ROME — Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, whose weak coalition government has come under increasing criticism, announced today that he would resign, after his own Democratic Party staged a dramatic insurrection and set the stage to replace him with the party’s new leader, Matteo Renzi.
The Democratic Party is the largest member of Italy’s coalition government, and the party’s decision to dump Letta could be put to a confidence vote in Parliament. Letta will meet with his Cabinet on Friday morning and then present his resignation letter to Italy’s president, making way for Renzi, 39, to become Italy’s youngest prime minister.
Renzi, the mayor of Florence who recently won a nationwide primary to become leader of the Democratic Party, has a reputation for boldness and has long been considered Italy’s most promising young politician. He has spoken repeatedly about the need for sweeping political and economic changes. But few analysts foresaw that he would lead a revolt against his party’s sitting prime minister.
“Italy is living in a moment of difficulty,” Renzi said during a televised emergency meeting of the Democratic Party on Thursday afternoon. “We need to offer the possibility to emerge from this morass with a radical program to relaunch the country.”
Italy is suffering through a prolonged slump, even as some other European countries are starting to emerge from a devastating recession. Unemployment tops 12 percent, and while business leaders have called for major reforms to spur economic growth, Italy’s political system has been stalemated, largely unable to respond.
For Europe, which is witnessing rising populist anger in advance of European parliamentary elections, Italy’s economic doldrums and political gyrations are sources of persistent concern. Last year, Letta fended off challenges to bring down his government by arguing that Italy needed stability, an argument endorsed by many European leaders.
But Letta’s government was ultimately doomed by inaction, partly because of the awkwardness of his coalition, a contentious marriage of left and right parties that was cobbled together after inconclusive national elections last February. Letta was chosen by Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, to lead the coalition as a compromise figure, a coolheaded politician with ties to opposition parties.
In his speech today at the party meeting, Renzi expressed gratitude to Letta “for the considerable work he has done with government, a government born in a delicate moment.” But for weeks, tensions had been rising between the two men, as Renzi began openly questioning the effectiveness of the government to tackle Italy’s pressing problems, with Letta occasionally sniping back in return.
The two men met privately on Wednesday and, hours later, Letta used a televised news conference to fight for his job. He promised a new reform push and swatted at rumors about his uncertain future, making a veiled jab at Renzi, by saying that anyone who wanted his job should declare it openly.
Renzi himself has often said that he would prefer to become prime minister by winning an election, so that he could assume office with a public mandate for change. Italy, though, may not be prepared to hold new elections for months, or longer. Italy’s highest court has struck down portions of election laws as unconstitutional and called on the government to draft a new law.
Letta had promised to do so — until Renzi unexpectedly intervened by brokering a deal with his party’s longtime enemy, Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister. Parliament is expected to begin debating that proposal next week, but it is unclear how long it will take to pass. Given the uncertainty in Parliament, and the growing outside criticism of the government, analysts say Renzi calculated that he could be more effective leading the government, rather than just leading his party.