Renzi Starts His 2018 Comeback Bid

  • Renzi says Democrats only European party on left able to win
  • Party’s Rosato wants legislature to finish at year-end

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi set off on an eight-week tour of Italy by train, calling his Democratic Party the only force of the European left with a chance of victory and effectively starting his campaign for a political comeback in 2018.

Renzi, 42, left Rome on a special train -- its carriages decorated with landscapes, the logo “Destination Italy” and his party’s symbol -- for a first day-long trip through the regions of Lazio, Umbria and Marche, ending at Fano on the Adriatic coast. The train will stop in more than 100 villages, towns and cities between now and year-end.

Matteo Renzi speaks to media on the train, Oct. 17.

Photographer: John Follain/Bloomberg

“This is a journey into the heart of Italy,” Renzi told reporters as the train headed for the small town of Fara in Sabina, its first stop north of Rome. “We’ll listen to people, take notes and tell them what we have done. It’s a very simple, very tranquil, very calm journey.”

But Renzi faces a rough ride to elections due early next year as center-left parties have struggled in European ballots. The Democrats are virtually tied in opinion polls with the populist Five Star Movement and a possible center-right alliance including ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi. Surveys show none of the three blocs would win a parliamentary majority.

Credible, Capable

Renzi’s party won more than 40 percent of the vote in European elections in 2014, but has since suffered setbacks. In December 2016, Renzi lost a referendum on constitutional reform, which led to his resignation as premier and a split with a leftist faction forming a rival party, the Democrat and Progressive Movement (MDP).

“The Democratic Party is the only political force of the left in Europe which is still credible and capable of winning. Obviously we are ready and open for a dialogue with everyone,” said Renzi, signaling he was open to an electoral alliance with the MDP and other parties on the left.

Renzi did not completely exclude a possible post-election “grand coalition” -- meaning a pact with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, with whom he has been allied in the past, and other parties. “I’d like to win the elections,” he said. “We’d like to exclude a grand coalition because we’d like to win on our own.”

Italy has emerged from recession, Renzi said, thanks to tax cuts and tough budget laws by his government and that of his successor Paolo Gentiloni, also of the Democrats. He added that his priorities for the future were investment in infrastructure and transport, and incentives for job-creation. Renzi pledged lower taxes and a new jobs act, a reference to his government’s reforms to make hiring and firing easier, which he says has led to the creation of 978,000 jobs in three years.

Gentiloni’s Resignation

The Democrats are in a rush. Ettore Rosato, chief whip for the party in the lower house, said in an interview that Gentiloni should hand in his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella at the end of the year if the government wins parliamentary votes on electoral reform and the 2018 budget by then.

“I believe it would be natural to end this legislature after the budget is approved,” Rosato said. “When we’ve done the budget, we’ll have done our job.” Mattarella would then likely dissolve parliament, with elections possibly in early March. Asked if there was a pact between Gentiloni and Renzi for the former to step aside whenever requested, Rosato replied: “Gentiloni is of the Democratic Party, there is no need for this.”

Renzi has a very difficult journey ahead, according to Giovanni Orsina, professor of government at Rome’s Luiss University. “Renzi is doing this trip because he doesn’t want to be seen as part of the establishment; the Democrats are the governing party,” Orsina said. “He’s starting out from a bad spot because the referendum defeat was a massive knock-out blow for him, and although he still leads his party, it’s divided.”

The next test for the Democrats will be a Nov. 5 regional election in Sicily, where surveys place them third behind a center-right bloc and Five Star. “We need to see how Sicily goes, but if the Democrats do badly in Sicily that would weaken Renzi,” Orsina said. “If I had to bet money, I’d bet a very small sum on Gentiloni rather than Renzi as the next premier. But we don’t even know whether there will be a majority.”

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