24th Jun 2021

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.

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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.


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