New Italian centre-left leader eyes reforms

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Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, newly elected secretary of Democratic Party (PD), talks during a news conference in Rome. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Rome - The new head of Italy's centre-left Democratic Party Matteo Renzi said on Monday he would work with Prime Minister Enrico Letta to pass reforms, dismissing suggestions he could seek to provoke a snap election and lead a new government himself.

Speaking after his landslide victory in a leadership contest on Sunday, Renzi gave little detail on his proposed agenda but made clear that the PD, the largest party in the ruling coalition, would not vote against the government in a confidence motion Letta has called on Wednesday.

“Citizens have given us a clear message that it's time to do things seriously,” the 38-year-old told reporters in his first news conference as leader at the PD's party headquarters in Rome. “The point is not to bring down the government, it's about making the government work,” he said.

Renzi, an ambitious centrist moderniser who has pledged to clear out the old PD leadership, has frequently criticised the government for acting too slowly on reforms, fuelling speculation that he could be tempted to press for elections with the hope of leading a new government himself.

Reinforced by a leadership contest in which he won almost 68 percent of the vote, Renzi has been elevated from mayor of Florence and frequent guest on television chat shows to one of the most powerful figures in Italian politics.

He will not be joining Letta's government but he is expected to lead the PD in the next election. However uncertainty over the status of Italy's voting laws, after the Constitutional Court last week overturned central parts of the current system, has put any thought of an immediate return to the polls on ice.

Renzi has so far given little detail on the agenda he will promote as party leader beyond broad priorities including overhauling the expensive and inefficient public administration, simplifying employment laws and making Europe work better.

For the moment, he faces the task of setting his stamp on a party where many regard him with suspicion and where he has promised to throw out the older generation of leaders, many with roots in the old communist party.

A smooth and practised media communicator with very little in common with the veteran party functionaries who have always controlled the PD, he must now translate his fluent soundbites into action, starting with the limited programme Letta is due to present in parliament on Wednesday.

On Monday, Renzi named a new 12-member party secretariat, for the first time with more women than men and with an average age of around 35. His economy specialist Filippo Taddei is an academic who was strongly critical of the government's 2014 budget law, which he said was too timid.

Renzi has demanded a major say in setting the policy agenda. This raised the risk of a clash with the prime minister and upsetting of a delicate balance in the coalition which needs the support of centrists and a small group of rebels from Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right party.

However he brushed off concern on Monday that opposition from the left of the party could split the PD, telling reporters: “There is no risk to party unity.”

For the moment, reforming the electoral law is among the priorities facing both the government and the PD, though Renzi has said it should be the job of parliament and not a government initiative.

Following last week's Constitutional Court decision, any election held without a reform would be run under a proportional system that would guarantee stalemate and almost certainly prevent the formation of a centre-left government.

Renzi favours a French-style system with two rounds of voting and a run-off between the leading candidates, with the Senate stripped of its power to deny confidence to the government; but it will take careful negotiation with the other parties to seal an agreement.


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