ROME — Matteo Renzi easily regained the leadership of his Democratic Party (PD) in primaries Sunday, but Italy’s former prime minister faces a much harder task in his bid to return to power.
After a lackluster campaign, Renzi won the race to head the party with 70 percent of the votes, leaving behind his weak rivals, Justice Minister Andrea Orlando, with 19.5 percent, and Puglia governor Michele Emiliano, with only 10.5 percent, according to data provided by the PD on Monday morning.
“This is an extraordinary responsibility. Thanks from the heart to this community of men and women who believe in Italy,” Renzi wrote in a hand-written comment posted on his Instagram profile.
The return of Renzi to the helm of the ruling center-left party marks the first step in his plan to win back the premiership in elections due by early 2018, confirming that he’s still the most popular leader among PD voters. But since his departure from government, the left has splintered and he and his party have lost ground in the polls.
A painful break
Renzi, 42, resigned as prime minister after his proposed constitutional referendum failed in December. His absence opened a painful schism on the left, with the PD’s leftist dissidents forming their own party, called the Progressive and Democratic Movement (DP). The split has dented the PD’s popular support, and it has lost its status as Italy’s largest political force, trailing behind the anti-establishment 5Star Movement.
According to most polls, the anti-euro 5Stars hovers at around 30 percent of the national vote, with a lead of between two and eight percentage points over the PD.
“Renzi needs to reinvent himself, after failing to deliver most of his promises,” said Wolfango Piccoli, head of research at Teneo Intelligence. “The party itself, with its internal divisions, remains one of his main challenges. But he has to come up with new ideas, and a credible political program, which for now is completely missing.”
Even though they beat Renzi’s cautious expectations for turnout, the PD primaries on Sunday attracted close to 1.8 million voters compared to at least 2.8 million in the previous leadership contest.
After consolidating his leadership within the party, Renzi’s uphill battle will be to ensure that disaffected PD voters and left-wing supporters don’t continue to defect to populist groups like Beppe Grillo’s 5Star Movement and the anti-immigrant Northern League, which is the emerging force within Italy’s divided center-right.
Renzi’s critics accuse him of having focused too much on his personal ambitions instead of concentrating on effective policies to solve Italy’s chronic problems such as moribund growth, youth unemployment at around 40 percent and the second-highest public debt in the eurozone after Greece.
The PD-sponsored government led by Paolo Gentiloni, who replaced Renzi in December, lacked the political support and a long-enough political runway to complete the needed reforms. After five months in power, Gentiloni and his cabinet are still struggling with troubles in the Italian banking sector, Europe’s migration crisis and strict demands from the European Union to keep Italy’s budget deficit under control.
While the government managed to avoid a painful tax increase this year, the EU may force it to include a value-added tax hike in its budget for 2018 — a very unpopular move just a few months before the elections.
In the final days of his electoral campaign, which he wrapped up in Brussels on Friday, Renzi openly softened his tone on the EU, having often clashed with Brussels.
Another significant headache for the Gentiloni government has been trouble at Italy’s flag carrier Alitalia. The Italian government is scrambling to protect the company’s 12,500 workers, who overwhelmingly rejected a rescue package that relied on job cuts and salary reductions, but would have unlocked a €2 billion capital increase from investors.
More love for the union
His supporters say a victory by pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron in the second round of France’s presidential elections on May 7 could boost Renzi’s chances. Macron has been depicted as “Renzi 2.0” by national and international media and Renzi hailed Macron’s victory over eurosceptic Marine Le Pen in the election’s first round.
In the final days of his electoral campaign, which he wrapped up in Brussels on Friday, Renzi openly softened his tone toward the EU, having often clashed with Brussels on issues such as migration and fiscal austerity during his premiership. On Friday, Renzi insisted that the EU needs radical change, but also warned against the risks of surging populism.
Renzi’s latest shift appears to be an attempt to distance himself from the clear anti-European agenda of the 5Stars, who support a referendum on Italian membership of the euro, and who identify Brussels and its technocrats as the origin of all Italy’s problems.
“Renzi’s message on Europe, however, remains ambiguous. If he wants to beat the 5Stars, he can’t follow them on their same ground, that of anti-European populism,” Sergio Fabbrini, a politics professor at Rome’s LUISS University, said. “The only way for the PD to win the next elections is to put Europe and a concrete project to reform it at the top of its agenda.”