The far right in Italy is blocked but not banished | Jamie Mackay

In 2013, Matteo Renzi was Italy’s most popular politician. Pragmatic, liberal-minded, still in his thirties, he was a poster boy for the European establishment – living, breathing proof that the country had got its act together after the Silvio Berlusconi years.

Then he became prime minister – the youngest in Italy’s history – and it all fell apart. In an attempt to dramatically extend the powers of his government, Renzi called an ill-judged constitutional referendum. He was heavily defeated and forced to resign. His fall from grace would prove fatal not only for his own reputation, but for that of Italy’s entire centre-left.

Now Renzi is back in government, and eager to prove his mettle. His return is hardly surprising. Renzi has always been a skilled and Machiavellian politician. It was he who thwarted the plans of Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, to force early elections and trigger a rightwing insurgency this summer. By going against the policy of his own Democratic party (PD) and opening talks with the Five Star Movement, Renzi succeeded in setting the conditions for a new coalition government, in which PD replaced the League.

In Italy, sly individuals often wield more power than prime ministers. Take Salvini himself. Despite the fact that his party secured just 17% of the vote in the 2018 general election, he was treated by the press and public alike as if he were head of parliament. Now “the other Matteo” is attempting a similar coup. Last week, once the threat of early elections had been seen off, Renzi announced that he was splitting from the PD to form a new centrist party, Italia Viva.

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While little is yet known about its programme, the stated aim of the new parliamentary group – “to bring passion and participation back into politics” – is typical of the kind of hyper-optimistic and sometimes shallow rhetoric that propelled Renzi to power in the first place. The schism had been a long time coming. Even before Renzi, the PD had been divided down the middle between old “centrist” Christian Democrats and those with leftwing, socialist allegiances. Italia Viva’s 41 parliamentarians have so far come overwhelmingly from the former camp.

Make no mistake, Renzi’s decision to bring down Salvini was motivated as much by self-interest as blocking the far right. The very fact that Italia Viva will remain part of the ruling coalition confirms that Renzi’s main goal in all of this was to reconstruct his once-powerful influence, and bolster his fellow centrist MPs. His gambit was made easier with the support of the EU, which has been particularly pleased to see the back of the Leauge. The surprise appointment of Paolo Gentiloni, a PD loyalist, as European commissioner for economic and financial affairs was, without doubt, a reward to the Italian centre-left for ousting the imprudent populists. Renzi, for his part, will be trusted by Brussels to contain the threat of political radicalism at home.

Matteo Renzi in front of a screen with the image of Matteo Salvini

‘His return is hardly surprising. Renzi has always been a skilled and Machiavellian politician.’ Matteo Renzi appears on Italian television in front of an image of Matteo Salvini. Photograph: Simona Granati/Corbis via Getty Images,

By launching a new party, Renzi has been accused of undermining the new government. But that claim is short-sighted. For now, at least, he has pledged to support his ex-colleagues. Likewise, it remains to be seen how successful Italia Viva will be. Can it attract a sufficient number of PD rebels, and other waifs and strays, to become a serious political force? Or will it head the way of Change UK, another breakaway centrist group?

Whatever happens, the fractured electoral landscape, and ever-present threat of the far right, ensures that it is in none of the governing parties’ interests to go to the polls in the near future. Voters are lukewarm about the PD, and the Five Star Movement has seen its support halve in recent months. Meanwhile, the initial polls suggest that Italia Viva can count on just 3%-8% of the vote-share. This current government may be made up of “losers”, as Salvini likes to say, but this is exactly why they will be forced to work together.

For now, Italy is stable, but it’s a peculiar kind of stability. While the prospect of Renzi drafting policy once again may be reassuring for those seeking to defend the EU from the threat of a homogeneous “populism”, the long-term picture is more complicated. The real danger now is not that the government collapses overnight but that it ends up reproducing the kind of establishment politics that the Italian electorate has so vocally rejected in the last few years. Such a scenario would eventually prove fatal for all parts of the coalition. This, of course, is Salvini’s hope. With all of his opponents united against him, he is backed into a corner. If they fall, though, they will fall together.

None of this is inevitable. While many have pointed to Renzi’s split from the PD as a loss for the party, it is also an opportunity. The Italian left has long been blighted by sectarian bickering and a lack of vision. Today, without the centrists who have left for Italia Viva, they have an unprecedented opportunity to develop a new path. And the party’s latest policies are, on the surface, intriguing. Among other things it promises a minimum wage, investment in the southern regions, and even some form of Green New Deal. The reality, though, is that most Italians have given up on the idea that such initiatives can ever be realised, and this latest round of cynical manoeuvring will only reinforce the sense of resignation that is so widespread across the country.

For now, it’s still possible that PD and the Five Star Movement will manage to deliver their plans and outflank Salvini. If they fail, he will likely return to power, stronger than ever.

Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Florence



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