Renzi's return?

Renzi’s was not a failure of a political career. He did some good in his time at the helm: freeing up the labour market and making some modest alterations to speed up the courts system, both of which were sorely needed. Now he wants another go.

Matteo Renzi
Tim Hedges
On 30 August 2017 09:20

Except perhaps at the beach, Italians are not traditionally great readers, preferring entertainment that is more noisy such as football, or talking at lunch in a crowded restaurant with the television on.

So it is not easy to guess at the likely success of a newly published book, ‘Avanti. Perché l’Italia non si ferma’ (Forwards. Why Italy won’t stop). It is by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and it is about….well, it is about him.

The book was due to be launched at the Festival of the Mind in Sarzana, Liguria, but in a move typical of the times the organisers have said that Liguria is no longer a Democratic Party fiefdom and he couldn’t count on their support. Indeed the region is run by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Everything is political here.

The Democratic Party, currently in power through Prime Minister Gentiloni, is probably the most likely to come first at the next election, but no one would put that much money on its beating either the 5-Star movement or the resurgent Forza Italia.

Anyhow, despite the botched launch, I got a copy of the book. It is solipsistic and exculpatory, as you would expect a politician’s book to be, but strangely engaging. He describes his period in office as the 1,000 days, a clear reference to John F Kennedy’s presidency.

A young leader, the dawn of a new age, it must be tempting to see himself on this light. But what is interesting is his tone. Naming names, he says that his detractors on the left, just like Silvio Berlusconi on the right, have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. Only he, Renzi, is determined to secure change.

The book deals with his demise, after what I calculate as 1,024 days making his the fourth longest serving government since the war. One of the main planks of his reform agenda had been reform of the bicameral political system.

In Italy, unlike any major country I can think of, the two chambers of parliament have exactly equal weight. If the Senate votes one way and the House of Deputies the other, there is stalemate. Unsurprisingly, not much gets done.

Renzi’s solution was to emasculate the Senate, making it not much more than a regional debating chamber. To make this change to the constitution he needed to put it to a referendum, which took place last December. He lost and resigned.

Renzi’s was not a failure of a political career. He did some good in his time at the helm: freeing up the labour market and making some modest alterations to speed up the courts system, both of which were sorely needed. It was perhaps because he promised so much that he is seen as a failure.

But now he wants another go. He is still leader of his party and so can be its candidate at the next election, simply thanking the unfortunate Paolo Gentiloni for keeping the seat warm. And Renzi is still popular, though his tireless attempts to prove this make the reader’s attention wander.

Last December people were a bit lukewarm about him, not having felt any material gain from his policies, but the reason they voted him down is because people always vote against change unless it is properly explained. And it wasn’t. Will they trust him again? Probably they will.

The book is to some extent a story of Renzi’s personal struggle. He wants to talk to people more, wants to be less isolated, wants to seem less arrogant. But the changes he advocates may in the end be a fantasy. In a country enthusiastic about proportional representation the job of a major instigator of change, a Thatcher, is not be on offer.

The polls show the three groupings roughly even. Whoever wins would have to go into coalition. At the party congress in Bologna they are already asking delegates which is their favoured coalition partner, Berlusconi or Grillo?

Is this what Renzi wants? Coalition means compromise; compromise means more of the same. I think Renzi understands that Italy can change only incrementally but he can accept that. For many, he is the country’s only hope.

In the next article we shall have a look at Beppe Grillo and his 5-Star Movement.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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