elections under the current law.
"We would have had to pass the new electoral law very, very,
very quickly in order to seek a vote this year," said Gozi, the
A few days before the Quirinale dinner, Renzi discussed the
possibility of a government shakeup with Angelino Alfano, head
of the centre-right NCD party, according to a person close to
Alfano. The NCD has backed Letta in parliament and would be in
a Renzi administration.
By the time Renzi addressed top PD officials on Feb. 6, he
was ready to seek the top job. "At the moment, the course is the
one set by (Letta) ... Do we want to change course?" he said.
"No problem, let's discuss it."
These words caught the party's governing committee
completely off-guard, one of the committee members said.
Renzi now needed to make sure Napolitano would not stand in
his way. According to a PD official who has worked close to
Renzi since 2012, the mayor hoped to persuade the president that
he had enough party and popular backing to take over.
"When Renzi went to have dinner with Napolitano he realised
that the president was not going to support Letta to the death,"
said the official, who said he was not authorised to speak
publicly about Renzi's meetings.
Asked about the fate of the Letta government the next day,
Napolitano told reporters any change in the premiership "was up
to the PD to decide."
Letta tried to resist, unveiling a new reform agenda on Feb.
12 and saying he would not step down unless the PD openly
withdrew its backing. The next day top PD officials voted to
force him out, and Letta formally resigned on Valentine's Day.
Renzi has promised to reform the electoral law, labour
system, public administration and taxation schemes by May.
As he was drawing up his new government, 60,000 small
business owners protested on Tuesday in central Rome.
"The country is on the edge," said Renato Boraso, a small
entrepreneur from Venice who had come for the rally. "The new
incoming government must take decisions and not waste any more
time, because there is no more time to waste."