Matteo Renzi’s new centrist party Italia Viva faces a struggle for relevance

The former Italian prime minister will find it harder than he hopes to replicate Emmanuel Macron’s success.

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Matteo Renzi’s break from Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) has been a long time coming. As its leader from 2013 he called for this party of former Communists and Christian Democrats to become a big tent “party of the nation” and appeal to voters disillusioned with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Yet since Renzi’s resignation as prime minister at the end of 2016, the PD has edged back towards more social democratic rhetoric, culminating in Nicola Zingaretti’s election as leader in January. With the whole political field in flux, Renzi is now bidding to create a “liberal-reformist” force of his own — Italia Viva.

During his initial rise, Renzi cast himself in the image of Tony Blair — a “demolition man” breaking old conventions. Having become PD leader as the Five Star Movement (M5s) besieged the established parties, he adopted the rhetoric of innovation, posing as a charismatic leader in direct contact with voters. After his resignation in late 2016 — the result of a failed referendum on strengthening the executive — he hailed Emmanuel Macron’s success in repolarising politics between liberal Europeanism and national populism. Yet he may have rather more difficulty pulling off the same trick in the Italy of 2019.

Indeed, the creation of Renzi’s Italia Viva is but part of a wider realignment, in which independent Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the eclectic M5s have remained in office but switched their coalition partners. Matteo Salvini withdrew his support for Conte in early August, hoping to force an early general election, only for Zingaretti to join the government instead, thus creating a new M5s-PD alliance. Renzi was instrumental in allowing this coalition to form, fearing that the alternative — an early election — would destroy his base in parliament. Yet it confuses his own role as a staunch defender of the embattled liberal centre.

Indeed, Conte’s second government itself conforms to what former premier Romano Prodi called the “Ursula coalition” — an alliance of those forces, including M5s, who backed Ursula von der Leyen as European Commission president before the summer. The embrace of the previously anti-establishment M5s also represents a change of tack by Brussels, which now seeks not simply to beat down “populist” forces but rather to integrate and moderate them. This, as well as Renzi’s own support for the new government, appear to undermine the prospect of a Macron-style insurgency in Italy.

With the PD emboldened by its return to government, Renzi’s long-awaited splinter group has attracted far fewer parliamentarians than expected. It will begin with around 20 MPs and 10 Senators, including agriculture minister Teresa Bellanova and prominent former minister Maria Elena Boschi. Yet even close Renzi allies such as Andrea Marcucci (PD leader in the Senate) have refused to abandon their roles within the old party, and for now pollsters suggest that Renzi will draw only around 5 per cent of the vote — barely above the minimum for parliamentary representation.

Yet Renzi is not only acting from a position of weakness. When he spoke to Conte by telephone on Monday night, he suggested that his move will broaden the base of the government, allowing centrists and former Berlusconi supporters to be drawn into its ambit. Forza Italia MPs unhappy with Salvini’s leadership of the right may well find their way into Renzi’s new vehicle. But even with reduced numbers in parliament, Renzi maintains his kingmaker role — able to pull the rug from under the government and no longer constrained by internal PD politics.

The open question remains whether Renzi can put himself at the head of centrist forces. This is a crowded field, featuring not only the rival movement, We Are Europeans, led by his former finance minister Carlo Calenda, but also the increasingly prominent Conte. The Prime Minister is seen as a weak figure in the M5s-Lega government but has been widely praised for his repudiation of Matteo Salvini. The PD itself has a largely elderly and middle-class voter profile (in 2018 it finished just fourth among blue-collar and unemployed Italians) and Italia Viva appears to be seeking support among the same pool of voters.

Renzi’s hopes most of all rely on exploiting tensions within the M5s-PD coalition. These includes M5s’s long-standing opposition to major infrastructure projects, such as the high-speed rail line from Turin to Lyon, which it views as a drain on public spending as well as a source of disruption for locals. Indeed, the last government’s final act was an M5s-led bid to cancel the programme, voted down by both the Lega and PD. This issue, and similar economic questions, store up future problems for the PD-M5s alliance.

Italia Viva has also sought to distance itself from the PD’s perceived shift to the left. After last weekend’s national PD meeting in Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna), Renzi allies derided activists for singing the old revolutionary anthem “Bandiera Rossa”. If the PD is hardly mounting a Corbyn-style shift to the left, it is at least likely to reintegrate former Communist personnel who abandoned the party under Renzi’s leadership.

Certainly, the old left-wing heartlands are not what they once were. Regional elections later this year could instead mark a historic setback, with the Lega set on winning the traditional “red regions” of Emilia-Romagna and Umbria. M5s has thus far rejected a pact with a PD, preventing a straight contest between the centre left and centre right and perhaps opening up spaces for smaller forces. These contests, beginning on 27 October, will tell us not only whether the PD has renewed itself, but whether Renzi’s project is even able to survive.