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PROFILE: Who is Matteo Renzi, the ‘wrecker’ of Italian politics?

Former prime minister Matteo Renzi has reclaimed the spotlight with a manoeuvre that risks toppling the government - and leaving him more unpopular than before.

PROFILE: Who is Matteo Renzi, the 'wrecker' of Italian politics?
Matteo Renzi holds a press conference on Wednesday evening. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/POOL/AFP
After weeks criticising the centre-left coalition over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Renzi withdrew his Italia Viva party from the government last week, risking its collapse.
 
Critics accuse him of seeking to destabilise Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's administration in a bid for bigger cabinet roles – at the worst  possible time.
 
 
But he claims he is following his conscience as Italy grapples with more than 82,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic, a dire economic outlook, and an increasingly vocal opposition.
 
As yet it seems unclear how Renzi might benefit, with many of his former coalition partners vowing to never share power with him again, and his party logging just 2.4 percent of support in opinion polls.
 
 
Boy scout turned 'Wrecker'
 
Renzi rose though Italian politics as a youthful reformer, out to shake up Italy's political establishment.
 
However, he soon earned the nickname “Rottamatore” (“the Wrecker” or “the Scrapper”).
 
Serving as mayor of his native Florence from 2009 to 2014, he raised great hopes when he was elected leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) in December 2013.
 
A former boy scout, without the ex-Communist baggage and grey demeanour of most of his predecessors, Renzi exuded self-confidence and dynamism.
 
In 2014, at the age of 39, he became Italy's youngest-ever prime minister since Benito Mussolini, and led the PD to a historic win in European Parliament elections, with almost 41 percent of the votes.
 
Matteo Renzi as newly-appointed prime minister in 2014. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
 
But then the lucky streak of a man who, as a teen, won 48 million lira (24,800 euros) on the Wheel of Fortune TV quiz show began to run out.
 
Under Renzi, Italy liberalised labour laws, modernised the school system, legalised same-sex unions and cut taxes on low-income workers.
 
But his centrist policies and increasingly arrogant style antagonised trade unions and the left-wing of his party, as well as the broader public.
 
Twists and turns
 
In December 2016, he led a referendum campaign for constitutional reforms, which he hoped would bring some stability to Italy's notoriously volatile politics.
 
But it backfired, and when he was defeated by a 59-41 percent margin, he resigned.
 
Despite promising to quit politics over that failure, he stayed on as the PD's party leader – and in recent years has been involved in a remarkable series of political twists and turns.
 

 
After the 2018 elections, he opposed moves to form a coalition between the PD and the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), who went on to join up with the far-right League.
 
But after that coalition collapsed, he helped negotiate a M5S-PD government – before stunning observers by leaving it, and setting up his own party, Italia
Viva.
 
 
The centrist group has flopped in opinion polls, prompting accusations that Renzi's attacks on the current government are motivated by a desire to get back some of the political power he has lost.
 
The most serious charge he levelled against Conte was that the premier lacked vision on how to spend the more than 200-billion-euros ($241 billion) in EU recovery funds.
 
 
The prime minister is trying to keep his government together without Renzi, going to the Senate on Tuesday for a vote of confidence – in which Italia
Viva will abstain.
 
Renzi continues to insist his motives are pure, declaring Monday: “When the fog of fake news clears… we will understand that the problem is not my character, but the failure to reopen schools, high Covid mortality, the most serious economic crisis in Europe, the vaccination delay, a Recovery Plan not worthy of our country…”
 
By AFP's Alexandria Sage and Alvise Armellini
Matteo Renzi listens to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addressing senators on January 19th, 2021. Photo: AFP

Member comments

  1. I dont like Renzi at all but in this case i agree with him he has called out a totally incompetent and unfit to govern goverment who do nothing more than argue with each other all the time.
    Conte has more lives than a cat.

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy’s elections

Scandal-plagued former premier Silvio Berlusconi said he plans to return to Italy's parliament in upcoming elections, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy's elections

“I think that, in the end, I will be present myself as a candidate for the Senate, so that all these people who asked me will finally be happy,” the 85-year-old billionaire and media mogul told Rai radio on Wednesday.

After helping bring down Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month by withdrawing its support, Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party looks set to return to power in elections on September 25th.

It is part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

Berlusconi brushed off reports he is worried about the possibility of Meloni – whose motto is “God, country and family” – becoming prime minister.

Noting the agreement between the parties that whoever wins the most votes chooses the prime minister, he said: “If it is Giorgia, I am sure she will prove capable of the difficult task.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

But he urged voters to back his party as the moderate voice in the coalition, emphasising its European, Atlanticist stance.

“Every extra vote in Forza Italia will strengthen the moderate, centrist profile of the coalition,” he said in a separate interview published Wednesday in the Il Giornale newspaper.

League party leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi pictured in October 2021. The trio look set to take power following snap elections in September. Photo by CLAUDIO PERI / ANSA / AFP

Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but has dominated public life for far longer as head of a vast media and sports empire.

The Senate expelled him in November 2013 following his conviction for tax fraud, and he was banned from taking part in a general election for six years.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, however, and threw his hat in the ring earlier this year to become Italy’s president — although his candidacy was predictably short-lived.

Berlusconi remains a hugely controversial figure  in Italy and embroiled in the many legal wrangles that have characterised his long career.

He remains on trial for allegedly paying guests to lie about his notorious “bunga-bunga” sex parties while prime minister.

Berlusconi has also suffered a string of health issues, some related to his hospitalisation for coronavirus in September 2020, after which he said he had almost died.

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