February 20, 2014 8:20 AM EST

He comes garlanded with expectations, flattered by comparisons — to the (young) Tony Blair and the (younger) Barack Obama — and an admiring nickname: Il Rottamatore, the Demolition Man, for his impulse to tear down Italy’s sclerotic establishment. 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. In December he became secretary of the center-left Democratic Party (PD). Now he’s poised to become Prime Minister. Yes, it’s all change in Italy again, as the third largest economy in the euro zone scrabbles to form its third government in a year and its 62nd since 1946. But is Renzi, an outsider who is not even a Member of Parliament, really the agent of change Italy desperately needs?

“The most pressing emergency, which concerns my generation and others, is the emergency of labor, of unemployment and of despair,” he declared on Feb. 17 after President Giorgio Napolitano tapped him as Premier. The markets — understandably skittish about Italy’s prospects as it staggers under the heaviest debt burden in the euro zone after Greece — seem willing to give Renzi the benefit of the doubt. The yield on Italian 10-year bonds dropped to 3.64% on the prospect of his takeover, their lowest level in almost eight years. Renzi’s inexperience looks from some angles like an advantage. His belief in the transformative powers of democratic politics appears gleamingly intact. Whereas a veteran might approach the job by listing all the things that can’t be done, Renzi is setting about his latest role with the vigor of someone who has yet to learn by failure, promising economic and constitutional reforms at speed.

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 would revitalize an economy weighed down with bureaucracy and riddled with small-scale corruption. 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 after 10 months, amid disappointment at his inability to implement the same kind of reforms Monti had promised. Italian politics often seems doomed to repeat itself like a multicourse Italian lunch.

Letta’s loudest critic was his PD colleague and party leader Renzi, who helped force his ouster. Renzi accused Letta of dragging his feet on reform and welcomed his Valentine’s Day resignation with moist-eyed emotion, declaring it “one of the most beautiful moments in the past five years.”

And so, if Renzi can rebuild Letta’s former coalition between the PD and several other parties, he’ll be on his way to Rome, promising real change. Yet even that promise has a familiar ring.

Last year, a comedian called Beppe Grillo led his Five Star Movement into Italy’s national elections to seize more votes than any other single party. Grillo’s biggest selling point was that he wasn’t like other leaders. He headed a movement that called for all sorts of good things including free Internet and sustainable transport. Installed in Parliament, however, his MPs have proved disruptive, attempting to block laws and recently trying to occupy government benches. What they’re not known for is getting things done.

Then there’s another factor in Italian politics that belies the notion of change: Silvio Berlusconi. Monti was brought in to replace the three-time center-right Prime Minister, who made a strong showing in the 2013 elections despite his conviction the previous year for tax fraud. Berlusconi was expelled from Parliament as a result yet retains influence in Italian politics. In January, Renzi met Berlusconi to seek his support for electoral reform aimed at reducing the numbers of small parties entering Parliament and clogging up the system by creating deadlock. A by-product of Renzi’s proposed reform would be to strengthen Berlusconi’s own Forza Italia party.

So Renzi undoubtedly signals change — but the question is, what kind? What Italy can least afford now is another case of più cambia, più rimane uguale: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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