Italy's New Prime Minister and His Political Acrobatics

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ROME -- To select the cabinet that he presented Saturday to President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy, Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the new head of government, relied on what are widely acknowledged as his consummate skills: an ability to negotiate and a gift for building bridges, even between forces that barely speak to each other.

By all accounts, his new post will sorely test these talents.

Mr. Letta, who was sworn in on Sunday, must steer a government that has the bipartisan -- if reluctant -- support of the two largest opposing political forces in Parliament during an exceptionally difficult moment for Italy, which is buffered by economic and social unrest. At the same time, he must try to hold together the pieces of his center-left Democratic Party, which imploded after national elections in February that left Italy without a governing majority. Mr. Letta comes from the moderate wing of the party, but a significant left-wing faction is openly bridling at Mr. Letta's compromise government.

Friends and colleagues say that if anyone can pull it off, Mr. Letta can.

"He's the person Italy needs now," said Massimo Bergami, a friend and dean of the business school at the University of Bologna, pointing to Mr. Letta's institutional experience, background in international affairs and ability to "talk with people with different backgrounds, and understand different positions."

Mr. Letta must also address the demands of the European Union to stay the course of fiscal responsibility in the face of the Italian public's widespread animosity toward austerity measures. His European credentials are firm, both as a former member of the European Parliament and through a network of contacts and relationships cultivated over the years from his associations with various research groups.

The new prime minister "is a committed Europhile" who believes that "Italy has no future outside of the European Union," said Lucio Caracciolo, the editor of the bimonthly Italian geopolitical magazine Limes, who has written two books with Mr. Letta. At the same time, Mr. Letta is not deaf to the country's growing malaise. "I think he's realized very clearly that we have to fight a battle inside the European Union against the austerity policies that have led to the deindustrialization of our country and those on the periphery," Mr. Caracciolo said.

At 46, Mr. Letta is the third-youngest prime minister since World War II. His age works in his favor in a nation where demands for change and generational renewal are resonating as the battle cry of the disenfranchised, and largely unemployed, youth.

Born in Pisa, Mr. Letta studied political science at the city's university and did graduate work in international law at the prestigious Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies there. The new education minister, Maria Chiara Carrozza, was dean of the university until this year.

His political roots lie in the once powerful Christian Democratic Party, felled by corruption scandals in the early 1990s. Even as the party was collapsing, Mr. Letta served as president of the European Young Christian Democrats for four years, strengthening connections with centrist parties throughout the Continent that are still in place today.

Mr. Letta stayed through various incarnations of what is now the Democratic Party, becoming its deputy secretary in 2009. He was first elected to Parliament in 2001 and to the European Parliament in 2004, serving two years, and he continues to sit on its ad hoc commissions.

But his political career has been defined by his association with Beniamino Andreatta, a Christian Democrat economist and the founder of Arel, a research group that Mr. Letta now serves as secretary general. When Mr. Andreatta became foreign minister in 1993, Mr. Letta was his chief of staff. He later headed a commission on the euro in the years before it became the common currency.

In 1998, he was named minister for European affairs in Massimo D'Alema's center-left government, then industry minister in 1999, a post he held in two other short-lived, governments.

Mr. Letta comes by his reputation as a mediator through personality and perseverance, people who know him say, but also by way of example: an uncle, Gianni Letta, is among the most trusted advisers of former Primer Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the center-right leader, and has for years been Mr. Berlusconi's principal ambassador in thorny political negotiations.

Both men have held the important office of secretary of the council of ministers, handing off power to each other in successive governments.

"He's very serious, competent, sober, almost austere in his manner," said Alessia Mosca, a Democratic Party lawmaker who also worked at Arel and has known Mr. Letta for years. She described him as a thoughtful decision maker, "with the ability to look at problems with a fresh outlook."

"And he tends to act through facts, not just words," she said.

Mr. Letta is a firm believer in the welfare state while supporting pro-business, open-market policies, said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffé, a professor of strategic management at the Bocconi University School of Management in Milan who counts Mr. Letta as a friend. "He is more corporation than union," following the "logic of supporting economic forces, finding a way to support business needs" while preserving social welfare, he said. "The key element is negation, finding the middle ground."

on his personal Web page, Mr. Letta also reveals a taste for Italian pop music; for Dylan Dog, a popular comic book character who wrangles with ghouls; and contemporary Italian thriller writers. He is a die-hard fan of A.C. Milan, the soccer team owned by Mr. Berlusconi, and he plays subbuteo soccer, a tabletop game.

Mr. Letta, who earned about $185,000 last year, also discloses his tax returns, heeding calls for a greater transparency from politicians, efforts that earned the antiestablishment Five Star Movement a quarter of the national vote in the February elections.

In 2005, Mr. Letta founded veDrò, a networking community and workshop of ideas for Italy's future that brings together dozens of experts in various fields. It holds a conference every August in Dro, a town on Lake Garda, drawing hundreds of participants.

"We wanted to create a context where people could communicate, without judgment, and share a common view" of Italy's future, regardless of political beliefs, said Professor Bergami of the University of Bologna, one of the co-founders. In its efforts to find common ground, veDrò anticipates the sort of political acrobatics that Mr. Letta is expected to execute in the coming months.

"For the future of the country you have to be able to put people together, instead of to separate," Professor Bergami said.

But even with Mr. Letta's acknowledged ability to negotiate, there is no certainty that this compromise government will last long.

Still, even the collapse of his government is unlikely to hurt Mr. Letta's political future. "He is a diplomat, so it is difficult to burn him," Professor Carnevale Maffé said. "That's why he's the best choice."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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