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Matteo Renzi, the hurried prince who made too many enemies

Filippo Monteforte, AFP | Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tendered his resignation after suffering a crushing defeat in a referendum on December 4, 2016.

The manner of Matteo Renzi’s rapid rise to power would have impressed his fellow Florentine Niccolò Machiavelli. His similarly swift demise would have appalled him in equal measure.


When Renzi whizzed into the prime minister’s Roman palazzo at the wheel of a Smart car, just over 1,000 days ago, it felt like a breath of fresh air had swept through Italy’s notoriously geriatric, fossilized political class.

Then just 39, Renzi was half Silvio Berlusconi’s age, and 31 years younger than another recent prime minister, Mario Monti. He presented himself as a clean break with the past in a country blighted by unemployment, slow growth and chronic political instability.

The restless, bullish and – in his own words – "hugely ambitious" mayor of Florence was known to Italians as the "Rottamatore" (the Scrapper) for his pledge to rejuvenate Italy’s ageing and discredited political establishment. A moderate, he enjoyed broad appeal on both sides of the aisle. Even the communist-obsessed Berlusconi had to admit that: "Renzi is no communist."

A former marketing executive, the new star of Italian politics was energetic, relaxed and informal, equally at ease on a TV set or cycling around the cobbled streets of Florence. He was likened to Britain's Tony Blair for his stated aim to shake up the left, and to the Fonz, from the American sitcom Happy Days, for posing in a glossy magazine wearing a black leather jacket over a white T-shirt.

Renzi poses as "The Fonz" in the glossy magazine, "Chi".
Renzi poses as "The Fonz" in the glossy magazine, "Chi".

Many Italians saw him as charismatic and inspiring, others warned he was all style and no substance. Either way, he caught the eye of the public and the press in a manner not seen since Berlusconi. And like the former “Cavaliere”, he personalised politics in a way that would ultimately prove fatal.

'Original sin'

Italy's youngest ever prime minister was also its most desperately inexperienced, having never served in a government or been elected to parliament. His other nickname was the "Sindaco" (the Mayor), essentially for want of another title on his CV.

At first, this proved a blessing in a country that harbours little love for its ageing political class.

As an editorial in the left-leaning daily La Repubblica put it, the mayor of Florence was dragging a whole country along in his leap of faith. “Renzi does not make promises of change, he is the promise of change,” the newspaper wrote. “In a biological, pre-political, almost primitive way.”

And yet already the narrative jarred with the manner of his rise to power, which was more akin to the all-too-familiar wheelings and dealings of Italian politics.

Only two months before stepping into the prime minister’s shoes, the mayor of Florence had conquered the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), Italy's most powerful political organisation, with a promise to end its miserable record at the polls.

But instead of sweeping to power on the back of a decisive electoral victory, he engineered the fall of the sitting prime minister, his party colleague Enrico Letta – just days after coining, in a notoriously Machiavellian twist, the hashtag #Enricostaisereno (Enrico don’t worry).

As Renzi pinched Letta’s seat, becoming the latest in a long list of unelected Italian leaders, critics described his lack of an electoral mandate as his "original sin". It seemed the ruthless manner of his rise had been inspired by Machiavelli’s most famous treatise, “The Prince”.

Europe’s new star

To many in his own camp, Renzi had already sinned by striking a deal on electoral reform with none other than Berlusconi, the devil incarnate for Italy’s left-wingers – though Machiavelli would surely have relished the move.

That deal would come back to haunt Renzi in his hour of need. But at the time, it looked like nothing could stop the young “Scrapper”, not even some backroom dealings with the fading force of Italian politics, whose endless legal woes and declining health had forced to the sidelines.

In a blistering first 30 days in office, Italy’s energetic new leader submitted a rash of bills to parliament, including a new electoral law (negotiated with Berlusconi), plans to remove layers of regional government, a reform of public administration, and the so-called “Jobs Act”, designed to free up the job market.

At first, Italians seemed to appreciate his bullish style, and when European elections in May 2014 saw far-right, anti-establishment parties triumph across the continent, Italy alone stood out as a beacon of stability – handing Renzi’s PD a record 40 percent of the vote.

That score, contrasting with the French Socialists’ dismal polling, helped cement Renzi’s status as a leader of the continent’s progressive, pro-European camp. His reward was the appointment of Italy’s Federica Mogherini to the prestigious role of EU foreign policy chief.

A record too far

Early the next year, some deft political maneuvering saw Renzi steer his favoured candidate, Sergio Mattarella, to the Italian presidency. The move helped avert a protracted institutional crisis, but it came at a high cost for the prime minister – abruptly ending his unlikely pact with Berlusconi, who had vetoed the former Sicilian judge.

As his constitutional and electoral reforms got bogged down in parliament, Renzi began to amass a formidable array of opponents – including Italy’s rising anti-establishment parties, for whom the former outsider of Italian politics had become very much the insider.

Still, the hurried prime minister huffed and puffed and (almost always) had his way, each time creating more enemies. And as his foes grew stronger, he was hemorrhaging support in his own camp, where his blustering style irked many former grandees and came to be seen as tainted by arrogance.

Renzi’s deeply divisive Jobs Act – named after Barack Obama’s bill to jumpstart the US economy – alienated trade unions and the left of his party, without seriously denting Italy’s stubbornly high unemployment. Perhaps more damagingly still, his school reform infuriated many teachers, one of the left’s most loyal voting blocks.

As the reforms piled up but failed to bear fruit, Italy’s ubiquitous leader took the blame for longstanding problems he could never fix quickly enough.

“Never before had a government passed so many reforms in so little time. Never before had a prime minister led his party past the 40 percent mark in a national poll,” La Repubblica’s Sebastiano Messina wrote on Monday.

“And yet it is the third record set by Renzi that explains his crushing defeat,” Messina reflected. “Never before had a politician elicited such a profound, cross-party and multifaceted opposition – one that stretched from the far left to the far right, and ultimately split his own party in two.”

Changing Fortuna

One can easily overstate Renzi’s decline in popularity. His party is still the largest in the country, though the 5-Star Movement of comedian-turned-rabble rouser Beppe Grillo is hot on its heels. The Florentine, still only 41, may yet bounce back.

It is just as easy to forget that Renzi’s government, though it came to an abrupt end, was remarkably long by Italian standards – the fourth-longest among Italy’s 63 postwar governments. Which makes the manner of its fall all the more baffling.

A year ago, with his ratings still high, Renzi confidently staked his political future on a constitutional referendum. A decisive win, he calculated, would help wash away his “original sin”. But that was before Brexit and Donald Trump; before the changing Fortuna called for a Machiavellian shift from audacity to prudence.

Italy PM Renzi resigns after crushing referendum defeat

Last Sunday’s referendum revolved around a complex and diverse bundle of proposals, including plans to drastically downsize and weaken the Italian Senate. But since Renzi had promised to “quit politics” if the proposals were rejected, it soon became a referendum on the prime minister himself.

“Renzi made a strategic blunder by turning the referendum into a personal issue,” said Paolo Bellucci, a professor of political science at the University of Siena. “As a result, voters saw this as a chance to deliver a vote of no confidence in the government,” he told FRANCE 24.

Up until the eve of the vote, polls suggested most Italians approved of the proposed reforms when taken one by one, but still planned to reject them in the referendum. On the day of the vote, they did so by a whopping 18-point margin.

Renzi had handed his many foes the stick with which to beat him – and beat him they did. Reflecting on his failed bid to scrap the Senate, the “Scrapper” quipped, with a lump in his throat: “I wanted to cut the number of seats [in parliament]. In the end, the seat that is going is mine."

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