Sunday

18th Nov 2018

Analysis

Sicily: Renzi finds Achilles heel in boot of Italy

  • Critics have accused Renzi's leadership style of being 'all about me, me, me.' (Photo: Reuters)

Matteo Renzi has always been a man in a hurry, but the speed at which the political career of Italy's 42-year-old former premier seems to be spinning out of control is astounding, by any standards.

A man who graduated from Florence local politics to top-level international summitry with the likes of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in just a couple of years, is now being mocked as "politically dead."

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  • 81-years old, but Silvio Berlusconi is still going strong, and spies an opportunity in the 2018 Italian elections (Photo: European Parliament)

"It's unbelievable, within the space of three years his fortunes have completely reversed," Giovanni Orsina, a contemporary history professor at Rome's LUISS university, told foreign press journalists on Monday.

"People used to pin their hopes on him, now they pin their frustrations on him: perhaps only a mass psychologist could explain how Renzi has gone from idol to scapegoat so quickly," the professor noted.

Renzi's latest trouble is an embarrassing defeat for his centre-left Democratic Party (PD) in Sunday's regional vote in Sicily, seen as a key test of public opinion ahead of next year's general elections, scheduled for May at the latest.

With less than 19 percent of the votes, the PD's Fabrizio Micari came a distant third in a race that handed victory to Sebastiano Musumeci, a former conservative MEP backed by ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who took almost 40 percent.

The runner-up spot, with almost 35 percent, went to Giancarlo Cancelleri of the Five Star Movement (M5S), the anti-establishment opposition party fronted by stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo.

Berlusconi and the M5S's prime ministerial candidate for 2018, Luigi Di Maio, jumped on the results to cast next year's general election as a two-way fight between them, with Renzi and the PD out of the picture.

That would leave the rest of the European Union with the prospect of dealing with a potentially hostile government in Rome, as both Berlusconi and Grillo's aides have expressed impatience with Brussels' rules and regulations.

Berlusconi's back

"We stopped Sicily from falling in the hands of the Five Star," Berlusconi said in a video on Monday.

"The same challenge will concern our Italy, the whole of Italy, in the coming months," added the 81-year-old, who is enjoying a political renaissance.

After surviving open-heart surgery, accusations of consorting with underage prostitutes and a tax fraud conviction that makes him ineligible for public office, Berlusconi is now casting himself as a bulwark against the M5S' "populism."

On his part, Di Maio said in a Facebook post that the "PD is politically dead," as he ducked out of a TV debate he himself had asked Renzi to take part in, on the grounds that his rival was no longer relevant. "Our competitor is neither Renzi nor the PD," Di Maio insisted.

The Sicily rout was the latest in a series of serious reversals for Renzi - most notably a constitutional reforms referendum 11 months ago. Renzi turned the poll into a personal plebiscite, and lost it by a 41 to 59 percent margin, triggering his resignation as prime minister.

Most observers believe he never recovered from that shock, which was preceded by the loss to the M5S of mayoral races in Rome and Turin, in June 2016, and followed by more regional election disappointments in June this year.

'Me, me, me'

Roberto Weber, chairman of the IXE polling institute, told EUobserver that Renzi's ego-driven politics seems to put off many centre-left voters, who prefer the more downbeat, consensual style of his ally and successor, Paolo Gentiloni.

"After the referendum, Renzi should have changed his game," Weber said, alluding to the need for more collegiality. "But he only knows one style of play, he's all about 'me, me, me,' and people are tired of that."

Nevertheless, the PD leader still has his fans, and seen from another perspective, Sunday's results were not so disastrous: Sicily is traditionally conservative and had an unpopular outgoing centre-left administration, so a shift to the right was on the cards.

"We already knew" that a defeat was coming, PD lawmaker Laura Garavini said to EUobserver, also blaming a split in the leftist camp that saw Micari bleed votes to Claudio Fava, a candidate for a left-wing splinter party that won about 6 per cent.

"We sure cannot win if we don't stay together, so the choice [to run a rival campaign to Micari] was very negative," Garavini added, referring to the Democratic and Progressive Movement (MDP), a new party formed by PD dissidents earlier this year.

While PD numbers have slipped in recent months, national opinion polls suggest that a united centre-left would not be far behind Berlusconi's conservatives, and ahead of the M5S, which is expected to be penalised by new voting rules that favour coalitions, rather than single parties like Grillo's.

But chances of patching-up the centre-left camp look slim: while national media speculated that Gentiloni or interior minister Marco Minniti could make a better prime ministerial candidate than him, Renzi said Tuesday that he had no intention of taking a step back.

"They have been trying for months to put me aside, but they will fail one more time," the PD leader said in an online newsletter.

Meanwhile, MDP grandee Massimo D'Alema – a former prime minister with a history of animosity against Renzi – said "the reconstruction of the centre-left [coalition] requires a change of leadership and policies."

So Renzi, who rose to national prominence as a fighter of the old elites, is facing calls for his own demise - at an age in which many other politicians have only just begun their ascent to power.

Can he break the mould? Professor Orsina is sceptical, especially of Renzi's attempts to regain his 'anti-establishment' credentials – for example, via recent strident criticism of the Bank of Italy – while at the same time leading a party that has been in government since 2011.

"My impression is that the more Renzi tries to dig himself out of his hole, the more he sinks into it," Orsina said.

Italy earthquake is test for Renzi

Italian prime minister is expected to present a quick reconstruction plan and request more budget flexibility from the EU after this week's tragic earthquake.

Commission warns Italy over high debt level

The Italian government must demonstrate it is making an effort, or the EU will consider launching a procedure. France and Romania are also under scrutiny.

Italy to hold elections on 4 March

Elections could mean the end of centre-left rule in Italy, with Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right party doing well in the polls.

Berlusconi in Brussels on pre-election charm offensive

Berlusconi reassured EPP leaders about the reliability of his centre-right coalition with the eurosceptic Northern League against the rise of the populist Five Star movement, ahead of Italian political elections in March.

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