Has Renzi Lost his Fortuna? The Challenges Ahead for Italian Politics after the Municipal Elections

  • Thibault Muzergues

For a while, and despite pressures from outside parties, it seemed that Matteo Renzi, darling of the European media and reformist president of Italy’s Council of Ministers, was immune from the nasty challenges his moderate counterparts have been encountering in other Mediterranean countries such as France, Spain and Greece. 

The former mayor of Florence has indeed built remarkably strong sympathy among voters in record time, and his new style – young, moderate and contrasting with Silvio Berlusconi’s more flamboyant sorties – has allowed him to exert leverage with European partners while pushing for bold reform in a country traditionally gridlocked by its complex political system.

However, over the past two weeks, Renzi suffered his first major setback as leader of Italy’s center-to-center-left government.  As Italians were called to vote on June 5-19 for the country’s two rounds of municipal elections – a very important vote considering the decentralized nature of Italian politics as well as the country’s history – Renzi’s Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD) suffered major setbacks in two of the three most important cities in the country, Rome and Turin, which along with Milan forms the industrial powerhouse of the country and had been in the left’s hands for 15 years.  Worse:  both cities fell to the same anti-establishment party, Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement (Movimento 5 Strelle, M5S), which brought together a group of very young and inexperienced candidates who managed to convince voters to vote for them precisely because of, not despite, their lack of experience.

Before getting to the national consequences of the vote, the individual contests in these cities deserve some attention.  While Rome’s fall was largely expected (and predicted, although the gigantic 35 percentage-point difference between the M5S and PD candidates in the second round was not), due to the poor state of the city’s administration, long delays in building new transport infrastructure and a series of major corruption scandals, that of Turin was not.  The northern city, home of automobile powerhouse FIAT and at the heart of “industrial,” well-off Italy, was considered a well-managed municipality with former Justice Minister Piero Fassino, a respected center-left politician, at its head. Despite Fassino’s reputation and the relatively good condition of the municipality, Fassino was taken out in the second round by an “anti-“ coalition made up of all antiestablishment forces (including the extreme-right Fratelli d’Italia, an offshoot of Alleanza Nazionale, which publically backed M5S between the two rounds).  In each city, the winner of the contest was a young woman (new Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, is 38 years old, while Chiara Appendino of Turin is 32), whose main electoral argument was her lack of experience in politics, a particularly appealing quality not only in Italy, but more broadly in today’s European politics.

Neither Raggi nor Appendino came out of nowhere:  both were successful in their early professional life (something that is very difficult in Southern Europe, where youth unemployment is particularly high), and both were selected in primaries by M5S, which then let them campaign as they wished.  The result was surprisingly mild campaigns on the part of the two candidates, with rhetoric that contrasted with the inflammatory remarks of national party leader Beppe Grillo.  In both cities, and even more so in Turin, this discourse, centered on promises of a more transparent government without much focus on other burning social issues such as migration, was an essential ingredient in their respective wins.

The contrast between the fresh faces of the new mayors and the more colorful style of their national leadership raises the question of what M5S really is, a question that very few people (including many inside M5S itself) can clearly answer, apart from a coalition of all forces rejecting traditional politics. Party leader Beppe Grilllo is himself very difficult to position on the political spectrum, as he embraces anti-globalization and “de-growth” arguments while at the same time striking hard on immigrants and giving in every once in a while to borderline jokes reminiscent of the Berlusconi era.

Whether M5S will now be perceived as a credible alternative to Renzi’s center-left government or as a catch-all protest vote capable of a few upsets but untrusted to govern will now depend on how Rome and Turin, two big cities with a myriad of difficult issues to handle, are governed in the next couple of years.  As the Grillo movement’s national score in the municipal election managed to rival that of PD – M5S got 20.16 percent of the vote against 20.17 percent for PD – Italians will now watch closely if the party’s local representatives are serious about changing the system or not.  Their last experience with voting for an outsider was in the 1990s with middle-aged entrepreneur and media-mogul Silvio Berlusconi, so one should expect them to figure out quite quickly who is who once the vicissitudes of power catch up with the new mayors.  In any case, Renzi knows where to look for dangerous rivals:  during the second round of the municipal elections (which is traditionally a one-on-one contest), the PD lost only two races against its traditional rivals in cities with a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants (Trieste, which went to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia; and Novara, which went to the right-wing Lega del Nort), it lost contests against antiestablishment candidates across the board.  This includes Rome and Turin, but also Naples, where former prosecutor and critic of the system Luigi de Magistris was re-elected (PD was actually eliminated in the first round).

Renzi faces a great challenge this coming autumn, as he has called a referendum for Italians to approve his bold plan to reform the Italian Senate, a move which would end the absolute bicameralism that has too often deadlocked the country’s political system.  He has gambled a lot on this vote – as he announced that if Italians reject the reform, he will have to resign.  As he prepares for this crucial contest, he might ponder the tragicomic aspect of his situation:  a few years ago, Renzi successfully used his image as a young, ambitious renovator (his nickname is il Rottamatore, the Dismantler) to push away his elders and take their place – first in Florence, then in PD, and finally in the Government.  He now might be in the position where he will have to fight against a younger generation that wants to push him out, and may have other, more radical plans for Italy’s future. 

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