From Renzi to Salvini: The Furious waltz of the Matteos

, by Translated by Hunter Wilson-Burke, Sauvons l’Europe

From Renzi to Salvini: The Furious waltz of the Matteos

Matteo Renzi has often been presented as a kind of modern Machiavelli of the Italian political scene. The comparison is quite easy to make when you’re talking about a former mayor of Florence. But if we consider the caricature of Machiavellianism —which is simplistic because the Florentine philosopher’s thinking was much more profound— according to which the ends justifies the means, though the tortuous maneuvers which the former Prime Minister is accustomed to are clearly hard to miss, but it is becoming more and more difficult to identify an objective and an aim in them.

In 2019, when Renzi decided to leave the Democratic Party to found the Italia Viva party, it already seemed very clear that he was acting out of spite after losing control of the main center-left party to Nicola Zingaretti, who represented the social democratic movement opposed to the social liberalism of the “Renzists”. Nevertheless, his gamble might have been of some interest if he had been able to wrestle centrist votes away from the so-called “center-right” coalition which is increasingly dominated by Matteo Salvini’s Lega party. At the time Renzi ostensibly wanted to appear Salvini’s enemy, eager to structure Italian political life around a mano a mano between the two Matteos. Less than two years later, it is fair to say that by bringing about the downfall of the Conte government, Matteo Renzi will ultimately be the one who will have allowed the Lega to return to power.

Without a doubt, the Italian government of 2018-2023 —if it lasts until then, which is far from obvious— will remain one of the strangest in Europe’s recent political history. It started with the first populist government in the western world, in the form of a partnership between the ‘anti-system’ 5 star movement party (M5S) and the extreme right Lega. The lawyer Giuseppe Conte, who was only supposed to oversee the contract between the two parties, ended up as prime minister. A year later came quite a spectacular reversal of the alliance by the 5 Star Movement which, abandoned by the Lega, negotiated with the Democratic Party and…. Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva to form a new government, still run by Conte who had gained popularity in the meantime. The fact that he became the most popular politician in the country frustrated Renzi who tried to usurp Conte, using political disagreements as a pretext, though no one was really fooled. Thus, we find ourselves in Act III of this absurd play: a new government of (very, very) broad agreement headed by Mario Draghi. Even if comparisons don’t prove very much, it is a little like if France suddenly found itself with a government led by Christine Lagarde with ministers from the Socialist Party, the République En Marche party, the Republicans, the National Rally and even France Insoumise party. Or if the UK had ministers from Labour, Conservative, the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.

The fact that the 5 Star Movement is ultimately the only common denominator between the three successive governments since 2018 is not the least of the paradoxes. Remember that this movement’s initial motto was overthrowing the "political class”, and a total rejection of the system of alliances. Therefore, to say that this party has become a little institutionalized once in power is putting it mildly. It is similar to the opportunist Luigi Di Maio who, thanks to a lot of hedging, managed to obtain important ministry posts in each of the three governments. However, it is possible that the 5 Star Movement will end up paying for its chameleon strategy: the polls are clearly trending downwards and 40% of activists reject M5S’s inclusion in the Draghi government, posing the risk of a split, with the departure of Alessandro Di Battista who could be followed by a number of other M5S MPs. It should also be noted that apart from Luigi Di Maio, the executives of the Movement have been disappointed with the ministry positions they obtained, which amplifies the dissatisfaction.

At least for the moment, Renzi has escaped the worst. The fact that he was almost universally vilified as a mere opportunist capable of triggering a serious political crisis in the midst of a pandemic for simple personal convenience will no doubt be partly mitigated by the initial popularity of new Prime Minister Mario Draghi. However, it is difficult to see what he could gain in the medium term: his party, Italia Viva, only obtained fairly minor positions and the very large scope on which the new coalition is based will inevitably return Italia Viva to a small status party, far from the disproportionate influence that it wielded in the previous majority. In the end it seems Matteo Renzi has sawn off the branch he was sitting on.

But the most important event is obviously the right-wing coalition’s big comeback. As far as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party is concerned, this is ultimately not very surprising. But no one really expected Salvini’s Lega to join the Draghi government. This came at the cost of an incredible metamorphosis by Matteo Salvini who suddenly presented himself as a convinced European and an obliging statesman, open to pragmatism. Admittedly, it is difficult as a pro-European to complain about the fact that even Salvini has finally had an epiphany, though it hardly seems sincere. In reality, we can assume that Salvini’s strategy is to build a new unifying reputation for himself: belonging to a government coalition is, for Lega,the ultimate passport for “normalization” which, in Salvini’s eyes, is likely to to mitigate public opposition to the party, in short to reassure the more centrist electorate and thus broaden the party’s potential in the next elections. Obviously, there is also a risk of losing support from the most radical electorate, which is the reckoning of Giorgia Meloni’s neo-fascist party, Fratelli d’Italia,he only significant party to have chosen to oppose the coalition, hoping to block Lega from the political right. But the fact of the matter is, though Meloni appears to be an internal rival to Salvini, the entire right-wing coalition can benefit from not, as the saying goes, putting all their eggs in one basket. The right and the far-right therefore seem more than ever to be in a strong position in anticipation of the next elections.

Because, let’s not delude ourselves: beyond the Draghi experience that we hope succeeds for the good of Italy, each of the players are well aware that this is only a digression, and that we have already entered a new phase which will lead to the elections in 2023, or probably earlier when the motley coalition experiences inevitable upheavals. And though the opposing forces on the far right are unable to organize, Draghi’s successor will be Salvini or Meloni. The leadership of the Democratic Party is convinced of this, it has requested that the links between the parties from the outgoing coalition be maintained. It remains to be seen whether this will be heeded, between a potentially divided 5 Star Movement and Renzi’s party that has alienated itself from its old allies perhaps permanently. It will also be interesting to observe what the intentions of the outgoing Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, will be given he has remained extremely popular: will he found a new party? Will he seek to run for head of M5S? Will he stay independent in order to remain a potential candidate for a coalition that would bring together the left and M5S in the next election? To be continued, therefore...

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