20th Mar 2023

Italy's Renzi got what he wanted. But at what price?

  • One of the most paradoxical aspects of the affair is that Matteo Renzi, in recent polls, is one of the least-popular politicians in the country - while Giuseppe Conte is the most popular (Photo: Reuters)

In the tug-of-war between former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and resigning prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the winner has been Renzi.

It is highly unlikely that Conte can ever hope to be prime minister again, since former president of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi will now probably replace him.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The political crisis was triggered on 13 January, when Renzi decided to withdraw his party's support from the centre-left government led by Conte - generating one of the most unpredictable upsets in recent Italian political history.

One of the most paradoxical aspects of the affair is that Renzi, in recent polls, is one of the least-popular politicians in the country, while Conte is the most popular.

Besides, Renzi leads a small neo-centrist party, Italia Viva, which polls always give around three percent of voting intention, while Conte is (or rather was) supported by two of the four largest parties in Italy, the leftwing Democratic Party (PD) and the 5 Star Movement (M5S).

Many, on social media and liberal newspapers, are now talking about Renzi's "political masterpiece".

Born in 1975 in Florence, the former prime minister could be compared to the 'David' (the very symbol of Florence) who through cunning defeated the 'Goliath' of the PD-M5S government.

Actually, this is not really the case. Because Renzi, as a centre-left MP says off-the-record to EUobserver, was aiming at a government with a weakened Conte or a different prime minister, and a greater weight of influence for Italia Viva. "Instead, Mario Draghi comes in now. And he's a technocrat, a smiling-but-tough guy".

Historically, the approach to politics of many centre-left leaders has been similar to that of a (not too good) chess player: cerebral, methodical, exasperatingly slow and often cold.

The current secretary of the PD, Nicola Zingaretti, is as famous for his pragmatism as he is for his excessive prudence. Renzi's style has been compared to that of the poker player, who is not afraid to raise, bluff or play hardball.

Wheel of Fortune

It is no coincidence that Renzi's first appearance on TV was in 1994, at the age of nineteen, when he took part (successfully) in the famous quiz show "La Ruota della Fortuna" (The Wheel of Fortune).

"Renzi's strength, and at the same time his weakness, is his strong personality, his great creativity. If he were a card player, I would say that he is always able to shake things up," says Maurizio Lupi, a Catholic MP who was infrastructure and transport minister when Renzi was prime minister.

According to Mario Ricciardi, editor of the prestigious journal on politics and culture Il Mulino, "Renzi has always been characterised by a very divisive leadership style. In a sense, he has always sought legitimacy based on harsh oppositions.

That was evident during the campaign for the 2016 constitutional referendum which he turned into a plebiscite on himself and his leadership, and which he lost, probably because of that. Right now Italy needs leaders capable of uniting, rather than dividing".

Mayor, party chief, PM

Before the 2016 referendum debacle, Renzi's political career had known nothing but victories. President of the province of Florence at 29, mayor of Florence at 34, secretary of the PD at 38, prime minister at 39.

His stronghold is Tuscany, a historically left-wing region in central Italy that has found in him its strongest politician since Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, elected president of the Republic in 1999.

"I like Renzi," Anna, a Tuscan student studying in Venice, tells EUobserver. "He's nice, he knows how to talk, he's very dynamic".

But not everyone in Tuscany feels the same way. "I take a very negative view of Renzi's politics," says Paolo, 46, who owns a newsstand just outside Florence.

"As mayor of Florence, he has also done some good things, sure, but overall I don't like his style."

The owner of a bar in the historic centre of Florence does not have a particularly positive opinion either: "He started off well, he was young, he was someone new, finally. But he has shown that he is only interested in his career. And he has also been a bit arrogant".

Renzi comes from a Catholic family, and in his youth he was a member of the Catholic scouts. He got married very young by Italian standards, at 24, to high school teacher Agnese, with whom he had three children.

As mayor of Florence, with his informal and youthful style (almost never a tie, white shirts and rolled up sleeves) he conquered the sympathy of millions of Italians; it was thanks to the votes of young professionals and entrepreneurs that he managed to win the primary election in 2013.

An analyst says: "The first time he ran for the primary in 2012, and lost, I told myself: "Renzi will be the Italian Tony Blair, he will do to the left what Blair did to Labour. They mocked me, but I was right.

"And if Draghi becomes prime minister, I am convinced that Renzi, even though he is no longer leader of the PD, will manage to make it move to the right".

