Why is Matteo Renzi such a divisive figure?

Matteo Renzi faces the political battle of his life to return as Italy's prime minister. [360b / Shutterstock]

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is a divisive figure in his homeland. As elections loom on the horizon and Renzi’s return to power is far from guaranteed, EURACTIV’s partner Italia Oggi takes a look at why the Florentine splits opinion.

Renzi is a charismatic figure who enjoys a level of support that few others have enjoyed from the left of the political spectrum.

As Renzi-supporter Mara Stecchini put it: “When he resigned, having lost the 4 December referendum, we moved to bring him home and put him back at the head of the party.” The former PM was re-elected as head of the Democratic Party (PD) with 70% of the vote.

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But it is true that he is also a divisive figure, despite the affection of his party base. One of the prime reasons for the hatred aimed at him is the fact that he merely exists in the first place.

At just 39 years of age, he rose to the top of the old PD and then managed to become Italy’s youngest ever prime minister, which has undoubtedly caused a great deal of envy in a political establishment traditionally dominated by those advanced in years.

There are also more subtle political reasons. Italy has always been accustomed to weak, wait-and-see policymaking, which more often than not kicks the can down the road for decades at a time. Renzi’s arrival on the scene with a host of previously unknown ministers changed all that.

His penchant for doing things quickly or even for just doing them at all upset the ruling class and the lobbies, given that vested interests are best defended by a politics of inertia, riddled by bureaucracy.

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Renzi’s quest to make politics relevant again also put him on a collision course with the old establishment. All the smaller lobbies, which were used to doing business with the old guard, were suddenly in defence mode. Regardless of the content of his policies, the former PM came up against obstacles simply because he did things differently.

Finally, Italy is guilty of and responsible for coining ‘consociationalism’, in which government stability and the survival of power-sharing deals is the name of the game, often through the brokering of grand coalitions.

That normally means in practice having a right-leaning government in place that is willing to deal with the left the night before a decision has to be made, in order to preserve the established order.

Renzi chose not to play by those rules, campaigned in a different way and even challenged the elite of his own party. His willingness to look beyond the party itself and engage with figures like Carlo Calenda, who was his economic minister, also did not sit well.

Taking all this into account, it is easy to see why Renzi was not to everyone’s taste and why he was ultimately unable to hold onto power long-term like Italy’s other larger-than-life politico, Silvio Berlusconi. Next month will show whether he is able to work his way back into the top job.

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