The Impossible Alliance

As Confucius, Lao Tse and Buddha well before them, both Renzi and Salvini have drunk from the same well and followed the same guide-book on political craftmanship.

Matteo Renzi – Caricature” by DonkeyHotey, edited and licensed under CC BY 2.0

Beyond sharing the first name, Salvini and Renzi can be considered to be similar

On the surface, Matteo Renzi continues to play the role of Salvini’s bête noire, having endeavored to digest the impossible alliance with the Five Star Movement to prevent new elections and an overwhelming victory for the right in Italy. In Italy each Matteo has worked to be portrayed as the standard bearer of Europe’s kulturkampf between the populist social right, and the progressive moderate center. Where Renzi extolls the benefits of European integration, the welcoming and assimilation of migrants, Salvini has made in the past arguments against Brussels’ deficit rules and asked for greater migration controls. In other words, each Matteo would want to be an Italian avatar of key European figures and their values; on one hand you have Renzi trying to emulate Macron, and Salvini hankering to become the next Orban. The two are antithetical and opposed to each other, like oil and water.

But in many ways, beyond sharing the first name, the two leaders can be considered to be similar. Both came to obtain remarkable victories at the European elections. They both enjoyed a wave of popular support following these victories, with both gravitating in the high 30s as regards personal approval and voting intentions. At times both leaders seem to have been presented as Italy’s saviour with a complete dominance of internal discussion inside their parties. Both claimed to have quarrelled and defeated the old, corrupt establishments, and the decrepit burocracies of their respective parties. And likewise, both leaders managed to use simple political messaging effectively, as well as easy to remember slogans and effective social media campaigns.

It is true that Salvini did not head his own government, but like Renzi used to, he now dominates the political scene as the sole and principal political leader directing his own version of Renzi’s “partito della nazione,” or party of the nation. The fact that both leaders have empathetically aimed to create a party of the nation is reminiscent of the protagonism enjoyed by Berlusconi. It is indeed curious to see that in the Italy of complex political majorities, fragmentary coalitions and und unstable governments the political aspiration of its politicians has been the creation of an hegemonic leader in a notoriously fragmented and divided country.

As Confucius, Lao Tse and Buddha well before them, both Renzi and Salvini have drunk from the same well and followed the same guide-book on political craftmanship. Beyond the political leadership style, there are other traits that unite the two leaders from a policy perspective, beyond the EU and social values; these revolve around the need to reform the tax system and engineer it to make it more business-friendly, they also both aim at ‘slimming down’ the slow-moving bureaucratic apparatus of the state. These policies that have been embraced at different times by both leaders explain why to varying extents they have been perceived popular by different segments of the business community.

Areas of political convergence can be the redesigning — for the umpteenth time — of the electoral law towards a more proportional indication and opposition to justice reforms that are currently being espoused by the Five Star Movement. They also see similar emergencies that need to be tackled soon such as the ILVA crisis among others. Moreover, even though not as virulently as the League, the Democratic Party had start to push for a more muscular approaching in controlling and managing migration flows in the Mediterranean through the Minniti decree. Both political movements may benefit from the lack of any cogent response to these major policy issues by the other major parties, Forza Italia, Five Star Movement and Democratic Party, on whose political indecision they will try to prey on.

Beyond affinities in both style and policies, both parties might share a common political interests in the reduction to political irrelevance of Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, which could be eaten by both the right and the center. The League would also realistically seek to absorb what is left of a terminal Five Star Movement, taking over both voters and politicians that were more well-predisposed to the former League-FSM coalition. On the other hand, Renzi might be waiting for some of his former centrist allies in the Democratic Party, who are still currently sitting on the fence, to join him in his new venture. These are possible long-term developments for the next months or years.

However, time is not on their side, as the wind is blowing in Giorgia Meloni’s, the other right-wing firebrand in Italy, favor. As time goes by and Salvini cannot force an election, Meloni will grown on strength from the right. As time and time again it has been demonstrated, voters ultimately prefer the real thing and gravitate towards the extreme. To maximize his gains from his current position of strength, Salvini would need elections as soon as possible. The only person that is standing on his path towards this is Matteo Renzi, on whose MPs the current government relies, and who has thus become Salvini’s gatekeeper to his second turn in government. This unique position might make the possibilities of a Renzi-Salvini agreement less remote, whereby Renzi will demand might concessions from Salvini in return for early elections. Depending on multiple variables, such as his relationship with Giorgia Meloni’s party, the relative strength of Forza Italia or the Five Star Movement, the two Matteos might consider the unthinkable and even cobble-up a new governing coalition.

Renzi has already demonstrated his elasticity by agreeing a pact with Berlusconi, which gave rise to the expression “Renzusconi.” The success of this agreement was possible through the figure of Denis Verdini, an erstwhile Berlusconi ally that later supported Renzi’s government and who is also a fellow Tuscan. It just happens to be that Verdini’s daughter is currently dating Salvini. One might be unnecessarily naïve to think that any such family link might be exploited by former political allies. However, in Italy, the capital of local political potentates, this is unfortunately not beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed, perhaps in the coming months Italy will experience the aegis of SalviRenzi in some form or the other with an institutional figure two mediate between the two egos.

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