The apogee of Renzi's political success was in 2014, when he triumphed at the European elections. The PD led by him won more than 40 percent of the votes, almost twice as many as the M5S.

It seemed that Renzi was the man to redeem the Italian centre-left from decades of marginalisation and unstable governments, but the debacle suffered at the 2016 constitutional referendum saw the PD's dreams of hegemony turn to ashes.

According to many observers, Renzi lost because he had transformed the referendum, which was supposed to modernise the country's constitutional structure, into a vote for or against him personally. And as is known, Italians are a people of happy naysayers.

"Renzi's weakness is caused by his being pretty self-centred. However this is not only typical of him, but of contemporary Italian politics in general, characterised by charismatic leaders, rather than by political parties," Lupi observes.

After the referendum defeat, Renzi resigned as prime minister.

In 2018, having also lost the general election (which saw the unexpected success of M5S and the League), Renzi also resigned (for the second time) as secretary of the PD.

A year later, he left the PD, with several senators and deputies, to create Italia Viva, a neo-liberal party of the centre. Italia Viva was criticised - even mocked - by a number of political observers, but as months went by its importance for the stability of the government led by Conte grew.

"Renzi is undoubtedly the political leader who has the most political qualities: the ability to manoeuvre, great inventiveness, imagination. Unfortunately, this talent is lost along shortcuts that do not always lead, let's say, to happy outcomes," Marco Follini, former deputy-prime minister, comments drily.

Now, a little over a year after the birth of Italia Viva, Renzi is back to being influential. He cannot aspire to become prime minister, but he can hope to become foreign minister in the Draghi government.

Saudi row

Or perhaps to become secretary general of Nato, taking over from Stoltenberg, according to speculation in Italian political circles.

But it is precisely foreign policy that has given Renzi some headaches of late.

An uproar broke out in Italy after a conversation between him and Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman in which the former prime minister said that Saudi Arabia – among the least human rights-friendly countries in the world – could become a place for a new renaissance.

"I think the visit to Saudi Arabia was inappropriate. Mohammed bin Salman is still in the spotlight over the Khashoggi case. This should have inspired Renzi to be more cautious, given that he is an active politician," says Benedetto Della Vedova, secretary of the liberal party +Europa, and former undersecretary of foreign affairs at the time of the Renzi's government.

But in the media firestorm caused by president Sergio Mattarella's request to Draghi to form a new government, even Renzi's faux-pas in Saudi Arabia has disappeared into oblivion.

Renzi, meanwhile, on Wednesday (3 February) ago gave his full backing to support Draghi's new government.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.


Sicily: Renzi finds Achilles heel in boot of Italy

Elections in Sicily at the weekend saw Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party trounced into third place - can the one-time wonder kid of Italian politics bounce back in time for 2018's national election?

Italy government totters ahead of €200bn EU covid relief

Just in time to be all over the Italian evening news on Wednesday night, Matteo Renzi withdrew the two ministers of his small party, Italia Viva - making official the political crisis of the Giuseppe Conte government.


Italy's return to statism spells trouble for the eurozone

There are profound questions about whether the windfall of cash from the EU coronavirus recovery fund will truly help Italy recover or whether it will cause more problems than it solves, for Rome and the rest of the eurozone.


Letta's comeback - Italian politics' Count of Monte Christo

Enrico Letta will need all his diplomatic skills to unify a party in a state of perpetual civil war, where former communists co-exist with former Christian Democrats, and which has had nine different secretaries since it was founded in 2007.


Member states are taking more control — for better or worse?

Two major trends — more Europe and a more intergovernmental Europe — should get alarm bells ringing. The European Union risks becoming a bazaar dominated by national politicians haggling, doing handshakes, walking out and having tantrums.

Latest News

  1. 'Final warning' to act on climate change, warns IPCC
  2. 'No one is unemployable': the French social experiment
  3. Why can't we stop marches glorifying Nazism on EU streets?
  4. Op-ed debate: Should NGOs be subject to stricter transparency regulation?
  5. 'Forever chemicals' industry hit by perfect storm
  6. EU summit zooms in on global roles This WEEK
  7. EU launches 'Hydrogen Bank' — but what is it?
  8. MEPs probing spyware 'stonewalled' by EU states

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality
  5. Promote UkraineInvitation to the National Demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine on 25.02.2023
  6. Azerbaijan Embassy9th Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting and 1st Green Energy Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us