Head­strong Renzi strug­gles to find po­lit­i­cal touch

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - — AFP

Mat­teo Renzi is strug­gling to re­gain the po­lit­i­cal ini­tia­tive af­ter a dis­as­trous spell dur­ing which he lost his job as prime min­is­ter and his party frac­tured. His ap­proval rat­ings are in slow de­cline, his at­tempts to re­assert con­trol over the rul­ing Demo­cratic Party (PD) are flail­ing and his ef­forts to con­trol the coali­tion gov­ern­ment from out­side par­lia­ment have foundered. Un­less he man­ages to re­vive his for­tunes quickly, he will surely lose na­tional elec­tions ex­pected in early 2018, and pos­si­bly open the door for groups that are hos­tile to the sin­gle euro cur­rency and likely to spook fi­nan­cial mar­kets.

Italy has the high­est out­stand­ing sovereign debt in the Eu­ro­pean Union and in­vestors fear a pop­ulist-led gov­ern­ment in Rome could yet lead to the breakup of the euro zone. “Renzi keeps on say­ing that ev­ery­thing is go­ing well, but it clearly isn’t,” said par­lia­men­tar­ian Giuseppe Ci­vati, a one-time friend of the cen­tre-left leader who walked out of the PD two years ago in dis­ac­cord over pol­icy pri­or­i­ties. “He seems dis­con­nected from re­al­ity. He is get­ting into fights with ev­ery­one and turn­ing peo­ple off,” he told Reuters.

Ci­vati was one of many peo­ple crit­i­cised in Renzi’s new book called “Avanti” (For­ward), which was pub­lished this month and was meant to fo­cus on fu­ture plans, but in­stead set off fierce rows over his read­ing of re­cent his­tory. While ral­ly­ing to Renzi’s side, party chiefs are ex­as­per­ated by con­stant pub­lic feud­ing as they fear it is ex­as­per­at­ing vot­ers worn down by years of eco­nomic un­der­per­for­mance, stag­nant wages, high un­em­ploy­ment and fall­ing liv­ing stan­dards. “Some­thing isn’t work­ing and we have six months to sort it out. All these con­tro­ver­sies will be re­duced to zero. We will adopt an in­sti­tu­tional, up­right at­ti­tude,” said law­maker Mat­teo Richetti, who is head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the PD. One PD source, who de­clined to be named, said that to help calm frayed tem­pers, the 42-year-old Renzi would adopt a very low pro­file in Au­gust and only re­turn to tele­vi­sion screens in the mid­dle of Septem­ber.

Frag­men­ta­tion

The gen­eral elec­tion must be held by May, with Fe­bru­ary or March seen as the most likely. An elec­toral mile­stone will come in Novem­ber, how­ever, via a bal­lot in Si­cily which could see the anti-sys­tem 5-Star Move­ment chalk up its first re­gional vic­tory. “This vote will have a ma­jor im­pact and set the tone for the sub­se­quent gen­eral elec­tion,” Richetti said. Un­for­tu­nately for Renzi, Si­cily, blighted by a job­less rate of some 22 per­cent, has lit­tle love for him. More than 70 per­cent of is­lan­ders voted against him in a De­cem­ber ref­er­en­dum, his worst show­ing in the coun­try be­sides Sar­dinia.

The PD won more than 40 per­cent of the vote across Italy in Eu­ro­pean elec­tions in 2014 shortly af­ter Renzi took of­fice in an in­ter­nal party coup, but it has been down­hill ever since. He was forced to re­sign as prime min­is­ter in De­cem­ber af­ter los­ing the ref­er­en­dum on his plans to stream­line par­lia­ment. Two months later, a group of se­nior PD mem­bers broke away, say­ing the party had shifted too far to the cen­tre.

Al­though Renzi com­fort­ably won a party lead­er­ship con­test in May, the PD fared badly in June’s lo­cal elec­tions, and a poll on Sun­day for Cor­riere della Sera news­pa­per put the PD on 26.9 per­cent, be­hind 5-Star on 27.6 per­cent. The sur­vey also showed a trio of loosely al­lied right­ist par­ties, in­clud­ing Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni’s Forza Italia, tak­ing some 35 per­cent of the com­bined vote. None of these scores would be enough to let any group gov­ern alone un­der the terms of a new elec­toral law, which Renzi has tried but failed to change. The sys­tem re­stores pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion (PR) to Italy and looks cer­tain to pro­duce highly frag­mented leg­is­la­tures in both the up­per and lower cham­bers.

This means the PD could still be at the heart of the next gov­ern­ment even if it comes sec­ond at the bal­lot box, but this will de­pend on Renzi’s abil­ity to forge coali­tion al­liances. The re­turn to PR will give smaller par­ties greater ne­go­ti­at­ing power, which helps to ex­plain the schisms and fo­men­ta­tion rat­tling Ital­ian pol­i­tics. “This elec­toral law is to blame for a lot of the ag­i­ta­tion we are see­ing,” Eu­ro­pean Af­fairs Min­is­ter San­dro Gozi told Reuters. “Peo­ple are look­ing where best to po­si­tion them­selves for votes and that is caus­ing ten­sions.”

Man­i­festo

The break­away PD dis­si­dents see gains to be made fol­low­ing the path of Bri­tain’s Jeremy Cor­byn, a diehard so­cial­ist who gal­vanised the youth vote in Bri­tain’s June elec­tion. Renzi is drawn in­stead to the recipe that helped cen­trist Em­manuel Macron win this year’s French pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. “Don’t for­get, Cor­byn lost. He is a nice guy, but he lost. This is not the model we want to fol­low,” said Gozi, a close Renzi sup­porter. “Macron’s suc­cess shows you can bring to­gether dif­fer­ent ideas and win ... this is what Renzi wants.”

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