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22 April 2024

New Italy PM wins confidence vote, vows 'radical change'

Newly appointed Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (L) speaks with Italian Economy and Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan during a debate ahead of a confidence vote at the Italian Senate on February 24, 2014, in Rome. (AFP)


Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for a "radical and immediate change" in recession-hit Italy as he outlined his new government's reform agenda before winning a crucial confidence vote in the Senate early Tuesday.

In an energetic and impassioned speech to parliament, Italy's youngest-ever premier reiterated plans for rapidly overhauling the tax system, jobs market and public administration in a bid to tackle the country's ailing economy.

"If we lose this challenge the fault will be mine alone. No-one has an alibi anymore," the 39-year-old said as his fiery speech prompted jeers and insults from opposition benches.

"This is an Italy of possibilities, an Italy of fundamental change," he said, stressing the "urgency" of implementing reforms in "a rusty country... gripped by anxiety".

Renzi, who grasped power after helping oust his predecessor Enrico Letta over failures to do enough to boost a flagging economy, later won the vote of confidence, with 169 votes in favour and 139 against, according to Senate speaker Pietro Grasso.

In his speech, he pledged to review unemployment benefits, establish a guarantee fund for small companies and comprehensively reform the justice system.

He also promised to cut the tax burden by a double-digit figure within months and pay off public administration debts.

The initial reaction from investors appeared positive, with Milan's FTSE stock market closing up 0.48 percent after Renzi's speech.

But small business association Confartigianato wondered where the prime minister hoped to find the money for the reforms, with its head Giorgio Merletti saying "a couple of quick sums show that there is 100 billion euros ($137 billion) to find immediately".

'A worrying vagueness'

The former mayor of Florence had been expected to win the confidence vote based on the support of his own centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and his coalition partners -- the centrists and the New Centre Right (NCD) party.

He must now face a confidence vote in the lower house of parliament late Tuesday.

Political analysts will however be paying close attention to the size of the majority he manages to secure, as an indication as to whether the new government has a chance of living out its mandate until 2018 or whether the country will end up back at the polls.

"We are not afraid of going to the polls," Renzi said.

Former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (FI) party is in opposition, although it has agreed to support key decrees on a case by case basis.

Party members seemed less than enthused by the government programme.

"It couldn't get any worse than this. I hope for Italy's sake that Renzi is better than he seems," said Maurizio Gasparri, an FI senator, while FI deputy Daniele Capezzone said there were "no desirable objectives, just a worrying vagueness".

The anti-establishment Five Star movement -- Italy's other main opposition party -- has slammed Renzi for stealing the top job and called for immediate elections, and some political watchers say Renzi's failure could significantly boost their numbers.

The movement's senator Paola Taverna slammed "the posturing, the little smiles, the arrogance in front of a country which wanted to hear a speech of change".

A bold-faced Renzi stared down critics hollering insults from among the movement's benches and spoke out against populism and for Europe.

He said Italy must tackle its towering public debt -- equivalent to 130 percent of total economic output -- not because German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for it, but because "it is our duty to, for our children's sake".

He spoke of the need for greater transparency -- making public spending receipts available online -- and of the need to attract foreign investors and shake off the image of Italy "as just a great holiday destination".

Renzi's insistence on speed has impressed some analysts, who say it may help him avoid getting stifled under the weight of Italian bureaucracy.

"By keeping up the momentum, Renzi is increasing the chances of these important reforms going through despite likely resistance from various camps," Christian Schulz, senior economist at Berenberg, said in a note.

But Chiara Corsa and Loredana Federico from Unicredit asked "whether the Renzi government is strong enough or sufficiently 'revolutionary' to implement the reform agenda".

US President Barack Obama spoke to Renzi on Monday, the White House said, adding that the two leaders would meet in March in Rome.

Obama expressed support for "Renzi's leadership on creating economic growth and jobs, and he looks forward to continued close US-Italian partnership on Afghanistan, Libya, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and security and defense cooperation," the White House said in a statement.