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Matteo Renzi already plotting return to power, Italian reports say

Prime Minister is quitting after referendum defeat but is said to want to stay on as party leader and contest a general election in February

Matteo Renzi

An early election would mean Renzi could bypass an internal party leadership vote and instead head directly to a primary. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

He has not even left yet, his resignation after a bruising defeat at the hands of the Italian electorate having been put on ice by the country’s president.

But Matteo Renzi is already plotting his return to the prime minister’s office, according to Italian media reports, and has signalled his desire for elections to be called as soon as February, despite his humiliating loss at the polls just days ago.

The path back to Palazzo Chigi after his formal resignation on Monday – which has been temporarily frozen by Sergio Mattarella until the senate passes a budget, perhaps as early as Wednesday – represents a big gamble for Renzi. But it is one he apparently believes is the only way to spare himself and his centre-left party from losing more ground to populist and rightwing forces.

Renzi’s desire for early – but not snap – elections was reported by a number of Italian media outlets on Tuesday and underscored by remarks from the interior minister, Angelino Alfano, a centre-right coalition partner.

“I forecast there will be the will to go to elections in February,” Alfano told Corriere della Sera, adding that he had discussed the matter with Renzi.

While most analysts do not think February is realistic timing, the statement nevertheless indicated that Renzi sees a path to defeating the Five Star Movement(M5S) and the Northern League, even after 60% of Italians rejected the prime minister in a high-turnout referendum on constitutional changes.

“It is a gamble and their bet is that the 60% who voted against Renzi are divided between [Beppe] Grillo, [Silvio] Berlusconi, the Northern League,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence.

In the plan apparently favoured by Renzi, he will step down once the budget is passed and a new prime minister from his Democratic party (PD) – such as Pier Carlo Padoan, the economy minister – would take over and oversee the passage of a new electoral law. That would be followed by fresh elections.

One significant factor in Renzi’s calculation is that he wants to avoid tough internal party pressures to give up his role as head of the PD.

An early election would probably mean Renzi could bypass a party leadership vote and instead head directly to a primary, which he could win because he still has the support of the party’s base, if not all its leaders.

Piccoli added: “There is a risk that if they don’t go to elections soon, the Democratic party loses even more ground. The economy isn’t getting better anytime soon, and they may even have to make some politically unpopular decisions on bank [rescues].”

While Renzi was undoubtedly trounced on Sunday, having won the support of just 40% of voters for his proposed changes to Italy’s constitution, one top official in his inner circle, Luca Lotti, tweeted that the PD had won two previous elections with 40% support.

Luca Lotti @LottiLuca

Tutto è iniziato col 40% nel 2012. Abbiamo vinto col 40% nel 2014.
Ripartiamo dal 40% di ieri!


The gamble suggests Renzi and his allies believe significant advances by populist and rightwing forces, both in the UK Brexit vote and the US presidential election, will not consume the Italian electorate even though Italy is suffering from high unemployment, a sluggish economy, great uncertainty over the stability of its banks, and strong anti-immigrant sentiment in certain pockets of the country.

There are also factors that are far beyond Renzi’s control that could complicate the maths and his desired election schedule.

The current government must address problems with the electoral law. Renzi’s government passed the legislation last year, which changed Italy’s traditionally proportionate system of government to one in which the winner of an election automatically wins a majority of seats in parliament.

But the law has been deemed unworkable after the government lost the referendum. Before it can go ahead and change the legislation – a potentially lengthy negotiation – parliament must wait to hear from Italy’s highest court, which is studying the issue, about what parts need to be changed. It is unclear when the verdict will be handed down.

Francesco Galietti, an analyst at Policy Sonar in Rome, said Renzi’s worst nightmare would be to remain “cornered” as a former prime minister and head of the PD. In this neutered role, Galietti said, Renzi would still be accountable to voters for any number of potential issues that could arise, damaging his prospects of winning a future election.

“He wants to have elections quickly but the problem is you cannot have them so quickly, the earliest is probably May or June,” the analyst said.

Others predict an election would be feasible in April.

Internal party politics aside, the bigger question will be whether the centre-left government can maintain and possibly grow its 40% share of the electorate, or whether M5S or the Northern League could defeat them.

Once the electoral law is changed back to a proportionate system, any winning party would probably have to form a coalition, but M5S on principle has always said it would not form a coalition.

It was possible, Galietti said, that this stance could change. While M5S would risk alienating supporters on the left who have been drawn to the anti-establishment party, it could feasibly form a coalition with the xenophobic Northern League and win a majority in parliament.


Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome | The Guardian

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