Rome Abuzz With Election Talk as Renzi Plots Return to Power

  • Ex-premier’s Democratic Party prepares new government program
  • Renzi and his party want elections as soon as possible

Matteo Renzi has been out of office for little more than a month, but he’s already planning a comeback.

Far from relaxing in his Tuscan homeland, Renzi was back in Rome this week to kick off what one senior official called an election campaign with a round of meetings at his party’s headquarters to prepare a manifesto to keep his populist challengers in the Five Star Movement at bay.

Paolo Gentiloni and Matteo Renzi.

Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

“We can’t waste time,” the ever-dynamic Renzi, who turned 42 on Wednesday, told leaders of his Democratic Party.

Renzi is in a hurry even though the PD still rules Italy and he anointed his own foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, as successor. Renzi’s defeat in the Dec. 4 constitutional referendum led to his resignation as premier but not as party leader, and he is set on returning to Palazzo Chigi, the premier’s Rome office.

For now, he’s mounting a campaign without an election, but even government ministers talk about a ballot as early as April. Renzi and his entourage are pushing for a vote in the first half of the year to exploit the PD’s lead in some opinion polls -- and ideally to ensure that it’s Renzi who hosts the Group of Seven summit with leaders including Donald Trump and the next French president in Taormina, Sicily, on May 26-27.

“Our aim is to have elections as soon as possible,” Ettore Rosato, the party’s chief whip in the lower house, said in an interview. “Gentiloni’s government has a brief lifespan.”

Hospitalized

An Italian vote would add to the political risks posed by an already unprecedented electoral calendar that includes ballots in Europe’s two biggest economies -- Germany and France -- and the Netherlands, as well as Brexit talks and coming to terms with Trump’s arrival in the White House.

For a look at Europe’s busy political year and the March crunch, click here

At stake for Italy is how long Gentiloni, 62, who will chair a cabinet meeting Saturday after being hospitalized this week, gets to tackle Italy’s sputtering economy. His fledgling government’s priority is supporting Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA and other lenders with as much as 20 billion euros ($21 billion) in liquidity, and pushing for a new business plan for Monte dei Paschi in particular.

Gentiloni is wrestling with the troubled banking sector against a mixed economic background. Italian industrial output rose 0.7 percent in November from the previous month, but joblessness rose to 11.9 percent, the highest in almost a year and a half.

Renzi’s referendum defeat showed that Italians must be given a chance to vote for a new parliament with a full five-year term ahead of it, Rosato said. “The PD will put forward an electoral program which aims especially to relaunch the economy, boost jobs, and combat poverty and inequalities,” he said.

Presidential Role

To trigger elections and perhaps get his job back, Renzi needs President Sergio Mattarella to call an early vote -- possibly after Gentiloni, a Renzi loyalist and a PD member, offers his resignation.

Renzi’s race is however stalled. Italy’s entire political class is waiting for the Constitutional Court to review on Jan. 24 the so-called “Italicum,” the current electoral law for the lower house of parliament. The Court may smooth out differences with the separate electoral law for the Senate.

President Mattarella has called for the two laws to be harmonized as “an indispensable condition” before new elections. In the lower house, a majority goes to the leading party which wins more than 40 percent of the vote in the first round, or wins the run-off. The Senate has a system based on proportional representation and without a majority bonus.

Public Backing

Counting in Renzi’s favor is that 54 percent of Italians want Gentiloni’s government to end by June, against 29 percent who want it to last until early 2018 when new elections are due, according to an opinion poll by the Piepoli Institute published by newspaper La Stampa on Thursday.

“Italians want new elections because they don’t feel represented by the current parliament,” said Alessandra Ghisleri, chief executive officer of Milan-based pollster Euromedia Research. “Factions have broken away from parties like Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi, lawmakers have moved from one party to another, so both houses have changed a lot since the start in 2013.”

In opinion polls, Renzi’s PD and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which wants to hold a plebiscite on Italy’s membership of the euro area, are running neck and neck. Five Star holds a narrow lead of 30.9 percent to 30.1 percent over the PD in voting intentions, according to an Ipsos poll published in Saturday’s Corriere della Sera.

In addition, the poll shows Renzi may struggle to get back on the center stage of Italian politics. Thirty percent of respondents viewed Renzi as a defeated leader without a future, 38 percent said he’s in a difficult position and needs alliances inside and outside the party to recover, while only 22 percent said he will recover quickly and return as a key political figure in the country.

Five Star has been dogged by controversies in recent months, including corruption scandals at the Rome city-hall, which is led by Five Star mayor Virginia Raggi.

Voter Backing

Renzi’s chances of a return depend on how he can build on the 40.9 percent of voters who backed him in the referendum, said Giorgio Freddi, emeritus professor of political science at Bologna University.

In the meantime, Gentiloni’s government is overshadowed by the pressure for it to meet an early end.

“This is a government which is attached to an oxygen bottle,” Freddi said. “And the tap could be turned off at any time.”

— With assistance by Kevin Costelloe

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