The Italian House of Cards: Reviewing the Reasons for the Political Crisis in Italy

Andrea Leonard Palazzi
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“Power is a lot like real estate. It is all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”

Frank Underwood, House of Cards (2013-2018)

These words, uttered by Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” express the very cynical and power-oriented nature of politics. The series, a political fiction set in the US Congress’ meanders, portrays the career of an ambitious politician whose cynical strategies and deception will eventually grant him the keys to the White House.

When Senator Matteo Renzi, leader of minority party Italia Viva, opened up the political crisis in Italy, many political analysts (and Italians) struggled to find logic and a clear explanation for such an expected, perilous decision. Thus, some conspiracy theories inevitably popped out. Although Senator Renzi officially avowed that his choice was triggered by President Conte‘s veto on the European Stability Mechanism, the peculiar timing of the crisis, right at the peak of the pandemic, sheds some doubts on its real motives.

Is the controversial adoption of the ESM the real reason behind the crisis? Or is Senator Renzi pursuing a “House of Cards”-style political strategy? If yes, what is his real objective? In order to understand the Italian political crisis, it is worth investigating and singling out the hidden, alleged goals behind Senator Renzi’s decision.

HYPOTHESIS ONE: POLITICAL AMBITIONS

The Italian House of Cards: Debunking the Reasons for the Political Crisis in Italy
Source: France 24

The first theory holds that Mr. Renzi would be using leverage on the government to gain more relevant positions within the executive itself. In other words, Italia Viva would be using its bargaining power (its percentage, albeit little, is imperative to maintain the majority in the Senate) to obtain the leadership of strategic Ministries. Before its withdrawal, Italia Viva only controlled the Ministries of Agriculture and the Politics for the Family. Per this theory, a new high-profile Ministry would be the ultimate objective of Senator Renzi, confident that the COVID-19 pandemic would deter other options like voting.

Nonetheless, Senator Renzi’s words seem to push back against this theory:

“I was the mayor of Florence and the Prime Minister of Italy, I achieved everything I could.”

Also, polls show that his consensus is unlikely to increase, and the dramatic end of his government in 2016 impliedly stonewall his political aspirations.

However, obtaining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Defense would still be of great value for Senator Renzi. A fascinating, highly-recommended piece by the Italian newspaper Domani portrays Senator Renzi running for the Secretariat of NATO. Senator Renzi would count on the American President Joe Biden‘s and French President Emmanuel Macron‘s endorsement, Domani writer Daniele Erler reports. Mr. Erler’s analysis also highlights that Mr. Renzi, Prime Minister in 2016, was pivotal to the success of Jens Stoltenberg’s nomination – current NATO Secretary, strongly supported by then-President Obama – by vetoing Franco Frattini, the Italian candidate in 2016. Hence, Renzi would now “redeem his voucher” and pretend an Italian Secretary as the leader of NATO, and his friendship with President Biden would ease his climb. A high-profile position in the Italian government would thus strengthen his ties and power in the international arena. Is Mr. Renzi exploiting the crisis as a launchpad for an international career?

HYPOTHESIS TWO: PERSONAL ANIMOSITY

The second hypothesis offers a more individualistic perspective, and a sense of hostility toward Mr. Conte would be the real reason behind Mr. Renzi’s move. Although Senator Renzi publicly denied any form of animosity toward the Prime Minister, an article by Il Fatto Quotidiano sheds light on the obscure meanders of their relationship. According to Marco Lillo’s article “Il Primo Pranzo Renzi-Conte con La Regia Della Boschi,” Matteo Renzi, during his mandate as PM, did not appreciate Professor Conte’s increasing entente with Maria Elena Boschi, one of Renzi’s proteges.

Moreover, scholars like Gianfranco Pasquino, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Bologna, claim that Prime Minister’s Conte charisma and increasing ties with Bruxelles’ political elite was anathema to Renzi, whose silent envy has been witnessed by many of his colleagues. In other words, Renzi would be orchestrating his vendetta, and his ultimate desire would be Conte’s fall. Furthermore, polls show that Conte’s approval rate has increased during his mandate, whereas the public opinion remains skeptical toward Renzi’s party.

