Matteo Renzi, the politician Italians love to hate


Rome (AFP)

Matteo Renzi, Italy's outspoken former premier has succeeded in rubbing almost everyone in the country up the wrong way, an alarming change in fortune for a man who just a few years ago was considered the darling of Italian politics.

"In a matter of months, Matteo became Italy's most unpopular leader," L'Espresso weekly newspaper wrote recently.

Vying for a return to Italy's top spot at the head of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), the glib Florentine has a mountain to climb in the March 4 general election.

His party's ratings have been in constant decline. The last polls to be published before the vote gave the DP between 22-23 percent support, lagging behind former premier Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition and the Five Star populists.

Such a result would be particularly humiliating for a man whose party clinched 40 percent of the vote in the 2014 European elections.

"I can't really explain this hate towards Matteo Renzi," Giovanni Orsina, a political science professor at Rome's Luiss University, told AFP.

Often accused of an arrogant or authoritarian leadership style, the former premier never managed to deliver on his ambitious promises to revamp Italy and cast away the political old guard.

In 2012, with his sights set on party leadership, he vowed to make Italy the country "where you get a job because of what you know and not who you know," said L'Espresso.

But today he is often accused of surrounding himself with his chosen few, frequently fellow Tuscans, who have done little to boost his reputation.

One of them is Maria-Elena Boschi. A key minister in Renzi's former government, the glamorous politician has been dogged by rumours she had a hand in the 2015 state bailout of Etruria bank, where her father was a board member.

She remains, nonetheless, one of Renzi's top picks in any future government.

- 'The scrapper' -

But the ambitious upstart nicknamed "the scrapper" has always denied favouritism, purporting to have chosen only "the best".

At just 39, Renzi became the country's youngest prime minister in 2014.

Showing a tireless work ethic while his wife, Agnese, and three children stayed home in Tuscany, the former boy scout came to office with a vow to revive Italy's lethargic economy.

He managed to deliver significant labour market reforms and modest growth, while overseeing the granting of legal recognition to gay relationships for the first time.

But the recovery was not strong enough to generate any real political dividends, and Renzi alienated many on his party's far left, who broke away in 2017 to become part of the leftwing "Liberi e Uguali" (Free and Equal) alliance, also candidates in the upcoming vote.

Although still heading what remains the largest centre-left party in the European parliament, his domestic fall from grace came in December 2016, when Italians rejected his flagship proposal for constitutional reform in a referendum.

His dream of a "simpler, more competitive and more courageous" Italy in tatters, Renzi resigned as prime minister.

Despite taking a backseat, the energetic reformer maintained a strong media presence and few doubted his desire to return to the top spot.

With a hung parliament a likely outcome in the upcoming election, a broad German-style coalition between the PD and Berlusconi's Forza Italia could be Renzi's best hope for a say in the country's future.

The two political heavyweights were at one time allied over the need for constitutional reform and share political common ground on issues such as Europe.

His enemies could then continue to use their favourite jibe against him, dismissing his leftist credentials with the moniker: "Renzusconi".