* Renzi ousts party rival Letta as Italian PM
* Florence mayor has never sat in parliament
* Vows to transform Italy but policy plans vague
* Says reforms more important than EU deficit ceiling
By Gavin Jones
ROME, Feb 14 Italian centre-left leader Matteo
Renzi is young, dynamic and has never shied away from a
challenge, but his decision to force party colleague Enrico
Letta to resign as prime minister is a huge political gamble.
Renzi is certain to be asked by the president to form a
government after Letta hands in his resignation on Friday.
The 39-year-old mayor of Florence has never hidden his
ambition to lead Italy, but until this week it was assumed that
he planned to do so by winning an election, not by a political
manoeuvre that polls say most Italians disapprove of.
The new leader of the Democratic Party (PD) presents himself
as a straight-talking outsider who despises Rome's baroque
political deals that have seen five of the last seven prime
ministers appointed without a direct mandate from voters.
He either decided that he had too much to lose by biding his
time or that he has the ability to push through strong reforms
to revive a stagnant economy and Italians will soon forgive him.
"Putting oneself on the line right now carries an element of
risk, but a politician has the duty to take risks at certain
moments," Renzi told the PD leadership committee on Thursday in
his speech asking them to withdraw their backing from Letta.
An opinion poll by the Piepoli institute published on
Wednesday showed only 14 percent of voters supported the idea of
Renzi taking over from Letta without a vote.
The PD backed its leader, but the overwhelming vote in
favour of Renzi's coup masks deep misgivings within the party.
"This is a gamble that risks damaging not only Renzi, but
also the PD and the country," said Giuseppe Civati, a high
profile deputy who was defeated by Renzi in a primary for the
party leadership in December.
Renzi will be the youngest head of government in the
European Union. Not only has he never run for prime minister but
he has never even been elected to parliament and will be the
first prime minister not to have a seat since former central
bank governor Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in 1993.
Having gained power without a direct mandate, Renzi knows he
will be even more criticised if his government flounders. Yet
one thing he has never lacked is self-confidence.
Recognised as a superb communicator, he cultivates a
youthful image, likes to talk and dress casually and is often
described as brash, cocky and lacking in substance.
Known for arriving at public events in Florence on his
bicycle, Renzi prefers to gulp down coca-cola and pizza rather
than dine in the discreet Rome restaurants traditionally
favoured by senior Italian politicians.
In a popular impersonation by Italy's best-known comedian,
Renzi captivates his audience with a mesmerising sequence of
catchy but totally meaningless phrases.
Renzi espouses market-friendly policies like reducing public
spending and taxes, cutting red tape and easing firing
restrictions. He has also said that while pursuing structural
reforms Italy should allow its budget deficit to exceed European
He is backed by a large part of Italy's industrial and
financial elite, though he has no experience of national
government and his policy prescriptions remain vague.
Since his landslide victory in the PD primary in December
Renzi, a former boy scout who began his political career in a
now defunct Catholic centrist party, has never been out of the
He moved fast to try to broker a cross-party deal on a
reform of electoral rules blamed for Italy's chronic political
instability, and those proposals are now before parliament.
He has also shown considerable steel in consolidating his
grip on the PD by facing down internal dissent from the leftist
arm of the party which has always campaigned against him.
But at the same time he systematically weakened Letta and
his government with constant sniping from the sidelines, blaming
the prime minister for moving too slowly to reform the euro
zone's most sluggish economy over the last decade.
Renzi could hardly be more different from the solid but dull
Letta and the two men have a thinly veiled disdain for each
other despite both coming from the centrist, Catholic arm of the
PD rather than the larger left-wing component.
It was widely thought that Renzi wanted to broker a deal on
electoral reform and then win an election in 2015 - when Letta
had repeatedly hinted he would step down - at the head of a
strong majority that would allow him to govern effectively.
His change of strategy suggests he either thinks he can do
better than Letta at the head of the same fragile left-right
coalition, or he believes he can change the coalition to include
parliamentarians from parties currently in opposition.
He has appealed to lawmakers from the anti-establishment
5-Star Movement to abandon their hard line opposition and
support PD legislation.
Renzi is certainly not afraid to make enemies and rode
roughshod over protests from shopkeepers and motorists to
pedestrianise the historic centre of Florence.
He may find it much harder to trample down the web of
political resistance and vested interests that have hampered
economic reform at the national level for decades.