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updated: 2/22/2014 11:04 AM

Italy's new premier sets to work as economy ails

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  • Italian outgoing Premier Enrico Letta, left, shakes hands with new Premier Matteo Renzi as he leaves after handing him over the cabinet minister bell during the handover ceremony at Chigi Palace Premier's office, in Rome, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Renzi has been sworn in as Italy's youngest premier, heading a new government he says promises will swiftly tackle old problems. Renzi had been serving as Florence mayor when he engineered a power grab last week to effectively force fellow Democrat, Enrico Letta, to step down after 10 months at the helm of a fragile, often-squabbling coalition.

      Italian outgoing Premier Enrico Letta, left, shakes hands with new Premier Matteo Renzi as he leaves after handing him over the cabinet minister bell during the handover ceremony at Chigi Palace Premier's office, in Rome, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Renzi has been sworn in as Italy's youngest premier, heading a new government he says promises will swiftly tackle old problems. Renzi had been serving as Florence mayor when he engineered a power grab last week to effectively force fellow Democrat, Enrico Letta, to step down after 10 months at the helm of a fragile, often-squabbling coalition.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

ROME -- Matteo Renzi became Italy's youngest premier on Saturday, promising a new era of stable government after using old-school politicking to engineer the ouster of a fellow Democrat he deemed too timid to get the nation back to work.

The unabashedly ambitious Renzi, 39, quit his post as Florence mayor to take up his first national government job, insisting Italy's political leadership needed to be bolder. He tweeted before being sworn in that it be "tough" but "we'll do it."

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The Italian economy is only just beginning to show signs of rebounding after several years of stagnation. Youth unemployment hovers around at 40 percent.

The new environment minister, Gian Luca Galletti, told Sky TG24 TV the down-to-business, bluntly talking premier conducted his first Cabinet meeting "more like a board meeting."

Renzi has alienated some factions in his own party, because of the steely determination he used to dispatch predecessor Enrico Letta only days after publicly saying he would only seek the premiership through general elections.

The usually easy-going Letta gave Renzi a chilly, limp handshake during a brief handover ceremony Saturday. Renzi forced a wan smile. Neither Democrat looked each other in the eyes.

That chilliness contrasts with the cordial relationship Renzi has been cultivating with the Democrats' arch rival, Silvio Berlusconi, the former premier and Italy's main conservative leader.

Shortly before he pushed Letta aside, Renzi cut a deal with Berlusconi to work together on electoral reform to reduce the influence of tiny parties on the government. Both men see an overhaul of election rules as potentially positioning their rival forces for a more convincing victory at the ballot box.

While a tax fraud conviction keeps Berlusconi out of public office, the media mogul made clear Saturday he disagrees with Renzi's plans for elections as far off as 2018.

"You have democracy and a government of the people when the government is elected by the citizens," Berlusconi said.

When Berlusconi agreed to the reform deal, Renzi had been pushing for elections immediately after the new rules were in place.

Letta had had a slim majority in the Senate, but Renzi might need defectors from the opposition if some of his own Democrats rebel against his heavy-handed leadership.

Pippo Civati, one of the Democrats soundly defeated by Renzi in the December party primary, questioned whether the new premier deserved support in Parliament. On his website, Civati asked rank-and-file Democrats to have their say, "because it's usually the voters who choose" the premier.

Renzi's government also depends on smaller parties ranging from center-right to center-left that were part of Letta's oft-bickering 10-month-old coalition. Some centrists indicated they might not back Renzi in parliament after his new Cabinet left out their only minister, who had held the defense post.

In a surprise move, Renzi also purged veteran politician Emma Bonino, a staunchly pro-Europe foreign minister.

Renzi has said overemphasis on austerity ordered by Brussels would discourage economic revival.

The new foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, is largely unknown in European circles. She is the Democrats' point person on foreign policy.

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