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Italy nominates youngest prime minister in years

April 24, 2013|By Tom Kington | This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
  • Enrico Letta, deputy leader of Italy's Democratic Party, talks to journalists Wednesday after being given a mandate to form a new government.
Enrico Letta, deputy leader of Italy's Democratic Party, talks to… (Giuseppe Lami / European…)

ROME -- Italy turned the corner on two months of political stalemate Wednesday by nominating center-left leader Enrico Letta as prime minister after inconclusive elections in February left parties struggling to form a government.

Letta, 46, is set to become Italy's youngest prime minister since 1987 in a country where many leading politicians are in their 60s and 70s.

He is a career politician who has served as deputy leader of Italy’s Democratic Party. On Wednesday, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano tapped Letta to forge a cross-party government to end Italy's political paralysis.

Both the Democratic Party and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom have said they will respect Napolitano’s decision, suggesting that Letta and the Cabinet he selects will pass a crucial confidence vote in parliament.

“This country is waiting for a government,” Letta said after he was summoned to Rome’s presidential palace for his appointment, adding that Italy’s politicians had “lost all credibility.”

He faces the daunting task of pulling Italy out of its worst recession since World War II. He suggested that he would scale back the austerity policies enacted by current Prime Minister Mario Monti, the technocratic leader who was appointed after Berlusconi’s government fell in 2011.

Letta said he "would strongly commit to a change of course for European policies too focused on austerity, which is no longer enough."

As a rising star in the Democratic Party, Letta became Italy’s youngest-ever government minister in 1998 at the age of 32 and then deputy leader of his party in 2009.

He also became the most senior leader of the Democratic Party over the weekend, when party chief Pier Luigi Bersani resigned after supporters rejected two candidates Bersani had put forward to replace Napolitano, whose mandate as president had expired.

Napolitano eventually agreed to serve a second term, which will see him stay in office until he is 94. His first act was to give a fiery speech to parliament Monday in which he warned politicians to pull together for the good of the country after two months of failed talks to form a government.

Although the president plays a mostly ceremonial role, he is able to appoint governments during crises. Napolitano invoked that power in appointing Letta.

Letta has described himself as "post-ideological," telling an interviewer in 2007 that "my generation did not live through certain illusions and has therefore avoided the period of disillusionment."

A native of Pisa, Letta is the nephew of Gianni Letta, who has acted for years as a behind-the-scenes negotiator for Berlusconi, thereby providing a family tie between Italy’s two biggest political blocs as they attempt to form a coalition.

As Letta steps up to the role of prime minister, members of the Democratic Party have quarreled over whether to do business with Berlusconi. Critics argue that the party has come to define itself by its opposition to the media mogul-turned-politician and will find it hard to accept a power-sharing deal with him.

Should the Democratic Party now split formally, some members could ally with the Five Star movement led by former comic Beppe Grillo, which has opposed Napolitano, weakening Letta’s hand.

After appointing Letta, Napolitano demanded that Italy’s parties "create a climate of maximum detente rather than the old tensions."

[Updated at 10:22 a.m. on April 24: Berlusconi, who has profited from the center-left’s implosion by rising in the polls, probably will demand key cabinet posts and insist on scrapping an unpopular housing tax.

Letta, who is married with three children, names Nelson Mandela among his heroes. A fluent English speaker, his reputation as a moderate is likely to calm markets alarmed by Italy’s political impasse.

A fan of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series of films, he warned a Democratic Party congress last year that the party “should be a bit less Forrest Gump and a bit more like Johnny Depp’s pirate, Jack Sparrow.”]


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