Rome Abuzz With Election Talk as Renzi Plans Return to Power

ROME (Bloomberg News/TNS) -
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi waves at a soccer match on Sunday. (Reuters/Max Rossi)

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been out of office for little more than a month, but he’s already planning a comeback.

Renzi was back in Rome this week for meetings at his party’s headquarters to prepare a manifesto to keep his populist challengers in the Five Star Movement at bay.

“We can’t waste time,” Renzi told leaders of his Democratic Party.

Renzi is in a hurry even though his party still rules Italy and he anointed his foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, as successor. Renzi’s defeat in a Dec. 4 constitutional referendum led to his resignation as prime minister but not as party leader, and he is set on returning to his old office.

For now, he’s mounting a campaign without an election, but even government ministers talk about one as soon as April. Renzi and his entourage are pushing for a vote in the first half of the year to exploit the PD’s lead in some opinion polls — and ideally to ensure that it’s Renzi who hosts the Group of Seven summit with world leaders, including Donald Trump and the next French president, in Taormina, Sicily, May 26–27.

“Our aim is to have elections as soon as possible,” Ettore Rosato, the party’s chief whip in parliament’s lower house, said in an interview. “Gentiloni’s government has a brief lifespan.”

An Italian vote would add to the political risks posed by an election calendar that includes votes in Europe’s two biggest economies –– Germany and France –– and the Netherlands. Britain is to negotiate its departure from the European Union, and all of Europe will come to terms with Trump’s arrival in the White House.

At stake for Italy is how long Gentiloni, who was hospitalized this past week, gets to deal with Italy’s sputtering economy. His fledgling government’s priority is supporting Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena and other lenders with as much as $21 billion in liquidity, and pushing for a new business plan for Monte dei Paschi in particular.

Gentiloni is wrestling with the troubled banking sector against a mixed economic background. Italian industrial output rose in November, but unemployment also rose, to 11.9 percent, the highest in almost a year and a half.

Renzi’s referendum defeat showed that Italians must be given a chance to vote for a new parliament with a full five-year term ahead of it, Rosato said. “The PD will put forward an electoral program which aims especially to relaunch the economy, boost jobs, and combat poverty and inequalities,” he said.

To trigger elections and perhaps get his job back, Renzi needs President Sergio Mattarella to call an early vote –– possibly after Gentiloni, a Renzi loyalist and a PD member, offers his resignation.

Counting in Renzi’s favor is that 54 percent of Italians want Gentiloni’s government to end by June, compared with 29 percent who want it to last until early 2018 when new elections are due, according to an opinion poll by the Piepoli Institute published by the newspaper La Stampa Thursday.

In polls, Renzi’s PD and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which wants a referendum on Italy’s membership in the Eurozone, are running neck and neck, according to an Ipsos poll published in Saturday’s Corriere della Sera.

The poll also shows that Renzi may struggle to get back on the center stage of Italian politics. Thirty percent of respondents viewed Renzi as a defeated leader without a future, 38 percent said he’s in a difficult position and needs alliances inside and outside the party to recover, while 22 percent said he will recover quickly and return as a key political figure in the country.

Five Star has been dogged by controversies in recent months, including corruption scandals at the Rome city hall, which is led by Five Star Mayor Virginia Raggi.