Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Matteo Renzi: The New Face of the Left

In December I was one of seven foreign correspondents asked to write their perspective on Matteo Renzi for the cover article of Internazionale (6/12/13). Renzi  was overwhelmingly elected in the Dec. 8 primary as the new leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party.

Internazionale is a weekly round up of the best international press as well as commentary, analysis and reportage from prominent Italians.  Managed by a group of talented, independent Italian journalists and editors, I find Internazionale to be a thought-provoking and well-curated magazine.

My piece on Renzi (in Italian) can be viewed here,page 1, and here page 2. Other six authors included Michael Braun of Die Tageszeitung, Irene Hernandez Velasco of El Mundo, Eric Jozsef of Liberation, Stephan Faris of Time, Mads Frese of Information and Lee Marshall, a UK journalist and longtime Italy resident. Below is an English version of my piece.

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I first made contact with Matteo Renzi in summer 2012, while working on a story for The Guardian about the passing of Florentine bespoke shoemaker Stefano Bemer, famous artisan shoemaker of the European nobility and VIP.  Renzi wasn’t the big national name he is today, but he was the mayor of Florence, so the right person to call for comment.  A Florentine acquaintance graciously passed along Renzi’s mobile number (“you didn’t get it from me”). I sent a quick SMS, doubting I’d hear back. Within an hour, he had responded.  My gut instinct is that the real Renzi is that approachable guy riding his bike through Florence, chatting with taxi drivers. The kind of guy who texts right back. Who decides, gets things done and continues on down the road.

In February, as I was collaborating with a BBC crew covering the Italian elections, I understood the Florence mayor’s ability to create consenus with his broad political appeal. While at the Bersani, Grillo and Berlusconi rallies in Bologna, Milan and Naples,  it was remarkable how many times, at all those rallies, regular people would say “Renzi” when asked who they wanted to vote for. Over and over again I heard “Well I would have preferred Matteo Renzi, but they won’t let him go forward. . .”  

The political panorama in Italy is so fragmented that the fact that people from various camps all seem to like him, is enough to make many very suspicious.  But the more the old guard dislikes him, the more I like him even more.  Italians want change, otherwise why would the country’s three most popular politicians –Silvio Berlusconi, Beppe Grillo and Matteo Renzi – all be outside the gilded halls of power in Rome?

They don’t believe the president of Molise should earn more than Barack Obama. They don’t want higher taxes when public spending is equivalent to just over 50% of GDP. After nine consecutive quarters of recession, they are tired.

Renzi was a Boy Scout for 20 of his 38 years. If he’s not prepared, who is? Scout jokes apart, the charm of his modern energy and folksy “can do” enthusiasm appeals to my pragmatic American side – the side that desperately wants to believe that Italy’s economy can be liberalized, its government can be reduced, its institutions can be reformed, while still protecting basic social services, cultural traditions, fine local goods and family-owned businesses that all contribute to a good quality of life here.

In his favor are his youth, his confidence in himself and in Italy, as well as the will to make economic and institutional reforms, such as the parliamentary and labour law reforms.  It may be seen as a drawback, but Renzi also seems to have mastered the Berlusconi art   of coming across as a charismatic, strong leader, while at the same time maintaining that folksy aura: the guy-next-door gets his bike stolen.

So what about drawbacks? Florence – the capital of political backstabbing – will make sure they don’t go unnoticed. Along the Arno there are already whispers of his ties to masoneria and “compromised persons” inside his campaign. What exactly is a “compromised person” anyway? I bet I have a few in my contacts, too, perhaps without even knowing.

Some legitimately complain he’s been absent at too many city council meetings, and suggest the mayor’s office was just a springboard to power. 

So what would Machiavelli say? Does the end justify the means? This year marks 500 years since distribution of the famous Florentine’s political treatise “The Prince,” in which Machiavelli theorized that to retain power the hereditary prince must maintain certain sociopolitical institutions . . . sometimes in the face of brutal power plays that pose moral dilemmas. Is there a metaphor here? Is Renzi the hereditary prince or the young upstart about to be brutally quashed?

After years of swinging right and left, there’s finally a candidate who might find the sweet spot in the middle, who isn’t afraid to channel his inner boy scout for a campaign slogan (“Leave this world a little better than you found it” from Baden Powell) who doesn’t shy away from direct democracy (he takes questions on Twitter with the hashtag #matteorisponde) and talks straight about cautious reform and privatization.

Florence, the pulsing heart of Renaissance culture,  is about to become ground zero for a new political era . . . albeit slightly Machiavellian.

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