However, some could rightfully question why Senator Renzi would initially endorse Prime Minister Conte’s executive from the very outset. As Mr. Lillo points out, Renzi could have voted against Conte’s mandate in the Senate from the beginning, but Renzi’s membership to the Democratic Party hampered his veto. In 2018, as a member of the pro-Conte Democratic Party, Renzi would not have been reelected if he had voted against the executive and thus be responsible for new elections in 2019. (As of now, the political parties’ leader appoints the candidates to be elected by the people).

 As Mr. Renzi seceded and created Italia Viva and the pandemic deters new elections, he might now use the crisis’s controversial management as a pretext to implement his plan at last.

HYPOTHESIS THREE: RENZI IS SINCERE

The Italian House of Cards: Debunking the Reasons for the Political Crisis in Italy
Source: AGI

What if Renzi is sincere about his intensions? After all, he might have triggered the crisis because he was truly and honestly concerned about the government’s paralysis in such crucial times. As a matter of fact, in the past few months, Renzi repeatedly denounced in the Parliament his exclusion in the executive’s decisions, despite his role in the majority.

Nonetheless, circumstantial evidence still supports the first hypothesis. Whereas Mr. Conte has increased his consensus over time, the 5 Star-Movement, the most voted party in 2018, has not. The controversial policies during the pandemic, the failed alliance with the Lega, and several miscarried promises have hindered the consensus of the 5-star movement. The outcome of the regional elections in 2020 corroborates this point. Thus, as the 5-Star movement would fear new, unforeseen elections, their reluctance to terminate their mandate in advance would increase the bargaining power of Mr. Renzi, with the 5-Star movement compelled to accommodate Italia Viva’s requests.

Nevertheless, polls projecting that Matteo Renzi’s political career is doomed to decline would seem to strengthen the likelihood of the latter hypothesis, with Senator Renzi putting his little consensus and public image at risk for the “public good”. In fact, the Senator argues that the ESM implementation would be highly beneficial and convenient for the Italian health system because of its low-interest rate and the drastic situation of the Italian health system. The 5-Star movement has hitherto failed to provide a substantial and factual critique of the ESM itself, the veto of which is reportedly more ideological than logical. Perhaps, aware of his little consensus but pivotal role in the majority, Mr. Renzi might have politically sacrificed himself to underline the 5-Star controversial governance. In Senator Renzi’s words:

“We will not partake in the biggest waste of money in the history of the Italian Republic.”

Senator Matteo Renzi to the Italian Parliament, 30 December 2020.

The ultimate evolution of the crisis will debunk or confirm the abovementioned reasons behind Mr. Renzi’s choice, with several likely scenarios still possible for the Italian executive. If (as of today former) PM Conte will negotiate with Mr. Renzi and grant the Senator prestigious Ministries in return for his trust, hypothesis one will come true. If another Prime Minister takes office with Renzi’s endorsement, hypothesis two will be strengthened. If Prime Minister Conte regains his mandate by subverting his stance on the ESM, hypothesis three holds out.

The next days will prove crucial to shape the future of the executive, and in turn of the country’s leadership.

  • Assuming the status quo is preserved and IV consensus declines, what will Mr. Renzi’s political future be?
  • Does the pandemic justify the maintenance of the political status-quo?
  • If not, may it be the right moment to intervene and avoid an alleged waste of public money before it’s too late?

Recommended readings

Erler, Daniele. “Così la Crisi può Aiutare Renzi a Tentare la Scalata alla Nato.” Domani

Lillo, Marco. ““Il Primo Pranzo Renzi-Conte con La Regia Della Boschi” Il Fatto Quotidiano

“Let’s Tune In: Italy and the Political Crisis.” The New Global Order

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