Friday

2nd Jun 2023

Renzi - one year on

  • Matteo Renzi - good at finding alliances to push through his agenda (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

One year on from ousting from party colleague Enrico Letta to become the youngest-ever prime minister since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the go-getting Matteo Renzi is still the coolest kid on Italy’s political scene. Even if he has fallen short of delivering the radical change he promised when he conquered power.

Less than three weeks after a 22 February swearing-in ceremony, Renzi suggested that he could revolutionise Italy’s tax, justice, and bureaucratic systems in the space of three months. Having largely failed to come up with the goods, in September he pledged even bolder reforms, but pushed back the target date for delivery to May 2017.

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“If you judge him on the basis of what he promised, the verdict must be quite harsh. However, you can credit him with one major achievement: he has shown that things can be done, even if confronted with a swamp-like situation,” Francesco Costa, a political analyst and blogger writing for the Il Post website, says.

Playing his opponents against each other, and strong-arming parliament at critical times, Renzi is now roughly half-way through ramming through a new electoral law that eliminates the possibility of hung parliaments and a constitutional reform that emasculates Senate powers in a bid to streamline Italy’s slow-moving legislative process.

He has also spearheaded a labour reform package praised by Germany and the EU and opposed by trade unions and parts of his centre-left Democratic Party (PD), and filled the pockets of low-wage earners with an 80-euro monthly tax cut, helping him score a historic 41-percent victory in May’s European Parliament elections.

Three point mission

Taking on the presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2014, he installed his foreign minister Federica Mogherini as the bloc’s top diplomat, lobbied for a slight relaxation of austerity rules which the European Commission introduced last month, and got the EU to take on – albeit on a tragically limited scale – migrant rescues in the Mediterranean.

However, his government has made disappointingly little progress on cutting government waste – Carlo Cottarelli, an International Monetary Fund executive who was hired by Letta to restructure Italy’s state apparatus was unceremoniously sent packing back to Washington – and so far failed to revive Italy’s flagging economy.

“The Renzi government came to power essentially with a three-point mission – push through electoral, institutional and economic reforms – and you can say that it has more or less delivered on almost two-thirds of the agenda,” argues Francesco Clementi, a political scientist at Perugia University with connections to the prime minister’s entourage.

On other fronts, Renzi (a Roman Catholic) has been very timid on issues that might upset the Vatican – such as the legal recognition of same-sex unions, the regulation of euthanasia and stem-cell research – and on a PD manifesto pledge to give Italian citizenship to children born in the country from foreign parents.

Most analysts stress the constraints Renzi has faced in office.

Having no overall control of parliament, and facing plenty of critics in PD ranks where many backbenchers question his left-wing credentials, Italy’s prime minister has mastered the art of juggling between different political alliances to push through his agenda.

His government nominally relies on an alliance between the PD and smaller centrist forces. But to secure the approval of major political reforms, he has struck a controversial deal with the opposition conservative Forza Italia of his scandal-tainted predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, overruling the resistance of fringe elements within his party.

At the same time, he has shown that he is no slave to Berlusconi, as he ignored his request to elect a consensual candidate in last month’s parliamentary vote to elect a new Italian President, rallying PD troops, centrists and the far-left opposition in support of Sergio Mattarella, a constitutional court judge.

High-wire artist

Ezio Mauro, editor of the centre-left La Repubblica newspaper, describes Renzi as a “high-wire artist that sometimes amazes you with his tricks, sometimes leaves you wondering whether he might fall at any minute.”

He also questions whether, while being a skillful short-term tactician, the prime minister has a long-term strategy.

David Allegranti, a political reporter who has written two books on Renzi, says his subject lacks substance.

“He gives out the impression of churning out one flashy initiative after the other, with no overall vision,” Allegranti says, also recalling a series of blunders such as a recent government U-turn on steep tax hikes for self-employed professionals.

Despite the criticism, Renzi’s hold on power seems firm.

Basking in his political supremacy, he can expect to lead his country out of recession this year: GDP should turn positive in the first three months, ending a run of 14 quarters with no growth, while opinion polls give the prime minister’s centre-left camp a large lead on Berlusconi’s conservatives and Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Nevertheless, his enemies may finally manage to ambush his reform programme in parliament, or he may end up in a confrontation with President Mattarella, who as the guardian of Italy’s constitution could have qualms about Renzi’s plans to centralise powers in the hands of the executive.

“I think Renzi wants to keep going until 2018,” Mauro predicts, while conceding that if things turn messy, the prime minister might well be tempted to force snap elections, giving him a chance to conquer a direct mandate from voters.

“It’s in his nature to seek an [electoral] fight: it’s no coincidence that they often use the word ‘bully’ to describe him.”

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