Matteo Renzi's interview sounded like a bomb. Italy's new coalition had just appointed the last secretaries of state. A sigh of relief went through Rome. Finally, to govern in peace, without right-wing populists, without constant dispute, without headwind from Europe.
And then: "I quit because I lack a vision for the future," Matteo Renzi announced Tuesday morning in the newspaper La Repubblica. The ex-premier leaves the Democratic Party (PD) and founds his own movement with about 40 deputies.
It's a tough cut: Italy's Social Democrats are now divided, the only major party that Matteo Salvini fought decisively is weakened. And the new coalition is already cracking after a few days - even if Renzi wants to continue to support the government. What does Renzi want? And what does the schism mean for a country that has not yet dealt with the Salvini shock?
Italy has become an arena for two great egos in recent months. On the one hand Matteo Salvini, 46 years old and vice-premier until the beginning of September. On the other Matteo Renzi, 43 years old, ex-mayor of Florence and from 2014 to 2016 youngest Prime Minister of the Italian Republic. Both Matteos are charismatics who can inspire large crowds. Both are the stars of their respective one-man show. And both would love to become head of government for the first time or again. One in Donald Trump's style and rhetoric. The other modeled on Emmanuel Macron.
The duel of the two Matteos is aggressive - and always entertaining. Hardly anyone in Italian politics has recently approached Salvini as aggressively and self-confidently as Matteo Renzi. Provoked one with anti-refugee, nationalist slogans, the other rejects him mockingly: "Salvini should treat himself to a chamomile tea, he is quite upset from the nights on the beach," Renzi then blasphemes. And acts in the social media as fast and clever as the Lega boss: Italy pay the professional politician "for 26 years only for spreading hatred and insecurity."
Renzi is considered an important architect of the new coalition. When it broke in early August, he was the first to demand a change of government to prevent new elections and a possible Prime Minister Salvini. While Five-Star Movement and Social Democrats still maintained their old hostility and an alliance was ruled out by many, the former head of government said: "The PD must not make the mistake of handing the land over to the Lega chief for five years, with a concrete, authoritarian danger. "
"A new model of political community"
But in the formation of the government, the Florentine held back strikingly. He renounced a prominent position in the Cabinet, although he had a large camp in the PD faction behind him. Renzi left the rather pale PD boss Nicola Zingaretti the stage - and prepared in the background before his party exit. He seems to have an organization in place, such as France's President Emmanuel Macron founded in 2017 with "La République en marche": movement rather than party. And above all, an instrument to get to the top of the government.
Ciro de Luca / REUTERS
Right-wing populist Salvini: Do not ignore, but attack
"It will not be a traditional party," says Renzi. He wanted "a new model of political community, innovative and not bound by the requirements of the 20th century." In plain language: Local associations, inner-party democracy, the reconciliation of interests between different party currents, self-referentiality - all that no longer fits into the world of Renzi, who was always controversial in the PD, because he lacks the left stall odor. Now he builds a movement that is completely tailored to him. "I want to fight the Salvinism in the squares, in schools and factories," he says, "that will not work if I have to defend myself every morning in my own house."
In Italy there are now two major strategies to respond to the challenge of right-wing populism. The first represents Giuseppe Conte. The non-party Prime Minister has criticized Salvini coolly and statesmanlike, as the old coalition broke up. Now he is trying to detoxify Italy after the nationalist propaganda battles of the ex-partner. To objectify the debate. To defuse the migration theme and to set a new course in terms of content. Conte wants to marginalize Salvini - and thereby defeat.
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The second strategy means the opposite: Renzi does not want to ignore Salvini, but attack. He draws his energy from the constant confrontation with his favorite enemy. "I will spend the next few years in direct confrontation with the populism of Salvini," he says.
Marginalize or attack, brittle policy or passionate Facebook debates: no one knows what will work in the end in response to the Italian right-wing populism. The dilemma will be that in the future, both strategies will be represented in the coalition.
Sigmar Gabriel of Italian Social Democracy
It will not be easy for Matteo Renzi. Years ago, he got a top result of 41 percent for the PD. But then he rushed over a constitutional referendum, which he declared to vote on his person. Renzi fell over his ego agenda, which displeased many. He acted like a Sigmar Gabriel to the Italian Social Democracy, self-centered, sometimes mistaken, but often with outstanding political instinct.
That was long ago. Maybe the constant duel with Salvini gives him new support. At any rate, it is still puzzling how they interpret the dazzling Renzi phenomenon. Some people trust him in the next polls only a few percentage points. But he may also have chances to bring disappointed fans of Silvio Berlusconi on his side - whose Forza Italia plays in polls only a minor role.
And the Social Democrats? They hope that Renzi becomes a leader without a follower. The separation was "a very serious mistake that Italy will not understand," says PD boss Zingaretti. But he also knows, "Our story has shown us that when we split, we almost always lose."