Can the Italian ‘Obama’ Keep Hope Alive as Prime Minister?

Matteo Renzi looks set to be confirmed as Italy's third Prime Minister in a year. His biggest selling point is inexperience

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Tony Gentile / Reuters

Matteo Renzi attends a political meeting in Turin on Dec. 6, 2013 file photo.

He’s new, he’s fresh, he comes garlanded with expectations. He’s been compared with the (young) Tony Blair and described, by TIME, as the Italian Obama. At 39, Matteo Renzi has already made his mark in prominent public office, first as president of the province of Florence, then as mayor of the city. Last December he topped the primary of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) to become its secretary. And by tomorrow evening, he’s almost certain to be named his country’s third Prime Minister in a year. Yep, it’s all change in Italy again, as the country scrabbles to form its 62nd government since 1946. But is Renzi the change Italy needs?

Oscar Farinetti dares to dream that he might be. “We need someone to get things done instead of this petty theatre of politics that makes me vomit,” the founder of the food chain Eataly told the Financial Times. “Matteo is the only person in the frame who can do this.” Renzi’s inexperience — he’s never navigated the shark-ridden waters of national politics — looks from certain angles like a positive advantage. His belief in the transformative powers of democratic politics — and in himself — appears gleamingly intact. Whereas a veteran might approach a problem by listing all the things that can’t be done, Renzi sets about his politicking with the vigor of someone who has yet to learn by failure.

That can-do spirit exerts a seductive appeal to a population used to do-little leaders. “Super Mario” Monti, the clever technocrat appointed to steady Italy in November 2011, left office last year without having pushed through many of the key reforms he promised to revitalize an economy weighed down with bureaucracy and riddled with small-scale corruption. One of his closest associates chalked up that failure to inexperience: “I think that, looking back, we should have showed more determination … Perhaps we were a bit naive,” said former Employment and Welfare Minister Elsa Fornero in a February 2013 interview with the Independent.

(MORE: Italy’s Compromise Government Faces Uncertain Future, Plays Into Berlusconi’s Hands)

Monti’s successor, Enrico Letta, took on the job last April, two months after elections delivered not clarity but a mess of parties fighting for scraps of advantage. He stepped down today after 10 months in office, amid disappointment at his inability to implement reforms he promised to revitalize an economy weighed down with bureaucracy and riddled with small-scale corruption. Sound familiar?

Letta’s loudest critic was his PD colleague and party leader Renzi, who helped force his ouster, accusing Letta of dragging his feet and welcomed news of the Valentine’s Day resignation with moist-eyed emotion. “For me, it is delicate to say so, but this is one of the most beautiful moments in the past five years,” he said.

And so, pending confirmation tomorrow after meetings between Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and the largest political parties, Renzi is on his way to Rome, promising when in Rome not to do as assimilated Romans do, but to bring real change. Yet even that promise has a horribly familiar ring.

(MORE: What Mario Monti’s Exit Tells Us About Europe’s Debt Crisis)

Last year, a comedian called Beppe Grillo led his Five Star Movement into Italy’s national elections to seize 8.7 million votes, more than any other single party. Grillo’s biggest selling point was that he wasn’t like other leaders. Installed in Parliament, Five Star Movement MPs have proved disruptive. What they’re not known for is getting things done.

Then there’s another factor in Italian politics that belies the notion of constant change. Monti was brought in to replace three-time center-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who made a strong showing in the 2013 elections despite a sex scandal and allegations that led in August to his conviction for tax fraud. He was expelled from Parliament as a result, yet retains a degree of influence that only makes sense in Italy’s looking-glass world of politics. Last month, in a move that already sent danger signals to Letta, Renzi met Berlusconi to seek his support on electoral reform.

So it looks like it’s all change in Italy as per usual, or più cambia, più rimane uguale, as they say. The more things change, the more they stay the same.