The comeback kid: Matteo Renzi hot favourite to lead his party again

Former prime minister Matteo Renzi is widely expected to regain leadership of Italy's Democratic Party (PD) in a vote set for Sunday.

The comeback kid: Matteo Renzi hot favourite to lead his party again
Matteo Renzi is pictured during a press conference. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Opinion polls show Renzi is on course to defeat his two rivals, Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Puglia governor Michele Emiliano, in the primary elections. Polls taken from April 12th-23rd all show Renzi with a strong lead, predicted to take between 57 and 72 percent of the votes.

Orlando is predicted to gain 16-29 percent of votes, with Emiliano on a projected 9-13 percent.

Most commentators in the Italian press saw Renzi as winning a TV debate between the three would-be leaders on Wednesday. In the debates, he said he would not rule out a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, but would not reach a deal with the Progressive and Democratic Party, a group of former PD politicians who broke away from the party in February.

Renzi bowed out as prime minister in December, following a crushing defeat in a referendum on which he had staked his leadership. Since then, the country has been governed by Paolo Gentiloni's caretaker administration.

READ ALSO: Paolo Gentiloni, plucked from obscurity to become PM

He stayed on as leader of the centre-left party until February, however, when he quit, triggering a leadership battle as he vowed to win back his post.

At the time, he pointed the finger at rebels within the party, many of whom had opposed him in the December referendum. 

“Schism is one of the worst words, only one is worse and that's the word blackmail. It is unacceptable for a party to be blocked by the diktat of the minority wing,” said Renzi.

“You have the right to defeat us, not eliminate us. That's the heart of a democracy,” he added. The 42-year-old had himself come to power as the result of a party coup, engineering the ousting of predecessor Enrico Letta – an ally of Emiliano – to become the country's youngest ever leader.

So how has Renzi been spending his time off?

He wrapped up his campaign in Brussels on Friday, telling reporters in a conference near the European Parliament that the choice of location was a symbol “that we are profoundly European.”

He addressed the rise of populism across the continent – the PD's main rival in next year's election will be the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party – saying Europe “must be saved from the populists”.

However, he also said the Union needed a “radical change”.

He's been a vocal supporter of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, congratulating him on progressing to the second round of elections and saying “Bravo Macron: the challenge starts now. A challenge that regards Italy too. Forward, together.”

Interestingly, Renzi's slogan in the primaries, “In Cammino” (On the Move), is an exact translation of Macron's political movement, “En Marche!”

READ ALSO: How Matteo Renzi fell as swiftly as he roseHow Matteo Renzi fell as swiftly as he rose
Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

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On eve of election, Italy braces for potential far-right win

Italians on Saturday braced for seismic change, on the eve of an election forecast to hand Italy the most right-wing government since World War II.

On eve of election, Italy braces for potential far-right win

Out with internationally respected Mario Draghi and in — polls say — with Eurosceptic Giorgia Meloni, head of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, who is widely tipped to become the country’s first woman to head a government.

“The country is eager for a change, a new face,” Wolfango Piccoli of the London-based political risk consultancy Teneo told AFP.

Italy is battling a series of crises, from rampant inflation and extreme weather events linked to climate change, to an energy crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

The campaign, sparked by Draghi’s downfall in July, wrapped up on Friday, giving Italians a day of reprieve as electioneering is banned until the vote.

People who spoke to AFP in Rome on Saturday said they were unsure the day before the election as the latest polls show that the Brothers of Italy party is likely to win and form a government.

“I am worried by the fact that the polls have the right-wing as the winner, especially Giorgia Meloni,” said Maria Tasca, a 27-year-old student originally from Sicily.

‘No magic solution’

“From what she has said on women’s rights, on young people’s rights, on rights in general, I see things going backwards by at least 50 years,” Tasca added.

“The problems are worldwide, there’s no magic solution. But sometimes you have to change,” said a 75-year-old shop owner, who gave his name only as Dante.

Meloni, 45, has worked hard over the past few weeks to reassure skittish investors and an anxious Brussels that her party’s historic ties to supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini are a thing of the past.

She has softened her tone and posted a video of herself on TikTok making traditional pastries from the Puglia region.

But she channelled warrior Aragorn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings on Thursday at the closing rally for the right-wing coalition, which unites her Brothers of Italy with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League party and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s League

The self-described “Christian mother” segued smoothly from the fantasy king to blaming the left for the country’s “drug dealers, thieves, rapists and mafia”, adding: “This Italy ends on Sunday”.

Berlusconi, 85, was at her side.

The media mogul — who is on trial accused of bribing starlets not to testify about his allegedly erotic parties — has campaigned mainly online, wooing grandmothers and housewives with promises of stay-at-home salaries.

TikTok jokes

He has also chased the youth vote with some TikTok jokes — including one about not trying to steal their girlfriends.

The race has seen the parties try to win over voters with ideas such as sending goods from northern to southern Italy via tube and fighting climate change with cannabis.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Five Star Movement

Former interior minister Salvini, 49, campaigned under the slogan “Credo” (I believe), earning him a rebuke from the Catholic Church.

Fearful of losing a significant chunk of his supporters to Meloni, Salvini has tried to stand out by calling for an end to sanctions against Russia and railing against Brussels.

But the end of his campaign was overshadowed by a video clip of him describing a blind League candidate on Thursday as “an eye for Italians”.

The centre-left’s Enrico Letta, head of the Democratic Party (PD), rocked up to his final rally in an electric van — reminding voters of his earlier efforts to promote ecologically friendly transport, when his electric campaign
bus ran out of battery.

His main rival for votes on the left, Giuseppe Conte, head of the populist Five Star Movement, seemed to have more staying power.

He was photographed so often standing head and shoulders above the crowd amid a throng of supporters that the media dubbed him the “travelling Madonna”.