‘De­mo­li­tion man’ ar­chi­tect of his own down­fall

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

When for­mer Ital­ian pres­i­dent Gior­gio Napoli­tano tapped Mat­teo Renzi as prime min­is­ter in Feb 2014, he urged his younger col­league to change the con­sti­tu­tion in or­der to make it eas­ier to gov­ern Italy. Early this year, Napoli­tano fret­ted that Renzi was tak­ing the wrong ap­proach in do­ing so. A ref­er­en­dum on the con­sti­tu­tional changes had been called. But in­stead of fo­cus­ing the elec­tion cam­paign on the mer­its of the am­bi­tious re­form, Renzi had turned it into a de facto plebiscite on him­self by promis­ing to quit if peo­ple voted against the changes.

At a time when anti-es­tab­lish­ment par­ties were gain­ing ground across Europe and when the Renzi gov­ern­ment was strug­gling to re­vive an anaemic econ­omy, a pop­u­lar­ity con­test was a dan­ger­ous tac­tic, Napoli­tano be­lieved. “If Renzi loses, Italy will also lose a lot of cred­i­bil­ity,” Napoli­tano, then 90, told friends at an April din­ner, ac­cord­ing to one per­son present. He said he had warned Renzi, 50 years his ju­nior, that it was a “mis­take to make this too per­sonal”.

On Sun­day, Renzi paid the price for that mis­take. Sixty per­cent of Ital­ians voted to re­ject the plans to abol­ish a di­rectly elected up­per house Se­nate and stream­line the leg­isla­tive process. Within an hour of polls clos­ing, a chas­tened Renzi an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion. In­ter­views with a dozen gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, min­is­ters and close ad­vis­ers show that Renzi per­sisted in ef­fec­tively mak­ing the bal­lot a vote on him­self - de­spite warn­ings from some of his clos­est ad­vi­sors not to do so.

That al­lowed dis­parate politi­cians from op­po­si­tion par­ties to join forces in egging on the elec­torate to oust him. Even af­ter ac­knowl­edg­ing in Au­gust that the per­son­al­iza­tion had been a mis­take, Renzi side­lined most of his own min­is­ters to dom­i­nate prime­time tele­vi­sion shows, giv­ing more than 20 ma­jor me­dia in­ter­views in the last week of cam­paign­ing alone. Renzi’s de­feat is the story of a per­sonal gam­ble that went awry. But it also speaks to the fast-shift­ing loy­al­ties of Europe’s elec­torate amid the ris­ing ap­peal of pop­ulist par­ties across the con­ti­nent.

Renzi stormed to power fol­low­ing a ruth­less in­ter­nal party coup less than three years ago, hailed as an anti­estab­lish­ment fig­ure de­ter­mined to re­vi­tal­ize a lethar­gic coun­try. But he was ul­ti­mately re­jected by the very peo­ple he had tried to court, the young and dis­af­fected, who viewed him as one of the elite. Renzi is not dis­ap­pear­ing from the po­lit­i­cal scene; he re­mains the leader of Italy’s big­gest party and, at the age of 41, has time to craft a re­turn to gov­ern­ment. Still, his big­gest ri­vals are the an­ti­sys­tem 5-Star Move­ment, founded by a pop­ulist for­mer co­me­dian.

Safe bet

Renzi raised the stakes on his flag­ship re­form early in his ten­ure. “I will bet all my po­lit­i­cal life on it,” he told Cor­riere della Sera news­pa­per in March 2014. At the time it ap­peared a safe bet. The op­po­si­tion party Forza Italia (Go Italy!) of for­mer prime min­is­ter Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni had given its sup­port and opin­ion polls suggested that more than 70 per­cent of the elec­torate were in fa­vor. But Ber­lus­coni soon pulled his back­ing as a broad pol­icy pact with Renzi col­lapsed. That left the gov­ern­ment alone as it em­barked on the most com­pre­hen­sive over­haul of the con­sti­tu­tion since its in­tro­duc­tion af­ter World War Two.

It took two years of fierce de­bate be­fore the changes fi­nally got par­lia­men­tary ap­proval in April. But be­cause they in­volved al­ter­ing the con­sti­tu­tion, Renzi had to call a ref­er­en­dum to get it turned defini­tively into law. That same month, with polls still pre­dict­ing vic­tory, Renzi hired the Messina Group, headed by Jim Messina who led US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s suc­cess­ful 2012 re-elec­tion bid, for help in de­vel­op­ing his cam­paign strat­egy.

Messina at the time was also ad­vis­ing Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron in his ef­forts to keep Bri­tain in the Euro­pean Union - an ef­fort that failed. Cameron’s de­feat in the June “Brexit” ref­er­en­dum shocked Renzi, ac­cord­ing to close as­so­ci­ates. The pre­mier drew two lessons: He would not re­peat Cameron’s so-called “project fear”, which had pre­dicted dire eco­nomic trou­bles in case of de­feat. Renzi also de­cided he would not as­so­ciate him­self too closely to cor­po­rate lead­ers to avoid ac­cu­sa­tions that he was in the sway of big busi­ness.

Still, Renzi con­tin­ued putting him­self cen­tre stage, mean­ing that the mer­its of his re­form were be­ing drowned out. Messina found it hard to con­vince Renzi to do oth­er­wise, a source close to the prime min­is­ter said. “The prime min­is­ter needs to be a bit more mal­leable,” the com­mu­ni­ca­tions mae­stro told the pre­mier’s in­ner cir­cle in July, pro­vok­ing a burst of laugh­ter, ac­cord­ing to some­one present. Messina’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment.

Ge­nie has es­caped

Polls showed mo­men­tum slip­ping from Renzi in the sum­mer. In Au­gust, the pre­mier fi­nally ac­knowl­edged in in­ter­views that he had been wrong to pin his fu­ture to the ref­er­en­dum. He tried to change di­rec­tion by re­fus­ing to dis­cuss the vote in con­nec­tion with what he would do if he lost. But the change in tack came too late: Lead­ers of the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion ac­cused Renzi of try­ing to go back on his prom­ise to re­sign. “The ge­nie had es­caped and it was im­pos­si­ble to put it back in the bot­tle,” said Mat­teo Richetti, a law­maker from the rul­ing PD who was in con­stant touch with Renzi.

In the three weeks be­fore the Dec 4 vote, the prime min­is­ter went back to his orig­i­nal strat­egy - play­ing on his own ap­peal to try to sway vot­ers and mak­ing clear he would in­deed quit if he failed. He also played the fear card, warn­ing that de­feat could open the door to a tax-hik­ing tech­no­crat gov­ern­ment and pre­sent­ing him­self as the only guar­an­tor of sta­bil­ity. In­stead of keep­ing his dis­tance from busi­ness lead­ers, he cam­paigned along­side Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Ser­gio Mar­chionne, even though a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter urged against it. “He didn’t lis­ten,” the min­is­ter said.

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