© Reuters. Matteo Renzi offers a press conference in Rome
By Gavin Jones ROME (Reuters) – Matteo Renzi, who as prime minister once enthused Italians and foreign observers with his promises of reform, is now among the most unpopular figures in the country, his name almost synonymous with disloyalty and maneuvering. ruthless policies. On Wednesday, Renzi pulled his small centrist Italia Viva party out of the coalition, toppling the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and throwing Italy into political chaos amid a resurgent coronavirus emergency. Their reason for doing so is difficult to pin down. His original complaint concerned Conte’s plans to spend billions of euros promised by the European Union to relaunch the ailing economy. Italy’s draft “Recovery Plan” offered very little for health service, culture and infrastructure, Renzi said, and had to be overseen by a group of unelected experts who, he said, was an insult to parliament. Renzi, 46, called it “a step forward” Tuesday when Conte amended the plan to address many of his demands, but by then he had many new ones. “It seemed clear that Renzi wanted to get rid of Conte and was looking for a reason to justify it,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of polling and political analysis firm YouTrend. “This crisis is not about politics, it is about Renzi’s efforts to get a new government that gives him more political weight.” Renzi says he has “Italy in my heart” and is acting for the good of the country. Most Italians don’t believe him. In an Ipsos poll on Tuesday, 73% of voters said they were pursuing their own interests, compared to 13% who said they were pursuing those of the country. PARTY COUP At the peak of his popularity in 2014, Renzi, who had recently become prime minister in an internal party coup, led his Democratic Party (PD) to a major victory in the European Parliament elections, where he obtained 41% of the votes. In his first months as Italy’s youngest prime minister, Italians were won over by his dynamic and quick-talking style when he promised “one reform a month” to reform the slower economy in the euro zone. Most observers predict that it will dominate Italian politics for at least a decade. Seven years later, after resounding political defeats saw him resign first as prime minister and then as leader of the PD, his Italia Viva party, formed in 2019, now records less than 3%. “In all of our polls on personal approval ratings of politicians, Renzi hits the bottom,” said YouTrend’s Pregliasco. Renzi became prime minister in 2014 by toppling a broad-based government led by his PD party colleague Enrico Letta, reversing earlier promises that he would only come to power in an election. Days earlier, amid rumors that he planned to dismiss Letta, he pledged his support with the words “keep calm, Enrico,” which have since become a popular Italian catchphrase to signify political treason. At the time, “Renzi-frenzy,” as he was dubbed in the media, was in full swing and few Italians thought much of Letta, who left Italy to pursue an academic career in Paris. However, Renzi’s honeymoon period soon began to sour, as the perception grew that behind his catchy slogans and puns there was more spectacle than substance. REFORMS Approved reforms, especially those of the labor market and education system, but these failed to get the economy going, and Renzi’s pro-business and free market agenda alienated traditional PD voters and failed to attract conservatives . Renzi, always a combative character, was also making too many enemies in his own party, having ended the careers of several PD greats during his rise to their leadership. One of them, former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, gleefully attacked Renzi last week for trying to undermine Conte’s government, reflecting that “you cannot get rid of the most popular man in the country at the will of the most unpopular.” Renzi’s downfall was sparked by his campaign to reform Italy’s constitution in 2016 with an overhaul aimed at curbing the powers of the upper house Senate, giving more power to the government and streamlining the legislative process. The reform was rejected in a referendum that many voters saw as an opportunity to bring Renzi down, regardless of the merits of the constitutional changes. Renzi had repeatedly promised that if he lost the referendum he would leave politics entirely, but within months he was campaigning to regain control of the PD. He was successful, briefly, before resigning again after defeat in the 2018 elections, which ushered in the rule of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the Salvini League. Since then, its reputation has continued to decline and Italia Viva has become the kind of miniscule party with the power to break governments, which Renzi used to say were the curse of Italian politics when he led the PD at its peak.