Matteo Renzi may have toned down his brash campaigning style, but as he vies for the leadership of Italy’s centre-left Democratic party, his chances of winning are better than ever.
“The goal is not waving a flag but changing the country,” Mr Renzi, 38, said on Sunday in his closing speech at a three-day campaign event in Florence, where he is mayor.
Mr Renzi has called for a “revolution of simplicity” in his charge to win over the notoriously fractured and disillusioned Democratic party. Italy’s left must not be scared of change, he said.
Last year, as a brash outsider who vowed to “scrap” old party politics, he was beaten in primaries by a well-oiled party machine led by Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist and incumbent secretary. But Mr Bersani’s resignation after his dismal election campaign in February has catapulted Mr Renzi into the position of confident frontrunner against three relative unknowns in a vote open to all Italians on December 8.
“What has changed Italian politics is the February [national election] shock with the demise of the old guard, which has opened the doors to Renzi,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist and campaign supporter.
With no symbols of the Democratic party (PD) to be seen at the event, Mr Renzi was clearly also trying to reach out to former supporters of the centre-right as well as of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which captured more than 25 per cent of the vote in February’s inconclusive elections.
The Democrats have not won a national election since 2006 – and then only by a slim margin in a disparate coalition that lasted just two years. The current left-right coalition led since last April by the Democrats’ Enrico Letta is starting to fragment. Elections early next year are widely seen as a possibility.
“Renzi is now a possible saviour of the PD. If last year he used slogans and shoulder barges [in his failed campaign], this year he is more profound, aware and prudent,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the Luiss school of government in Rome.
Mr Renzi’s campaign event, attended by 8,000 people, stood in sharp contrast to the closed-door manoeuvres dominating the centre-right.
On Friday, Silvio Berlusconi and 17 “loyalists” met at the former prime minister’s Rome residence in a last-ditch effort to assert his authority following his conviction for tax fraud, a case that has split his People of Liberty party.
Mr Berlusconi ordered the suspension of the PdL pending the reformation of the original Forza Italia he founded in 1994. The meeting was boycotted by Angelino Alfano, PdL secretary and deputy prime minister, and four other PdL ministers in the coalition government.
If, as expected, Mr Renzi wins the Democratic contest in December, and Mr Berlusconi presses ahead and buries the PdL at a national congress scheduled for the same day, then Italy’s centre-left and centre-right will both end up with confusion over who is really calling the shots.
The centre-right still has to identify who will be its next candidate for prime minister, with Mr Berlusconi ineligible to run following his court conviction. And Mr Renzi will find himself in a fraught relationship with Mr Letta, who has made clear he wants to remain prime minister in the current coalition with the PdL until at least 2015.
Mr Renzi told the campaign event snap elections were not his objective, denying that he would undermine an already fragile government. Mr Berlusconi’s supporters, however, want snap polls and are convinced Mr Renzi has the same intention.
Mr Renzi’s key themes on Sunday were labour policies, reforms to the judiciary, constitutional changes to Italy’s paralysing bicameral system and a new electoral law that would lead to a clearer two-party system.
Among those attending the campaign event were Brunello Cucinelli, a clothing entrepreneur; Oscar Farinetti, founder of food chain Eataly; Andrea Guerra, chief executive of Luxottica eyewear company, and Davide Serra, chief executive of hedge fund Algebris and long-time friend of Mr Renzi.
“More than single big entrepreneurs and consolidated interest blocs, there is a whole generational class of 35 to 45-year-old professionals who believe in Renzi’s vision for the future,” said Lia Quartapelle, a parliamentarian close to the mayor.