ROME (Reuters) – Matteo Renzi, who as prime minister once enthused Italians and foreign observers with his promises of reform, is now among the country’s most unpopular figures, his name almost a byword for disloyalty and ruthless political manoeuvres.
On Wednesday Renzi pulled his tiny centrist party Italia Viva from the coalition, unseating Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government and throwing Italy into political chaos in the midst of a resurgent coronavirus emergency.
His reason for doing so is hard to pinpoint. His original complaint was over Conte’s plans for spending billions of euros promised by the European Union to relaunch the battered economy.
Italy’s draft “Recovery Plan” offered too little for the health service, culture, and infrastructure, Renzi said, and it was to be overseen by a group of unelected experts which he argued was an insult to parliament.
Renzi, 46, called it “a step forward” on Tuesday when Conte amended the plan to address many of his demands, but by then he had plenty of new ones.
“It seemed clear Renzi wanted to get rid of Conte and was searching for a reason to justify it,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of polling and political analysis firm YouTrend.
“This crisis is not about policy, it is about Renzi’s efforts to get a new government that gives him more political weight.”
Renzi says he has “Italy in my heart” and is acting for the good of the country.
Most Italians don’t believe him. In an Ipsos poll on Tuesday 73% of voters said he was pursuing his own interests, compared with 13% who said he was pursuing those of the country.
At the peak of his popularity in 2014 Renzi, who had recently become prime minister in an internal party coup, led his Democratic Party (PD) to a huge victory at European parliament elections where it took 41% of the vote.
In his early months as Italy’s youngest ever premier, Italians were won over in droves by his fast-talking, dynamic style as he promised “a reform a month” to overhaul the euro zone’s most sluggish economy. Most observers forecast he would dominate Italian politics for at least a decade.
Seven years on, after bruising political defeats saw him quit first as prime minister and then as PD leader, his Italia Viva party, formed in 2019, now polls at less than 3%.
“In all our surveys on politicians’ personal approval ratings, Renzi comes bottom,” said YouTrend’s Pregliasco.
Renzi became prime minister in 2014 by overthrowing a broad-based government led by his PD party colleague Enrico Letta, backtracking on previous pledges that he would only come to power in an election.
Days earlier, amid rumours he was planning to unseat Letta, he pledged his support to him with the words “stay calm Enrico,” which have since become a popular Italian catch-phrase to signify political treachery.
At that time, “Renzi-frenzy”, as it was dubbed in the media, was in full swing and few Italians spared much thought for Letta, who left Italy to pursue an academic career in Paris.
Yet Renzi’s honeymoon period soon began to sour, as the perception grew that behind his catchy slogans and wordplay there was more show than substance.
He passed reforms, most notably of the labour market and the education system, but these failed to kick-start the economy and Renzi’s pro-business, free-market agenda alienated the PD’s traditional voters while failing to lure conservative ones.
Renzi, always a combative character, was also making too many enemies in his own party, having ended the careers of several PD grandees during his rise to its leadership.
One of these, former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, last week gleefully attacked Renzi for trying to undermine Conte’s government, reflecting that “you can’t get rid of the country’s most popular man at the will of the most unpopular”.
Renzi’s downfall was triggered by his campaign to overhaul Italy’s constitution in 2016 with a reform aimed at curbing the powers of the upper house senate, giving more power to the government and streamlining the lawmaking process.
The reform was thrown out in a referendum which many voters saw as an opportunity to sink Renzi, regardless of the merits of the constitutional changes.
Renzi had repeatedly promised that if he lost the referendum he would leave politics altogether, but within months he was campaigning to regain control of the PD.
He succeeded, briefly, before resigning again after defeat at the 2018 election, which ushered in the government of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and Salvini’s League.
Since then, his reputation has continued to decline and
Italia Viva has become the kind of minuscule party with the power to make of break governments, which Renzi used to say were the curse of Italy’s politics when he led the PD in his heyday.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)