Duelling Matteos battle for the future of Italy

  • >> Jason Horowitz, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-11-18 14:44:51 BdST

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Matteo Salvini, left, and Matteo Renzi, right, facing off last month in a televised debate. The New York Times

Pity the weak and wobbly new Italian government. While its incompatible coalition partners pretend to tolerate one another, they are relegated to being nervous bystanders, and potential casualties, in the real fight for power: the Battle of the Two Matteos.

Technically speaking, the former centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi and the popular anti-migrant nationalist leader Matteo Salvini may be out of power. But their sparring has come to dominate Italy’s political life and the debate over the country’s direction.

The two Matteos share more than just a name. Both are ambitious. Both are extremely talented men in their 40s who have spent their entire professional lives in politics. Each represents a strikingly different vision of Italy’s future. Most of all, they need each other to get back into power.

Salvini needs the once highflying Renzi as a punching bag — mocking him as a “misunderstood genius” whose feats “Italians didn’t notice”— to maintain his Everyman appeal as he seeks to destabilise the government and strengthen his policies against immigrants and the European Union.

And Renzi needs Salvini as a boogeyman — he called him a “monster” — to elevate his profile and convince liberals that only he can keep the nationalist at bay while pushing forward his pro-globalisation, pro-European and pro-American positions.

“Salvini is the perfect enemy from this point of view,” Renzi said in an interview in his Senate office, decorated with notes from former President Barack Obama.

Renzi’s support has dwindled since he resigned as prime minister in 2016, and he recently left the Democratic Party he once led to start an offshoot, Italia Viva, which for now is polling at only around 6%.

Salvini stumbled, with a nudge from Renzi, from his perch as interior minister this summer after dominating an Italian government that wrought havoc on the European Union with its crackdowns on migrants, scepticism about the euro and breaking of budgetary rules.

The removal of Salvini, a hard-right demagogue who seemed to the establishment a ticking time bomb poised to take control of the eurozone’s third-largest economy, prompted sighs of relief from the markets and Brussels.

But Salvini’s fall from power has not stopped his incessant campaigning, rattling the awkward government alliance of the populist Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party.

As he racks up electoral victories in regions once considered liberal strongholds, Salvini has applied excruciating external pressure on the coalition.

At the same time, Renzi has proved himself an expert palace operator, applying internal pressure and gaining outsize influence from his seat in the Senate.

“I am proud of having been very Machiavellian,” Renzi said, adding that Salvini clearly did not foresee his play and that everyone prematurely counted him out as dead. “And then with a palace maneuver I sent home Europe’s most dangerous populist. So I proved that the old lion still has claws.”

Indeed, Salvini might still be in power were it not for him.

This summer, at the height of his popularity, Salvini pulled the plug on his own coalition with the Five Star Movement, in a bid for new elections. He said he wanted “full powers.”

But the plan backfired, when Five Star, surprisingly, turned to the Democratic Party to form a new parliamentary majority, leaving Salvini out of power. The two parties had loathed each other until the moment they decided to join forces.

Renzi had spent the three years since his resignation as prime minister excoriating Five Star as a band of anti-Democratic hatemongers.

But when Salvini overreached, Renzi pounced. Recognising Salvini as a greater threat, he urged his Democratic Party to join forces with Five Star.

That well-concealed dagger thrust was just the start of what Renzi now envisions as a contest between the two men that will take years to unfold and potentially end in an electoral showdown.

“We won the battle inside the palace,” he said. “Now we have to win it among the people.”

For the time being, Renzi said his mission was keeping Salvini out of power long enough to prevent him from appointing a new Italian head of state in 2022, an institutional position he said represented a final check on Salvini’s power.

In 2014, Renzi won more than 40% of the Italian electorate in European Union elections. But he never was directly elected as prime minister.

In 2016, he bet his popularity, and office, on a referendum to streamline Italy’s government drastically and a promise to give future prime ministers greater powers. Opposition came from across the political spectrum and he lost, clearing the way for Salvini’s rise.

Renzi, who was presenting his economic vision across Italy this weekend, acknowledged that he was now in no position to compete with Salvini, Italy’s reigning populist, in a popularity contest.

But the fragmented system Renzi failed to overhaul now plays in his favour. He has been able to exercise significant sway with small but committed parliamentary support and minimal backing in polls.

“I play by the rules that this country has,” he said with a shrug. “I wanted to play tennis, but if you make me play Ping-Pong, I will play Ping-Pong. And don’t complain if you lose.”

Once the new government was formed with his loyalists in key positions, Renzi bailed on the Democratic Party, arguing that it was too stuck in its old leftist ways.

He started his new party, Italia Viva, which has enough parliamentary support to bring down the current government if Renzi decided to withhold his backing.

Suddenly, Renzi mattered again.

The two Matteos recently faced off on a television talk show under a backdrop depicting them in fencing masks and crossing swords. The cover of the newspaper Il Foglio similarly showed them ready to brawl. “The first rule of Fight Club,” Salvini was imagined saying, “is to make everybody talk about Fight Club.”

The new governing coalition has in the process been relegated to spectator status in the battle of the titan Matteos. As it tries to pass a budget and prevent the closing of a major factory, members are nervous that every misstep, every raised tax and slashed benefit, will push their supporters toward one Matteo or the other.

Salvini, who is by far Italy’s most popular politician with about 40% support in the polls, is eager to press his advantage by causing the immediate collapse of the new government.

He is using strong showings in regional elections to make the case that the people are behind him. Last month, his candidate trounced an opponent backed by Five Star and the Democratic Party in traditionally liberal Umbria.

But Renzi wants the government to last long enough for Salvini’s momentum to fade, or so he hopes, and build up his own base.

Both are chasing the same sliver of business-minded voters who have long gravitated toward the Forza Italia party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, at 83, is a faded force.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem for Renzi: Many Italians simply find him insufferable.

“It’s crazy,” Renzi said in acknowledgment of the rage against him.

“Italians don’t like ambitious people, and I am ambitious,” he said. “I am ambitious for myself; if I weren’t ambitious I wouldn’t have become prime minister at 39.”

He attributed the anger to years of character assassination by Five Star, the League and leftist critics in the Democratic Party. He cited the disruption he caused to the Italian establishment as the self-styled “Demolition Man.” He said the church did not like his gay rights laws, and the unions did not like his job market reforms.

There is much truth in that critique. But it is also true that Renzi has a boundless ego and dismissive manner, a tendency to personalise politics, to surround himself with local loyalists and to herald major changes hardly perceived by many Italians. And he’s sneaky.

In 2014, he publicly told the prime minister of his own party not to worry about him trying to take his job. Then he took his job.

In 2016, he promised to leave politics if he lost a key referendum. He lost and didn’t leave politics.

In 2019 he said he would stick with the Democratic Party and would never form his own little party. Then he left the Democratic Party and formed his own little party. His defence has essentially been that everybody flip-flops.

“There is not a political leader in Italy today who can say that he hasn’t changed his mind with respect to his own future,” he said recently at the Foreign Press Club, “exactly like I did.”

© 2019 New York Times News Service