Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi announced today that he would call a PD party congress, effectively putting his role as party leader into question.

In his speech, Renzi stated “Some people wanted a party congress to find an alternative to Renzi-ism. It needs to be done as an alternative to Trump-ism, Le Pen-ism and even Grillo-ism.”

Recall that Renzi resigned as prime minister following a landslide defeat of a referendum he sponsored. He did not have the decency to disappear, instead he called for early election with him as party leader.

Italy is in the midst of a 4th consecutive technocrat prime minister, with Paolo Gentiloni now heading the government.

Renzi has now concluded early elections in June would give an advantage to Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, so he first wants a party congress to affirm his leadership. He also seeks parliamentary rule changes that would benefit him in any coalition movement.

Renzi’s Gamble

Please consider Renzi Gambles on Leadership Contest to Unite Party.

Matteo Renzi has triggered a leadership contest in his ruling centre-left Democratic party, opening up a tussle that he hopes to use as a springboard for a comeback at Italy’s next general election.

He said the party needed to unite around a platform that would confront surging populism across the world, rather than be consumed by infighting. 

“Some people wanted a party congress to find an alternative to Renzi-ism. It needs to be done as an alternative to Trump-ism, Le Pen-ism and even Grillo-ism,” he said, referring to the US president, leader of the French National Front, and founder of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

During the party leadership battle, likely to be fought in April or May, Mr Renzi is expected to be challenged by one of a group of left-wingers who consistently criticised him for his centrist policies and domineering style during nearly three years in office.

New elections are not due until February 2018, but both Renzi and some leading opposition figures have been pushing for the national poll to be held earlier in order to clarify the will of the people.

This has raised the possibility that an Italian election could join the list of consequential elections in Europe this year, alongside the Netherlands, France and Germany. But Mr Renzi’s decision to call a leadership contest this spring means that any early Italian election would probably be pushed back to the autumn.

Rules Changes

The above article did not discuss rules changes but Eurointelligence fills in the details.

Renzi is pressing the Gentiloni government to pass the electoral reforms quickly – essentially an extension to the Senate of the new system for the chamber of deputies, minus the bits challenged by the constitutional court. Crucially, Renzi wants a majority premium not only for parties but also for coalitions. We infer from this that Renzi could be seeking a majority premium for a hypothetical alliance with Forza Italia, hoping that both parties would together surpass the 40% threshold. Renzi, however, favours everybody running individually, and then forming a coalition afterwards. In this case the majority premium would be irrelevant since no single party in Italian politics comes close to 40%.

Needless to say, there is opposition to Renzi’s plans within his own party. The mildest opposition is from the new prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, who expressed doubts whether it would be possible to form such a coalition. He said Italy might end up like Spain last year – without a government for a long time (we think that would be that most benign of all scenarios). Another establishment politician who has already voiced his opposition to Renzi’s planned coup is Romano Prodi, still influential in Italian politics. He wants to wait until 2018, and favours Giuliano Pisapia, the former mayor of Milan.

La Repubblica recorded a negative reaction also from the Left of the PD, unsurprisingly, amid reports that Massimo D’Alema and even the fiercely loyal Pier Luigi Bersani are considering splitting away from the party.

Europeans are used to the idea that Grand Coalitions are the ultimate solution to an electoral impasse. But we find it hard to see how this could work in Italy. We are not even sure that such an alliance would necessarily have a majority. And would Berlusconi support Italy’s membership of the eurozone? He himself would be neither in government nor in parliament, as he is barred from holding office until 2018. So this raises the question of how stable such a construct would be.

Complicated Political Mess

This is a complicated mess. Berlusconi wants election in 2018 so he would be able to run. Renzi wants an election this year as does Beppe Grillo. But Renzi also wants to squash opponents of Renzi-ism first.

This may push back elections to August. Alternatively, the president may just decide to wait until 2018. A delay until 2018 is to the benefit of Berlusconi, and a delay also runs the risk of splintering PD with more infighting even if Renzi were to remain as party leader.

Given PD is the only major party that wants to stay in the Eurozone, coalition math favors Grillo.

Renzi struggles to get out of the box he is in, but it looks increasingly difficult.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock