A ‘Leftist Berlusconi’ for the Italian Democratic Party

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South European Society and Politics
ISSN: 1360-8746 (Print) 1743-9612 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fses20
Matteo Renzi: A ‘Leftist Berlusconi’ for the Italian
Democratic Party?
Fabio Bordignon
To cite this article: Fabio Bordignon (2014) Matteo Renzi: A ‘Leftist Berlusconi’ for
the Italian Democratic Party?, South European Society and Politics, 19:1, 1-23, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13608746.2014.887240
Published online: 18 Feb 2014.
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Matteo Renzi: A ‘Leftist Berlusconi’ for
the Italian Democratic Party?
Fabio Bordignon
Matteo Renzi’s rise to the leadership of the Democratic Party brings to the heart of the
centre-left the leadership model imposed upon the Italian scene by Berlusconi in the early
1990s. A post-ideological, anti-political and innovative type of leadership, which has
proved to be highly effective in attracting electoral support and media attention. Yet a type
of leadership that clashes with the cultural and organisational roots of the centre-left. The
article frames the experience of the new party Secretary, focusing on his political history,
public narrative and style of communication.
Keywords: Matteo Renzi; Democratic Party; Berlusconi; Populism; Italian Politics
Since 8 December 2013, the Italian Democratic Party (Partito democratico, PD) has
had a new leader – the fifth in just six years. He is Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old
Mayor of Florence (born January 1975) who, in 2010, launched a radical challenge to
his own party’s establishment, proposing the setting aside of the old ruling class. Renzi
finally decided to ‘take’ the party, winning the office of party Secretary General
in December 2013 before aiming at his real objective: the leadership of the entire
centre-left in the next general election.
The rapid rise of the Florentine leader implies that the Italian centre-left is facing an
issue that has remained unresolved since the early 1990s: the tension between leader
and party. In 1994, Berlusconi’s entrance onto the political scene accelerated the
process of personalisation of the Italian political system, favouring the establishment
of a new model of leadership: a postmodern leadership founded on the personal
qualities of the leader, and thereby questioning the centrality of parties at the heart of
representative democracy. It is a model that Renzi seems, today, to be relaunching in
many of its aspects, often leading to his being accused (by his own party) of expressing
a left-wing ‘Berlusconism’.
This article proposes to set out, sine ira et studio, Renzi’s political experience,
beginning with an analysis of his personal history, his public narrative and his style of
q 2014 Taylor & Francis
South European Society and Politics, 2014
Vol. 19, No. 1, 1–23, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13608746.2014.887240
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communication. In addition to illustrating ‘who Matteo Renzi is’, and identifying the
salient aspects of his political project, the article attempts to shed light upon (a) the
scope of the challenge posed by the new Secretary, both to the PD and to the Italian
centre-left; and (b) the potential difficulties that the leader will face during the course
of his mandate.
The discussion is divided into six sections. The first section provides the essential
characteristics of the leadership model ‘imposed’ on the Italian scene by Berlusconi,
and explains why it has generated difficulties for the major forces of the centre-left
(Calise 2013). In the next two sections, Renzi’s political history is traced from his
beginning at a local level to his national success, his race for the primaries and finally
his winning of the office of PD Secretary. The two subsequent sections concentrate on
specific aspects: the characteristics of Renzi’s political communication, and the way in
which his message fits into the anti-political discourse that has characterised Italy for
over twenty years. Finally, the concluding section analyses how and to what extent
Renzi’s leadership can be likened to the Berlusconian model, and how it may be set
within the highly effervescent context of Italian politics today.
The Italian Centre-Left and the Postmodern Leader
In 2007, the birth of the PD ended a period of convergence, lasting over ten years,
between the two principal political forces of the First Republic: the Italian Communist
Party (PCI), which had become, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the
Democratic Party of the Left (PDS, 1991) and subsequently Democrats of the Left (DS,
1998); and Christian Democracy (DC), later renamed the Italian People’s Party (PPI,
1994) before merging into the new project of La Margherita (Democracy is Freedom –
The Daisy, 2001).
The PD possesses, therefore, in its genetic patrimony, the colours and the body of the
great parties of the twentieth century. The colours are white and red, which symbolise
the two great ‘ideologies’ of Italian politics during the last century: Communism and
Catholicism. The body is the bureaucratic mass party: a heavy body, endowed with a
strong organisation and a ramified presence in society. This party model was designed
to represent a society rigidly divided into classes, in which the individual dimension
was always subordinated to the collective one. The leadership in the mass party is a
collective leadership – a function of the organisational pyramid of the party – while
personal, charismatic and plebiscitary phenomena are viewed with suspicion.
Berlusconi’s entry into politics in the early 1990s overturned this model in many
respects. The leader of the new centre-right replaced the white and red with a new
colour: sky blue (Diamanti 2009) – a colour that represents Italy as a whole (it’s the
colour of the national football team, the azzurri), thus highlighting an explicit route
towards a catch-all perspective. The new body was that of the leader. Forza Italia,
Berlusconi’s personal party (Calise 2010), was a light, post-ideological organisation
based on the leader’s appeal, and also on his companies (he was, and still is, the owner
of a veritable media and publishing empire). At the moment of its foundation in
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1994, Forza Italia was an electoral committee, which preferred the label of
‘movement’ to that of ‘party’ (Poli 2001). Berlusconi entered the field with his wealth,
but also with his history and individual attributes. In Forza Italia, the leader came
before the party.
With Berlusconi, therefore, a new type of party leadership appeared in Italy – a
leadership that immediately enjoyed success because of the transformations
undergone by society in the preceding decades – a postmodern leadership whose
‘ideal’ profile may be traced through six essential points (Bordignon 2013).
(1) A post-ideological leadership. The leader declares himself ‘beyond’ ideologies and
‘above’ traditional political categories (including those of right and left). His
programmatic proposal is aimed at the electorate as a whole, according to a catchall logic.
(2) An anti-political leadership. The leader adopts a populist style and rhetoric (Meny
& Surel 2002), proposing his movement, and indeed himself, as the authentic
interpreter of the will of the people, in opposition to the political establishment.
The direct relationship between the leader and the citizens is therefore offered as
an alternative to the traditional forms of political intermediation. The parties and
the professional politicians are identified as the principal ‘enemies’ of the people: a
self-referential caste, entrenched in defence of its own privileges.
(3) A personal leadership. The leadership is personal for two different reasons: (a)
because it works upon the monocratic principle, with regard to government
workings and party leadership; and (b) because the leader takes the role of
political representative above all as a person (who addresses himself to other
persons), rather than as an expression of some collective entity. The personal
characteristics of the leader become a central part of the party’s message and
political proposal.
(4) A leadership from outside. The leader presents himself as an outsider, who made his
way outside the ordinary recruitment circles of the elite, in opposition to the
oligarchies and the traditional political apparatus. Even when he reaches positions
of political responsibility, he continues to assume a function of ‘internal
opposition’ to the system.
(5) An inspirational leadership. The appeal of the leader is based on the main abilities
associated with soft power – a type of power that blends charisma (‘the emotional
or magnetic quality of inherent attraction’) with an ability to communicate
effectively. It is a type of leadership that can be ‘symbolic (leadership by example)’,
or persuasive, when it puts forward ‘arguments and visions that cause others to
believe, respect, trust, and follow’ (Nye 2008, p. 39).
(6) An innovative leadership. Thanks to his or her transformational gifts (Burns 1978)
and political foresight, the leader becomes the potential reformer (or refounder)
of the political system so as to give voice to the people, indicating new procedures
and new infrastructures to foster the popular will.
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This leadership model, in the twenty years since Berlusconi’s appearance on the
political scene, has been followed in part by other leaders and by other parties,
including some of those of the centre-left. Nevertheless, the major forces of this area –
successors of the large parties of the First Republic – have resisted the paradigm of the
personalised leader, which has been in constant tension with their cultural and
organisational roots.
The birth of the PD at the end of 2007, however, marked a turning point (Pasquino
2009). The new party responded, in fact, to the need to consolidate a fragmented and
internally quarrelsome political centre-left, providing it with a strong leadership.
Already in the choice of its name, the PD positioned itself as an ‘American’ party: a
party of voters (and no longer of enlisted members), orientated towards the election
campaign within the context of an adversarial, two-party presidential race. For this
reason, the choice of the leader was placed directly in the hands of the voters, through
the method of primaries. The use of the term was, in reality, improper, since the vote
was intended to elect the Secretary of the party, and not to select a candidate for a
monocratic position (Valbruzzi 2009). But even before the birth of the PD the term
‘primaries’ had been part of the vocabulary of the centre-left, having been used to
choose the coaltion’s prime-ministerial candidate in the 2006 General Election.1 The
winner of that first primary election was Romano Prodi.2 The choice of the method
responded, in this phase, to a double necessity: to renew the link between the ruling
establishment and centre-left voters; and to guarantee, to the political forces of this
area, a respected leader, legitimised by popular vote.
The first Secretary of the PD, Walter Veltroni (born July 1955), seemed to bring the
leadership of the centre-left closer to the new model that had emerged with Berlusconi
in 1994. A former Mayor of Rome, Veltroni was, in fact, relatively young. He enjoyed
widespread public appreciation, and was able to put his own personality into play, so
as to connect with his electorate. He conceived a ‘light’ party, centred on its leader, and
directed towards a bipartisan type of competition, through its majoritarian
philosophy: the idea of running alone, without allies, against the centre-right
adversaries, ‘absorbing’ the whole electorate of the centre-left (Veltroni 2007).
This was, however, an experience that was soon set aside, along with its
undergirding model. Veltroni resigned less than a year after the 2008 general election,
which had marked the return to government of Berlusconi and his centre-right
coalition. Thus for the PD began a phase in which the party – its organisation and
bureaucratic apparatus – took the upper hand with respect to the leader. The new
Secretary General – Pier Luigi Bersani3
, an exponent of the old guard of the PCI –
replaced Veltroni’s ‘party of citizen-voters’ with a ‘party of members and voters’, in
which the members (not by chance) explicitly came first (Bersani 2011). In 2009, the
procedure chosen for the choice of the Secretary demonstrated an effort to combine
popular involvement with the PD higher leadership’s prerogatives, grassroots selection
with traditional congressional procedures.4
In Bersani’s PD, the idea of balancing the demands of an ‘open party’ with the
features of the organised party was explicitly stated. In terms of competitive strategy,
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Bersani returned to the perspective of a wide-reaching coalition: extended to the
radical left, yet open to a pact with the centre. This meant, implicitly, the possibility of
abandoning the majoritarian principle on which the Second Republic (but also the PD
itself) had been founded. The possible allies from the centre – particularly the Union
of Christian and Centre Democrats (UDC), led by Pier Ferdinando Casini – were, in
fact, favourable to a consensus democracy, in which alliances are formed in Parliament
after the elections. Such a model renders recourse to primaries useless – indeed,
counterproductive – because the choice of the prime minister is a result of (postelectoral) agreements among the parties of the coalition. True to this line of thought,
Bersani was wholly against any possibility of ‘presidential’ reform, and repeatedly
declared he did not believe in the ‘one-man party’. In this phase, the party’s orientation
towards both the media and the spectacular elements of politics were considerably
downsized. On a more general level, the PD seemed to give out ambivalent signals
regarding the proposed model of party (and of democracy) (Pasquino & Valbruzzi
2010). Such uncertainties were reflected in the 2013 electoral campaign, in which the
centre-left and the PD began as clear favourites. But the style of Bersani’s leadership
revealed itself unable to benefit from the political climate.
The combination of several factors contributed to the growth of an anti-political
wave that brought Italy back to the ferment of the 1990s, foreshadowing a new crisis of
the political system. Chief among these were: (1) the deepening of the economic crisis;
(2) the fall of Berlusconi’s government, and its replacement by Mario Monti’s
technocratic government, supported by a large parliamentary coalition (2011); and (3)
the scandals that struck parties across the entire political spectrum (Bosco &
McDonnell 2012; Ceccarini, Diamanti & Lazar 2012). In an increasingly anti-party
climate, the candidate-premier of the centre-left projected the image of a party
bureaucrat. Bersani’s understated style, as he was busy ‘rationally’ presenting the
points of the programme, contrasted with the aggressiveness and attention-seeking
behaviour of his competitors, who tried to ride the emotional wave passing through
Italy. His political message focused clearly and with conviction on the ‘principle of
reality’ – the description, beyond every (media-fuelled) pretence, of Italy’s difficult
economic conditions. He did not succeed in offering a vision – an idea of change – to
a nation eager to see a chink of light beyond the crisis.
As a consequence, twenty years after Berlusconi’s entry into politics, the centre-left’s
chance to win a majority in Parliament was once again foiled by the rise of a new party
and a new man. The former comedian Beppe Grillo, leading ‘his’ internet-based 5 Star
Movement (M5S), was able to translate the resentment towards the parties into votes
(Bordignon & Ceccarini 2013; 2014; Corbetta & Gualmini 2013; Biorcio & Natale
2013; Diamanti 2014). The M5S established itself as a political force of national
stature, obtaining the largest share of the vote in the 2013 General Election,5 and above
all ‘stealing’ 19 per cent of the PD’s 2008 votes (Diamanti, Bordignon & Ceccarini
2013, p. 214).
Renzi’s race for the centre-left leadership took place during this delicate phase, in
which adaptation to the paradigm of postmodern leadership seemed hampered, once
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again, by the inertia of the past and the resistance of the old post-Communist and
post-Christian-Democrat ruling elite.
Renzi’s rise began in provinces and towns: two institutional contexts that had
represented the most advanced testing ground for Italian-style ‘presidentialisation’
(Calise 2005). Beginning in the early 1990s, in fact, the direct election of mayors and,
subsequently, of presidents of provinces and regions has assigned to these figures
unprecedented levels of power, autonomy and visibility.
Renzi’s ‘Third Way’
Renzi, who was Bersani’s main challenger, was also the creator of the most radical
attempt at break-up and renewal carried out inside the PD. Renzi’s political project is
tightly connected to the concept of scrapping (rottamazione): in the jargon of the
automobile industry, the discarding and dismantling of worn-out or damaged vehicles
(often favoured by subsidies from the State); in the lexicon of the would-be leader, the
reset of the party’s entire ruling establishment. He presents himself as an outsider: a
leader who does not respect the hierarchies and the cursus honorum inside the PD, and
who openly challenges its ruling elite.
In reality, Renzi’s path, at least in the initial phase, followed rather traditional
channels (Allegranti 2011; Poli & Vanni 2013). Having been a student of law at the
University of Florence, he entered politics as a member of the PPI and of the
committees that supported Prodi as the centre-left candidate for prime minister in
1996. Renzi’s profile corresponds to that of a young Catholic activist: he has occupied
positions of responsibility in the Association of Catholic Guides and Scouts. In 1999,
he was elected Secretary of the post-DC PPI for the province of Florence and in 2001
he became Secretary of La Margherita.
In 2004, Renzi was elected president of the province of Florence for the centre-left.
Already, by that time, he was noted for his direct, non-conformist decision-making
style and for his explicit recourse to the ‘generational’ factor as a political argument,
used both against the adversaries of the centre-right and against his party colleagues.
‘When I turned 18,’ he declared during the 2004 electoral campaign, ‘neither the DC
nor the PCI existed any more. I belong to another geological age’ (Renzi 2004).
Already in the first year of his mandate the word ‘scrapping’ entered the young
President’s vocabulary as he began to reorganise the province’s administrative machine
by eliminating a significant number of executive posts (Vanni 2004).
The myth of the ‘self-made leader’ took form in 2008, in the primaries for the
mayoral candidate for the city of Florence – a candidate who, in one of the regional
capitals of the so-called ‘red belt’,6 would be an almost certain winner. Renzi’s decision
to run conflicted with the choices of the centre-left establishment, which had other
names in mind; for this reason he was ‘offered’ another five years as president of the
province. Renzi, however, decided to go ahead, openly clashing with the outgoing
town administration and with the local and national party leaders of the PD (created
in the preceding year).
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Renzi’s path, therefore, was an upward slope from the start. The slogan Renzi chose
for his campaign perfectly summed up his message: ‘New Faces at the Old Palace’. The
Old Palace (Palazzo Vecchio) is the location of the town hall in Florence and one of the
symbols of the city. But the palace, in a generic sense, is also the polemical target of
Italian anti-political rhetoric. It is the locus of political power, be it Parliament or any
other institution: a closed place, separated from the rest of society.
During the primaries campaign, Renzi strengthened his image as a candidate
opposed by the nomenklatura, through repeated disputes regarding the rules of the
vote. In the end, in February 2009, he succeeded unexpectedly, with 40.5 per cent of
the vote, barely passing the 40 per cent necessary to avoid a second ballot (one of the
rules most strongly contested by the aspiring mayor). At the subsequent municipal
elections (June 2009) he defeated his centre-right adversary, the former goalkeeper
Giovanni Galli: Renzi got 47.4 per cent in the first ballot (against Galli’s 32.1 per cent),
while in the second he rose to 59.5 per cent.
The position of mayor of a large regional capital allowed him to increase his
visibility considerably. Slowly, the power of his message, along with his polemical and
unconventional style, earned him space at a national level. Renzi, actually, had long
intervened in matters concerning national politics and, in particular, the PD. In the
phase of construction of the PD, he had lined up with the formulation given by
Veltroni, supporting a ‘light’ party model: minimally structured, and open towards
society. However, already during the long campaign for the mayoralty, he had
criticised the national leaders of PD, whom he accused of supporting his adversaries in
the local competition.
The challenge to the party was launched, however, in the summer of 2010, when the
mayor of Florence decided to raise the tone of his voice. In an interview to the daily
paper La Repubblica, he requested the dismissal of the whole party in central office, in
the name of generational turnover: ‘If we want to get rid of grandfather Silvio
[Berlusconi] … we must free ourselves of a whole generation of executives of my
party … Enough! It is the moment for scrapping’ (Renzi 2010). The radicalism of
such a formulation increased his popularity among the centre-left electorate,
disappointed by the 2008 defeat, and by the return of Berlusconi to government after
the brief (and troubled) experience of the second Prodi government (2006–08).
Along with the increasing notoriety there was a corresponding increase in criticism,
above all from within his own political area, where many accused him of being an
extraneous body: an infiltrator from the right in the field of the centre-left. After all, in
the 2008 –09 electoral campaign, Renzi had declared himself to be addressing also
those who, in the past, had voted for the centre-right. On some important issues,
especially economic ones, Renzi looked beyond the barrier that divides left and right.
In particular, he embraced the proposals of liberalisation of the job market advanced
by the labour law expert, Pietro Ichino (2009).7 His insistence on the concepts of
efficiency, rapidity and merit brought him, moreover, to contest the left-wing
convictions that ‘the trade union is always right’ (Renzi 2011b) and to point a finger at
the idea of ‘egalitarianism that rapes the concept of equality’ (Renzi 2011a). More
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generally, he distanced himself from a state-centred conception of politics: ‘We don’t
need for the State to think about Us from the beginning to the end’ (Renzi 2011a).
Finally, his profile as a practising Catholic – strengthened by his family choices8 –
predisposes him to attract the vote of the centre: a particularly difficult portion of the
electorate for the centre-left.
Overall, the ‘leader of scrapping’ appeared interested in developing a post-ideological
political proposal and a catch-all electoral strategy, insisting on key words such as
‘innovation’, ‘education’, ‘culture’. For all of these reasons, Renzi’s challenge and
proposal were immediately compared, by observers and journalists, to Tony Blair’s
‘third way’ – a comparison from which Renzi did not retreat, acknowledging the
British leader as ‘one of the world’s few examples of a winning and convincing left’
(Renzi 2011b).
Renzi’s predilection for quick decision-making, which bypasses the intermediation
of parties and unions, is viewed with unease – if not as a symptom of authoritarian
tendencies – in a party in which the collective dimension is still important. In
December 2010, news of a lunch with Berlusconi – Renzi was a guest at Berlusconi’s
private residence – fuelled accusations of ‘collusion with the enemy’. Berlusconi
himself seemed to harbour a certain respect for the rising democratic star and in an
early phase expressly showed interest in him. In 2005, Berlusconi was reported to have
said to the young president of Florence province, ‘But what is someone like you, who
comes from marketing9
, doing in the middle of all those communists?’ (Maltese 2009).
The left-wing electorate was also concerned by Renzi’s sympathies towards the CEO of
Fiat, Sergio Marchionne, seen by many as an adversary in the struggle for workers’
rights, owing to repeated clashes with the trade unions in the automobile firm.
Subsequently, during the campaign for the 2012 primaries, much discussion was
caused by a dinner Renzi had with a group of supporters belonging to the world of
Next Stop Rome
At the end of 2010, the idea of scrapping evolved into a movement. Together with
other promising young party members10 and centre-left administrators, Renzi
organised a meeting at the Leopolda Conference Centre in Florence (once a railway
station). There were three days of discussion, with over 6,500 participants and over
100 speeches. The name of the initiative, ‘Next Stop Italy’, attested to Renzi’s clear
desire to challenge at a national level. The ‘scrappers’ called for, among other
things, salary reductions and a limit of three mandates for MPs, the establishment
of civil unions, and investment in innovation and broadband. They also supported
the battle against the privatisation of water services, which would be the object, a
few months later, of a popular referendum that attracted a very large turnout
(Carrozza 2012).
Renzi was not the first to denounce the inadequacy of the centre-left rulers, but
his message extended to themes that tied in with the growing anti-elite sentiment
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sweeping across Italian society: reduction of political costs (privileges and wasting
of funds); abolition of public funding of parties; simplification and transparency
of procedures; streamlining of decisional processes. Renzi’s support grew and the
possibility of a further leap towards the national scene became ever more
realistic. This ambition was finally realised during the run-up to the 2013 general
The 2012 Coalition Primaries
In 2012, Renzi ran in the coalition primaries to choose the centre-left candidate for
prime minister. In the long run-up to the vote, he proposed the same script used in
Florence three years earlier: open challenge to the higher echelons of the party and to
the designated candidate; lack of respect for internal hierarchies; drawn-out arguments
regarding the rules; insistence on the theme of renewal; and the refusal of alternative
posts in the event of defeat. The statute of the PD did not, in fact, prescribe primaries
as a means of choosing the candidate to lead the centre-left coalition (and possible
government), as such a role belonged ‘by right’ to the Secretary General. In the end,
however, Bersani accepted the challenge from the Mayor of Florence, using the direct
popular investiture as a way to reinforce his candidacy and as an instrument to rally
the centre-left electorate before the imminent elections. Through the choice of open
primaries, scheduled to take place on 25 November, Bersani tried to minimise a double
threat: the internal one posed by Renzi and the external one posed by the rise of the
Nevertheless, the format of the election was (once again) the subject of a hard clash
between Renzi and the higher leadership of the PD. The Mayor of Florence contested
the mechanism of the double ballot (introduced to guarantee a stronger mandate to
the overall winner) and, above all, the restrictiveness of the definition of the selectorate.
It was, indeed, a commonly held conviction that wider participation might favour
Renzi, due to possible ‘enemy assistance’ from centre-right voters. Specifically, the
dispute concerned the thorny issue of prior registration of voters, which in the end was
extended up to the very day of the first ballot. Each voter had to obtain an ‘Elector’s
Certificate for the Coalition of the Centre-Left’, often by going to a place other than
that where the vote took place, signing a declaration and enrolling himself or herself
on the PD register of electors. Registration was not allowed, however, between the first
and second ballots.
In addition to Bersani, Renzi and a regional councillor of Veneto, Laura Puppato
(PD), other candidates were Nichi Vendola, leader of Left Ecology Freedom
(SEL),11 and Bruno Tabacci, a former DC and then UDC deputy.12 The contest
immediately focused, however, on the opposition between Renzi and Bersani. The
clash was not merely a matter of generational divide, but also involved different
party and democracy models. Regarding the party, Renzi held it necessary to return
to the ‘light’, ‘open’ and ‘leader-centred’ party conceived by Veltroni, PD’s first
Secretary. In addition, Renzi supported the institution of a ‘Mayor of Italy’ – that
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is, the application, at a national level, of the presidential scheme established at a
municipal level. Bersani, instead, was firmly (and resolutely) anchored to the party
as a collective and structured entity, and rejected ‘personal, plebiscitary and
populist’ arrangements, which he described as a ‘tumour’ of the Italian political
After the initial skirmishes, the campaign was nevertheless characterised by great
fair play, as testified by two television debates among the candidates. These were
American-style debates, with meaningful concessions to the demands of the media.
The first debate, transmitted by the Sky television network, took place in the studios of
the well-known musical talent show X-Factor.
Renzi obtained 36 per cent in the first ballot – less than ten per cent below Bersani’s
44.9 per cent. In the second ballot, Renzi’s support climbed to 39.1 per cent, but
Bersani won convincingly with 60.9 per cent. The widely expected defeat could be
explained by two main factors: (a) the opportunity, on the part of the Secretary, to pull
the levers of the party’s organisational machine and exploit its internal mobilisation
channels; and (b) a certain distrust among the PD electorate, which, in a period of
strong economic crisis and political uncertainty, preferred to back the ‘safe used’15
leader, Bersani. Renzi’s defeat was nevertheless an entirely honourable one, becoming
an important basis from which to set out for future battles.
The 2013 General Election: A Centre-Left Debacle
The disastrous performance of the centre-left in the general elections of February
2013 helped Renzi’s political standing to grow once more. The Bersani-led coalition,
which had been projected as a sure-fire winner immediately after the primaries,
instead saw a drop in electoral support, finishing with a 29.6 per cent vote share.
The PD ended up with just 25.4 per cent of the vote, almost eight percentage points
(3.5 million votes) short of its 2008 result. Stuck in a low profile campaign, aimed
at maintaining the initial advantage, the PD suffered both a partial Berlusconi
comeback and the new momentum of Grillo. The result was a Parliament
composed of three ‘non-communicating minorities’ (Diamanti 2013) – M5S, PD
and PDL (Berlusconi’s People of Freedom) – in which the creation of a political
majority would require several weeks. This situation would weigh heavily on the PD
and its leader, called upon to play the difficult game of forming alliances in a
climate of disappointment and uncertainty that brought the internal divisions into
the spotlight. Bersani rigidly refused a grand coalition with the centre-right and
instead engaged in a long but fruitless negotiation with the M5S. Bersani failed
both to form a government and then to elect a new President. The most dramatic
moment, for the party and its leader came with the (parliamentary) elections for
the President of the Republic, in which the PD ‘burned’ (i.e. rejected) two of its
founding fathers, Franco Marini and Romano Prodi. During both attempted
elections, many of the promised votes on behalf of the PD went missing (Damilano
2013). After Giorgio Napolitano was finally re-elected as Head of State, Bersani
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resigned. The former trade union leader Guglielmo Epifani was chosen as interim
Secretary of the PD.
As promised, Renzi remained in Florence, without asking for ‘consolation prizes’
(Renzi 2012d). Immediately after the 2013 election, however, many political observers
stressed that Renzi’s leadership would have prevented the electoral defeat. Rapidly, the
centre-left electorate’s distrust of Renzi diminished. Berlusconi’s alleged veto of Renzi
as head of the new large coalition government favoured the choice of Enrico Letta –
another PD enfant prodige (born August 1966)16 – thus allowing Renzi to shake off the
accusations of being a right-wing infiltrator. He immediately assumed the role of
faithful but critical ally of the new prime minister.
In public opinion, positive ratings of Renzi were already at 46 per cent at the
beginning of the campaign for the 2012 primaries. They rose to 64 per cent in
February 2013, overtaking the ratings of all other politicians (Figure 1).
Significantly, positive views of Renzi did not seem limited by party preferences.
He now seemed able to penetrate social sectors (and geographical areas)
traditionally unfavourable to the centre-left. In a survey conducted in September
2013, the relative majority of Italians indicated him as their preferred next head of
government. In the overall ranking, Renzi (32.8 per cent) prevailed over Letta (17.2
per cent), but he also received favourable assessments from 20 per cent of PDL and
41 per cent of M5S voters (Table 1).
Figure 1 Matteo Renzi’s Favorability Ratings (2011 –2013, %). Note: Evaluations on a 1 –
10 scale. Source: Ipsos Italia surveys, September 2013 (1,011 cases).
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Winning the 2013 Primaries
In light of the uncertainty regarding the date of the next elections, and with the post of
prime minister momentarily occupied, Renzi decided to run for the party leadership.
He was aware, in fact, that the freezing of political competition risked dulling his
political edge, and that his chances of success also depended on the control (and
refoundation) of the party apparatus. For this reason, he insisted that the PD respect
the deadlines that had already been agreed for the renewal of the party central office by
Autumn 2013. He also called for the Secretary General to be elected through primaries,
which should be as open as possible.
Among the PD ruling elite, hostility remained strong. At the same time, however, a
significant component of the party had begun to see Renzi as a ‘necessary evil’, with the
effect of triggering a further realignment of the intraparty equilibrium. If, at a general
level, Renzi bet on a post-ideological political platform, the most evident effects within
the party were the progressive reduction of the ‘genetic’ cleavage between post-ChristianDemocrats and post-Communists and the emergence of a new fracture between old and
new. The internal antagonists of the leader-scrapper belonged, indiscriminately, to the
old Communist and Christian Democratic guard. On the one hand, making headlines
were the repeated clashes with Massimo D’Alema, a former Secretary of the DS, the first
post-communist to lead the government and above all, for many, the personification of
the party oligarchies. On the other hand, during the crucial days of the vote for the new
Head of State, Renzi firmly opposed the candidacy of the ‘Catholic’ Franco Marini,
perhaps the most eminent figure among the former Christian Democrats.
Renzi’s principal adversary in the race for the 2013 primaries was Gianni Cuperlo,17
the 52-year-old former leader of the youth wing of the PCI, who received the support of
several PD luminaries, including D’Alema, Marini and Bersani. As in 2009 (see note 4),
the party national assembly decided that the primaries should be preceded by the voting
of the members at a local level (November 2013). This was a critical passage for Renzi,
who did not yet control the organisational machine of the PD, and had to deal with
Table 1 Preferences of Italian Voters for the Next Head of Government (September 2013,
per cent)
Pd voters Pdl voters M5S voters ALL VOTERS
Matteo Renzi 51.4 19.5 40.9 32.8
Enrico Letta 28.7 12.4 8.7 17.2
Silvio Berlusconi 1.3 33.8 1.1 8.1
Mario Monti 8.0 3.2 6.6 6.7
Angelino Alfano 0.6 21.8 0.0 6.6
Beppe Grillo 2.7 2.3 21.4 4.5
Other 4.9 2.7 4.5 4.8
Don’t Know/No opinion 2.5 4.2 16.7 19.1
Note: QUESTION: Who would you prefer as the next Prime Minister?
Source: Demos & Pi surveys, September 2013 (1,288 cases).
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internal conflicts. Nevertheless, with the vote drawing near, the forecasts of the
competition – all favourable to Renzi – triggered a bandwagon effect: many national
and local exponents of the PD changed over to Renzi, who prevailed with 45.3 per cent
of the vote among party members, while Cuperlo secured only 39.4 per cent (Table 2).
As broadly predicted by the surveys, the Mayor of Florence had a clear win in the
following open primary of 8 December 2013, becoming the new Secretary of the PD. As
in the previous primaries, turnout was really high, approaching three million voters.18
Renzi won 67.6 per cent against Cuperlo’s 18.2 per cent and Civati’s 14.2 per cent.
The Leader as a Media Character
The taboo of personalisation is not the only one openly challenged by Renzi. The other
taboo concerns the centrality of television in Italian politics (Marletti 2010): a
phenomenon viewed with great suspicion by the left. It is a distrust that can be read, in
part, as a reaction to the Berlusconian revolution but whose deeper cause is the
detrimental role played by television with respect to the hegemony of the parties.
If one of the accusations traditionally directed at the leaders of the left is that of ‘not
knowing how to communicate’, Renzi plays his hand, without hesitation, on his gifts as
a ‘communicator’. His informal style and frank, popular language, combined with a
taste for direct confrontation with his adversaries, correspond perfectly to the rules of
‘tele-politics’: simplification, dramatisation and personalisation (Schudson 1998;
Fabbrini 1999).
Renzi is familiar with both marketing and television. Like many of his generation,
he was brought up on Berlusconian television,19 of which he has also written a small
piece of history, having been, at the age of 19, champion for five episodes of the
television game show La Ruota della Fortuna (The wheel of fortune). All of this,
combined with his marked ability to hold an audience, has made him an attractive
media personality. It is possible to isolate, in this regard, four basic elements in Renzi’s
political communication: (1) the transformation of political events into media events;
(2) the use of popular language and arguments, accessible to a nationwide public;
(3) the attempt to arouse emotions in his audience; and (4) the tendency to gamble on
the strengths of his own personality.
Table 2 Results of 2013 PD Leader Election (per cent, votes in parentheses)
First phase: members’ vote
(November 2013)
Second phase: open primaries
(December 2013)
Matteo Renzi 45.3 (133,892) 67.6 (1,895,332)
Gianni Cuperlo 39.4 (116,454) 18.2 (510,970)
Giuseppe Civati 9.4 (27,841) 14.2 (399,473)
Gianni Pittella * 5.8 (17,117) –
Source: www.partitodemocratico.it *
Candidate excluded after the first phase.
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(1) Entertaining politics. The attempt to break with the old party liturgies and to mix
politics with show was already wholly apparent on the occasion of the first rally of
the ‘scrappers’ in 2010. The speeches were aided and interspersed with music, film
clips, commercials and television series, cartoons and comic interludes, all shown
on maxi-screens. The message conveyed was one of speed and technology: every
participant introduced himself or herself with a key word (in some cases using
slides), and each had a maximum of five minutes. Renzi and Civati, sitting at the
console – in part directors and in part DJs – conducted the proceedings and read
out emails from spectators watching via live-streaming. The same scenography
and communications strategy were used, with ever-increasing public success and
media visibility, in the rallies that followed. The last of the series, the Leopolda
2013 (25 –27 October), reinforced the ‘social’ dimension, with the presence of 100
discussion tables dedicated to current topics, and coordinated by mayors, MPs
and experts acting as ‘moderators’ and ‘provokers’.
In his public appearances, Renzi perfected over time a true format, which
demonstrated all of its characteristic traits during the tour across Italy (in a camper
van) for the 2012 primaries campaign. Renzi held American-style rallies (Cosenza
2012), often inside theatres. The party symbols almost disappeared, to make space
for projecting videos (to integrate with the leader’s oratory), and for posters and
placards waving among the crowd, with the name of the candidate and the key
slogan of the campaign: ‘Adesso!’ (Now!) The leader was alone on the stage, dressed
in jeans and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Politics and spectacle intermingled, and
the rally became entertainment. The intention was not only to introduce the
candidate’s programme, but also to amuse the audience. Just as Berlusconi had
done, Renzi pointed his finger at the ‘sad faces’ of left-wing politicians. He replaced
the centre-right leader’s jokes with wordplay and frequent use of irony and selfmocking. To do this, the mayor would make use of advice from experts – most
notably, the well-known writer Alessandro Baricco, and the television producer
Giorgio Gori, whose presence among Renzi’s staff has been criticised because of his
former role as a manager in Berlusconi’s firms. For the inauguration of the 2013
campaign (on 12 October, in a meeting organised in Bari), Renzi opted instead for
more sober, institutional but nevertheless innovative scenography. The leader stood
in the centre of the hall, on a circular platform that recalled the logo and the payoff of
the campaign, ‘Cambiare verso’ (an expression that has numerous possible
translations: ‘change direction’ but also ‘change verse’ or ‘change towards’).
(2) Pop politics. Unprecedented, in the leader’s communication, is the intense use of
popular references, explicitly aimed at a young audience. In Renzi’s speeches new
and strange characters appear (strange, at least, for the world of politics): from the
Forresters of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful to Matt Groening’s The
Simpsons; fromMary Poppins to Europe(the 1980s Swedish rock-band). Renzi’s pop
politics (Mazzoleni & Sfardini 2009) also encompasses his participation in the
highly popular television talent show Amici (Friends), and photographs in the
gossip magazine Chi (Who) dressed as the famous fictional character Fonzie, from
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the American sitcom of the 1980s. Also very frequent are references to the language
and personalities of sport: in his autobiography, he likens his ‘electoral marathons’
to the athletic marathons he run in Florence; he traces his own ‘decisionism’ to his
past experience as a football referee; he likens his non-conformist courage (and
winning) to the backward jumps of the US Olympic high-jumper Dick Fosbury (of
the well-known ‘Fosbury Flop’). As in the case of Berlusconi, he feels obliged to
make references to the most popular of the Italian passions: football. The mayor of
Florence attends matches at the stadium, and declares a passion for his city’s team:
ACF Fiorentina. But he has also tried, on various occasions, to raise a parallel
between his own journey and that of the coach of Barca, Pep Guardiola: another
young, winning innovator, committed to the offensive game, and ready to abandon
his ‘secure position’ in the world’s strongest football club. Finally, Renzi’s choice of
language is popular. It is simple and largely made up of slogans and catchphrases. As
in the case of Berlusconi, it is a language intended to show the leader’s matter-offactness, abandoning the formal (and self-referential) code of politics in order to
address ordinary citizens directly.
(3) Emotional politics. Renzi’s show stimulates emotions through the power of
images and his own vision of the future. In order to do this, he explains, the
leader must ‘believe […] have passion […] reawaken a hope, [and] put all his
best energies into the field’ (Renzi 2013b). If Berlusconi, at the beginning of the
1990s, promised a ‘new Italian miracle’, Renzi insists, above all, on the necessity
to build a new narrative of the left: one no longer inscribed in the ideologies of
the past, but instead directed towards reassembling the various fragments of
individual experiences into a single framework of values. ‘The future that awaits
us depends upon how We would like to tell it’, he asserts, underlining the
necessity to find ‘the courage, the grit, the determination to try to change the
narrative’ (Renzi 2012a). In this picture, a recurrent rhetorical expedient
concerns the use of ‘stories’ of ordinary citizens. These serve to show that the
leader is taking on the problems of the people. They allow the individuals to
recognise themselves in the recounted stories, to share a fragment of life, to
connect it to a wider vision, to establish an emotional connection with the
leader-narrator and with the community that he gathers around himself. Renzi
reports the words of people he has met during his trips. He reads out letters
received from his followers. He speaks of an Italy that
now finds itself at ‘Teresa’s crossroads’ … A lawyer and mother of two children, she
decides to leave the profession to try to become a teacher. She goes to take the test,
and sees, as many others do, that the tests are all wrong … It is Carla’s Italy, who …
It is Fernando’s Italy, who … (Renzi 2012b)
During the race for the 2013 primaries, Renzi quoted a recent advertising campaign
of the Coca-Cola company, to underline that politics has to value the individuality
of the citizens, and to address the people by name, ‘because it is with you, Gianni,
that I will change Italy … it is with you, Carlo, that I will try to simplify the school
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… it is with you, Maria, that I will be able to arouse enthusiasm in the people’
(Renzi 2013b). And the future of Italy – it is the implicit conclusion – can have only
one name: Matteo.
(4) Personal politics. In the narrative plot proposed by Renzi, personal biography
therefore assumes a central function: it becomes a story among stories, and, at
the same time, it turns its protagonist into the most authentic interpreter of the
general vision proposed. In this picture, Renzi does not hesitate to use fragments
of his own private life, through numerous references to his family: to his wife,
his children, his parents. Also in the family dimension, Renzi plays, selfmockingly, the part of the leader ‘against’ – against his father, a left-wing voter
who ‘has always lost’ (Renzi 2012d); against his son, who says, ‘Dad, I am for
Bersani’ (Renzi 2012c), but only because he does not want his father to be away
from home too much.
Present above all, in his narration, however, is reference to his public
biography: the epic of the self-made leader and the results achieved in his career
as an administrator. This allows him to exhibit his ability to connect with the
people – with ‘ordinary people’ (Renzi 2012b) – because ‘to be a mayor is …
to feel that nothing that happens in your community is extraneous to you’
(Renzi 2012a). These are words that explicitly echo those pronounced by Barack
Obama in his famous keynote address at the National Democratic Convention,
held in Boston in 2004. Renzi, after all, expressly declares his own attention to
the lessons of the great American leaders, and his attempt to connect with
people draws upon the typical ‘rhetorical visions’ of American campaigns
(Campus 2002): the dream and the journey. The latest book-manifesto of the
mayor of Florence – Oltre la rottamazione (Beyond the Scrapping) – ends by
imagining Gregorio’s Italy, a ‘child who will be twenty years old in twenty years’,
the ‘greatest dream among the many dreams that have dreamt together’ (Renzi
2013a). The electoral trips across Italy show the leader’s remoteness from the
corridors of power and ability to connect with people’s lives. Through the
symbolic event of the trip, the leader demonstrates his energy and enthusiasm,
and his ability to conceive and realise great projects.
The Last of the Anti-Political Leaders?
Renzi’s public narrative also draws upon the anti-political rhetoric that has, over the
last few years, once again characterised the country. Beginning in 2008, economic and
political emergencies returned to fuel feelings of increasing impatience with the
parties: a wave that rose up to threaten the whole political system, as it had in the early
1990s. Grillo is the political entrepreneur who, better than any other, has exploited the
window of opportunity opened up by the economic and institutional crises. However,
Renzi also tries to interpret the spirit of the times, and to transform the democratic
malaise into electoral support: denouncing the evils of politics, but also proposing new
‘recipes’ to bring the demos back to the centre of democracy.
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The Outsider Against the Machine
Fuori! (Out!) is the cry that serves as the title of the book in which Renzi recounts the
tale of his route towards Palazzo Vecchio (Renzi 2011b). But fuori might equally apply
to one who arrives from nowhere, extraneous to the circles of power. Renzi is a leaderoutsider, who launches a frontal attack against the politicians ‘ever more closed in the
palaces of power … armoured, barricaded in their world’ (Renzi 2011b). The
criticism of the parties extends to other elites, to all possible intermediate bodies. In
his career as an administrator, Renzi repeatedly denounced the constraints of
bureaucracy and the prohibitive power of professional associations – especially the
trade unions.
In his frontal attack against the ‘palace’ of politics, the ‘leader of scrapping’ pointed
out some distinctive elements of his populist style and rhetoric:
(1) the idea of politics as a simple thing, to give back to the ordinary citizens. Because
the elementary school teacher – protagonist of one of the many stories told by the
leader – ‘has made Italy far more than have a thousand speeches in Parliament’
(Renzi 2012a). From financial issues to public administration, from industrial law
to bureaucracy, the criteria according to which the res publica should be reformed
are therefore, speed, simplification, decision.
(2) the clean separation between an Us and a Them: the morality of the people set
in opposition to a corrupt elite. The Them is represented above all by the party
oligarchies – first of all of Renzi’s own party. The Us is represented by the
‘ordinary citizens’, but also by the local administrators who made their way
through the politics on the ground, in close contact with the problems of the
people. ‘The difference between Us and Them is that We have never been in
Parliament’ (Renzi 2012d). Such a contrast is traceable, indeed, to a basic
biographical division: ‘because while They were in Parliament, We were at
kindergarten’ (Renzi 2012b). For this reason, the leader directly addresses the
big names of his own party: ‘Dear D’Alema, dear Veltroni … dear Marini, you,
in these years, have done a lot for the party. You have done a lot for the country.
You have done a lot for Italy. You have done a lot. Now stop!’ (Renzi 2012a).
During the campaign for the 2013 primaries, when winning the post of
Secretary already appeared certain, Renzi partly revised his message, directing
the conflict outside the party. The candidate attacked the economic and
financial establishment (above all, the banks) and the cultural establishment:
‘those who, for twenty years, have given us lessons in the newspapers and at the
universities; who have not changed Italy, but keep on giving lessons to
politicians’ (Renzi 2013b).
(3) the distance between the people and its enemies is underlined in the choice of
words, by the use of antithetical categories that delineate a dichotomous
representation of reality. Explicitly or implicitly, in his speeches Renzi always
presents the comparison between old and new, or between old and young. But
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his narrative is enriched by other pairs of opposites: love vs. hate, courage vs.
fear, beautiful vs. ugly. If Berlusconi had already proposed the ‘party of love’,
Renzi affirmed that mayors, every day, write ‘love letters’ to their own city
(Renzi 2012a). Beauty is the character that Italians inherit from their own
history, through the cultural and artistic patrimony: a theme deeply felt by him,
being mayor of ‘that worldwide wonder called Florence’ (Renzi 2013a). But the
term assumes a wider significance when he speaks of the choice to run in the
primaries: ‘I think that a moment is arriving in which courage must be stronger
than laziness … in which beauty must be stronger than fearfulness’ (Renzi
(4) the symbolisation of the enemy is combined, moreover, with the evocation of an
emergency scenario: ‘We are in quicksand. Today the most spontaneous and
widespread comment on the political news are yawns and an increasing sense of
nausea’ (Renzi 2011b).
The Leader’s Party, the Leader’s Democracy
The idea of returning power to the citizens turns into Renzi’s project to reform (and
partly refound) Italian democracy, beginning with his own party.
Renzi has long been favourable to completing the transition of the Italian system
towards majority rule. During the campaign for the post of Secretary, while the PD
was busy in the government of ‘broad agreements’ (extending even to the age-old
centre-right enemies), he put himself forward as sentinel of bipolarity and alternation.
His ‘shopping list’ – as he has defined the packet of institutional reforms he wishes to
launch – is intended to promote the slimming down of the public bureaucracy and the
strengthening of the bond between citizens and state. It consists of: (a) a reform of the
electoral law to guarantee a clear winner and a solid parliamentary majority; (b) the
overcoming of so-called perfect (indeed redundant) bicameralism, through the
transformation of the Senate into a Chamber of Regions; (c) the territorial
reorganisation of the State, through the abolition of provinces; and (d) a reform of the
judicial system, with the purpose of making it faster and more efficient (actually,
another of Berlusconi’s ideas). Above all, he has always been favourable to a
presidential form of government.
Renzi proposes some corrections to the functioning of the political system that have
recently been made popular particularly from the experience of the M5S. These
reforms conform with the principles of sobriety, legality and transparency. On the
problem of political costs, Renzi’s ideas are very close to those of Grillo, and they
include the abolition of public funding of parties. He, too, embraces the idea of a
democracy of monitoring (Keane 2009), in which the citizen is the originator of an
action of constant surveillance upon the holders of power. On this point, Renzi is
inspired by the American experience of the Freedom of Information Act, affirming that
every action of the State must be published online. He also committed his own party
to total transparency in the declaring of expenses. Renzi’s message also includes the
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conviction that new ideas in politics are facilitated by the opportunities offered by new
technologies and by the Web 2.0 platform. Without ever arriving at imagining, as
Grillo does, the substitution of representative democracy with a digital (direct)
democracy, the leader is ready to offer, by way of the Internet, new channels of
expression for citizens who wish to participate.
The main element of Renzi’s bottom-up conception of democracy, however,
concerns the primaries: not as a simple method of selecting candidates (and the
leadership), but as a means to restore centrality to the citizen-voter, to bypass the party
elites, and to trigger mechanisms of accountability: ‘[I]t means an overturning … It
means that it is the voters … who choose the elected … and when they choose them,
they then go to say to them bluntly “This you have not done”’ (Renzi 2011a).
Renzi, moreover, incites his own party to ‘throw open the rooms of politics’ (Renzi
2012b), getting rid of models inherited from the past.
The model of a PD in which there are party officials who dictate the line to the
elected members in the party organs, [who in turn] are then called upon to do the
leafleting to explain to the voters what they must think, was all right in the twentieth
century. It is a party mechanism that no longer works. (Renzi 2011a)
Renzi therefore presses the PD on the matter of opening up to movements,
associations and spontaneous citizen participation; but also – above all – on the
matter of strengthening the monocratic leadership. He openly contests the collective
conception of command strenuously defended by his adversaries in the primaries
(Cuperlo and Bersani).
Conclusion: Berlusconism, Grillism and Renzism
Renzi’s profile, as sketched above, on many dimensions approaches the identikit of
postmodern leadership outlined at the beginning of the article. The rise of the new PD
Secretary recalls many features of the ‘Berlusconian revolution’. At same time, he
appears to be suitably equipped to meet the challenges raised by Grillo.
As Berlusconi did in 1994, Renzi makes his plea to all Italians, beyond the
traditional lines of division. Despite his long party-based career (which makes Renzi,
unlike Berlusconi, a professional politician), he was able to build the image of an
outsider, in collision with an establishment steeped in a deep crisis of legitimacy –
the old elites of his own party – in the name of a generational turnover. Twenty years
after Berlusconi, he uses his own personal characteristics and communicational gifts
to create an emotional connection with his people. Like Berlusconi in his early days
in politics, Renzi presents himself as the personification of change (D’Alimonte
2013), pointing to the vision of a ‘new Italy’: liberated from the traditional power
groups; united, fast and efficient; inclined towards decision-making and risk-taking.
Renzi’s leadership – post-ideological and inspiring, personal and coming from the
outside, ready to strike the chords of anti-politics – seems to share many features
with Berlusconi’s model.
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From this point of view, Renzi’s path inevitably crosses that of the other new man of
Italian politics: Grillo, a leader who pushed the trend of personalisation and
spectacularisation of politics even further. Like Berlusconi and Grillo, Renzi proposes
new solutions to bring the demos back to the centre of democracy, refusing the
traditional mechanisms of political intermediation. Like Berlusconi (and Grillo, in
part) he proposes a direct relationship between the people and the charismatic leader,
within government and inside the party. With Grillo he shares the ideals of
participation (through the Internet) and citizens’ involvement in the formulation
of political choices, poles apart from the conception of public opinion as audience
suggested by the Berlusconian era.
Renzi’s political project, therefore, mixes vertical and horizontal elements. He puts
forward the idea of a citizens’ democracy and of a leader’s democracy. At the same time,
Renzi’s PD promises to be a personae party: a party of one person, centred upon a
strong, charismatic leader; but also a party of persons, an open, network-structured,
horizontal organisation (Bordignon 2013, p. 249). In short, the new Secretary brings
the personalisation of politics to an unprecedented level for his political area.
The conquest of the party leadership, however, represents only one step on his route.
It probably marks the beginning of the most difficult phase, for at least three reasons.
(1) First of all, the assumption of his new responsibity will inevitably involve a partial
blurring of Renzi’s profile as an outsider. In the eyes of public opinion, he will
mostly assume the image of the party man, and of a precise political role.
(2) Having obtained the support of the grassroots, the new Secretary will have to
complete the conquest of the party and begin its reorganisation. To do this, he will
have to pit himself against the residual strength of the machine, against the
divisions that criss-cross the PD and, above all, against the distrust of personal
leadership expressed by a significant proportion of party members.
(3) Finally, the third matter complicating Renzi’s path concerns his relationship with
the government. The Secretary finds himself today at the head of the main Italian
party, but the possible successes and prolongation of Letta’s premiership risk
enhancing the latter’s credentials as a man of government, and, broadly speaking,
collide with Renzi’s ambition to become prime minister (soon). A season of
potential tensions is thus beginning between the Secretary and government (and
inside the party itself), played out in the Renzi –Letta opposition.
For the combination of these reasons, Renzi is destined to play an ambivalent role over
the coming months: to be the main partner and, at the same time, the main opponent
of the government; to be an outsider inside (and against) his own party.
I wish to thank Ipsos and Demos & Pi, for having provided the data used in the article, and the
journal editors, Anna Bosco and Susannah Verney, for their comments and help.
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1. The current Italian regulations do not, in reality, provide for the direct election of the head of
government, although the electoral law in effect since 2005 (and declared by the Constitutional
Court, in December 2013, unconstitutional in some of its parts) obliges every political force (be
it a party or a coalition) to present itself at the elections with a leader.
2. For a reconstruction of the ‘history’ of the primaries in Italy, and of the different meanings
attributed to the term in the scientific field and in public debate, see Corbetta and Vignati
(2013). At a national level, there have been five primaries to date: two coalition primaries for the
choice of the centre-left candidate for the premiership in 2005 (Romano Prodi) and 2012 (Pier
Luigi Bersani); and three party primaries for the choice of the Secretary General of the PD, in
2007 (Walter Veltroni), 2009 (Pier Luigi Bersani) and 2013 (Matteo Renzi).
3. Bersani was elected Secretary of the PD in October 2009, after a brief interval during which the
party was led by Dario Franceschini.
4. The mechanism comprised three main steps: (1) the meeting of party members (designed to
select the National Convention delegates) called to elect three candidates for the primaries; (2)
the open primaries, for the selection of the Secretary and the members of the National Assembly;
and (3) in the event that none of the candidates gained an absolute majority, a second ballot vote
by the National Assembly.
5. The M5S was the first party in terms of votes cast in Italy; the PD came first if the votes of Italians
living abroad are included.
6. The expression ‘red belt’ applies to the central regions of Italy (Emilia Romagna, Tuscany,
Marche and Umbria), which are characterised by a strong left-wing tradition (Ramella 2005).
7. Renzi’s ideas on the reform of Italy’s labour market were developed, in the first weeks after the
2013 PD primaries, in the so-called Jobs Act proposed by the new Secretary General (Financial
Times 2014).
8. Renzi married at 24 and had three children by the time he became mayor.
9. Renzi had indeed once worked in the marketing sector, in a firm owned by his family.
10. The most prominent examples are Giuseppe Civati, regional councillor of the Lombardy region,
and Debora Serracchiani, Member of the European Parliament and Secretary of the PD in the
province of Udine (now president of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region).
11. SEL was founded in 2009 by Vendola, President of the Puglia region and ex-representative of the
PCI and Rifondazione comunista (Communist Refoundation Party).
12. Following the primaries, Tabacci and other centrist politicians founded the Centro democratico
(Democratic Centre), one of the PD’s allies in the 2013 general election.
13. These citations are taken from public speeches made by Bersani at the V Festa Democratica
(Reggio Emilia, 9 September 2012) and at the opening of the PD 2013 electoral campaign
(Rome, 17 January 2013).
14. A second debate between Bersani and Renzi took place before the second round, on Rai1, the
main public television channel.
15. The Secretary himself has often countered the idea of ‘scrapping’ with that of ‘safe used’ – an
expression used in the automobile market to indicate certified pre-owned cars.
16. Enrico Letta was already Minister for Community Politics in 1998, at the age of 32 (first D’Alema
17. The other two candidates were Giuseppe Civati, formerly Renzi’s partner in the movement of
‘scrappers’ (see note 10), and Gianni Pittella, Vice-President of the European Parliament.
18. Specifically, it was 2,814,881. In the two previous PD party primaries, turnout was 3,554,169 in
2007 and 3,102,709 in 2009.
19. It should be recalled, in this regard, that many of Berlusconi’s detractors maintain that his
political fortunes were ‘prepared’ by a cultural transformation of Italian society brought about
by the advent of privately owned television (in Italy the ‘invention’ of Berlusconi).
South European Society and Politics 21
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Allegranti, D. (2011) Matteo Renzi. Il rottamatore del PD, Vallecchi, Firenze.
Bersani, P. L. (2011) Per una buona ragione, Laterza, Roma-Bari.
Biorcio, R. & Natale, P. (2013) Politica a 5 stelle. Idee, storia e strategie del movimento di Grillo,
Feltrinelli, Milano.
Bordignon, F. (2013) Il partito del capo. Da Berlusconi a Renzi, Maggioli, Rimini.
Bordignon, F. & Ceccarini, L. (2013) ‘Five stars and a cricket. Beppe Grillo shakes Italian politics’,
South European Society and Politics, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 427 –450.
Bordignon, F. & Ceccarini, L. (2014) ‘Protest and project, leader and party. Normalisation of the five
star movement’, Contemporary Italian Politics, doi: 10.1080/23248823.2014.881015.
Bosco, A. & McDonnell, D. (2012) ‘Introduzione. Da Berlusconi a Monti: default dei partiti?’, in
Politica in Italia. I fatti dell’anno e le interpretazioni. Edizione 2012, eds A. Bosco &
D. McDonnell, Il Mulino, Bologna, pp. 43–61.
Burns, J. M. (1978) Leadership, Harper & Row, New York.
Calise, M. (2005) ‘Presidentialization, Italian Style’, in The Presidentialization of Politics. A
Comparative Study of Modern Democracies, eds T. Poguntke & P. Webb, Oxford University
Press, Oxford, pp. 88–106.
Calise, M. (2010) Il partito personale. I due corpi del leader, Laterza, Roma-Bari.
Calise, M. (2013) Fuorigioco. La sinistra contro i suoi leader, Laterza, Roma-Bari.
Campus, D. (2002) ‘Leaders, dreams and journeys: Italy’s new political communication’, Journal of
Modern Italian Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 171–191.
Carrozza, C. (2012) ‘I referendum di Giugno: una vittoria a meta`’, in Politica in Italia. I fatti dell’anno
e le interpretazioni. Edizione 2012, eds A. Bosco & D. McDonnell, Il Mulino, Bologna,
pp. 257 –274.
Ceccarini, L., Diamanti, I. & Lazar, M. (2012) ‘Fine di un ciclo: la destrutturazione del sistema
partitico italiano’, in Politica in Italia. I fatti dell’anno e le interpretazioni. Edizione 2012, eds A.
Bosco & D. McDonnell, Il Mulino, Bologna, pp. 63–82.
Corbetta, P. & Gualmini, E. (eds) (2013) Il partito di Grillo, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Corbetta, P. & Vignati, R. (2013) ‘The primaries of the centre left: only a temporary success?’,
Contemporary Italian Politics, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 82–96.
Cosenza, G. (2012) ‘Renzi, «tu vuo’ fa’ l’americano»’, available online: Giovanna Cosenza’s blog at:
www.ilfattoquotidiano.it, 17 September.
D’Alimonte, R. (2013) ‘Prefazione’, in Il seduttore. Matteo Renzi e la sinistra rose´, eds S. Poli & M.
Vanni, Barbera, Siena, pp. 9–13.
Damilano, M. (2013) Chi ha sbagliato piu` forte. Le vittorie, le cadute, i duelli dall’Ulivo al Pd, Laterza,
Diamanti, I. (2009) Mappe dell’Italia politica: Bianco, rosso, verde, azzurro … e tricolore, Il Mulino,
Diamanti, I. (2013) ‘Introduzione. 2013: il Paese delle minoranze in-comunicanti’, in Un salto nel
voto. Ritratto politico dell’Italia di oggi, eds I. Diamanti, F. Bordignon & L. Ceccarini, Laterza,
Roma-Bari, pp. IX –XXVII.
Diamanti, I. (2014) ‘The 5 star movement: a political laboratory’, Contemporary Italian Politics,
doi: 10.1080/23248823.2014.881016).
Diamanti, I., Bordignon, F. & Ceccarini, L. (eds) (2013) Un salto nel voto. Ritratto politico dell’Italia di
oggi, Laterza, Roma-Bari.
Fabbrini, S. (1999) Il principe democratico. La leadership nelle democrazie contemporanee, Laterza,
Financial Times. (2014) ‘Renzi’s gamble is a dice worth rolling’, 13 January.
Ichino, I. (2009) ‘Il progetto per la transizione a un regime di flexicurity’, Italianieuropei. I Quaderni,
vol. 2009, no. 3.
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Keane, J. (2009) The Life and Death of Democracy, W.W. Norton & Co, New York.
Maltese, C. (2009) ‘Ho vinto perche´ avevo i big contro. La gente e` stufa della nomenklatura’,
La Repubblica, 17 February.
Marletti, C. (2010) La repubblica dei media. L’Italia dal politichese alla politica iperreale, Il Mulino,
Mazzoleni, G. & Sfardini, A. (2009) Politica Pop. Da ‘Porta a Porta’ a ‘L’isola dei famosi”, Il Mulino,
Meny, Y. & Surel, Y. (eds) (2002) Democracies and the Populist Challange, Palgrave Macmillan,
Nye, J. S. (2008) The Powers to Lead, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Pasquino, G. (ed.) (2009) Il Partito democratico. Elezione del segretario, organizzazione e potere,
Bononia University Press, Bologna.
Pasquino, G. & Valbruzzi, M. (2010) ‘A che punto e` il PD? Analisi organizzativa di un amalgama mal
riuscito’, in Il Partito democratico di Bersani. Persone, profilo e prospettive, eds G. Pasquino &
F. Venturino, Bononia University Press, Bologna, pp. 13–34.
Poli, E. (2001) Forza Italia, Il Mulino, Bologna.
Poli, S. & Vanni, M. (2013) Il seduttore. Matteo Renzi e la sinistra rose´, Barbera, Siena.
Ramella, F. (2005) Cuore rosso? Viaggio politico nell’Italia di mezzo, Donzelli, Roma.
Renzi, M. (2004) ‘La guerra dei trentenni nella corsa alla Provincia’, interview by S. Poli, La
Repubblica, 28 May.
Renzi, M. (2010) ‘Il Nuovo Ulivo fa sbadigliare e` ora di rottamare i nostri dirigenti’, interview by
U. Rosso, La Repubblica, 29 August.
Renzi, M. (2011a) ‘Public speech, meeting Big Bang, Leopolda 2011, Firenze’, 30 October.
Renzi, M. (2011b) Fuori! ‘Adesso tocca a noi ridare slancio all’Italia’, BUR, Milano.
Renzi, M. (2012a) ‘Public speech, the meeting Big Bang. Italia obbiettivo comune, Firenze’, 23 June.
Renzi, M. (2012b) ‘Public speech, pre-election rally for the 2012 centre-left primaries, Verona’,
13 September.
Renzi, M. (2012c) ‘Public speech, pre-election rally for the 2012 centre-left primaries, Roma’,
24 September.
Renzi, M. (2012d) ‘Videoforum interview by M. Giannini’, www.repubblica.it, 10 October.
Renzi, M. (2013a) Oltre la rottamazione, Mondadori, Milano.
Renzi, M. (2013b) ‘Public speech, pre-election rally for the 2013 PD primaries, Bari’, 12 October.
Schudson, M. (1998) The Good Citizen. A History of American Civic Life, Free Press, New York.
Valbruzzi, M. (2009) ‘L’elezione diretta del primo segretario del PD’, in Il Partito democratico.
Elezione del segretario, organizzazione e potere, ed. G. Pasquino, Bononia University Press,
Bologna, pp. 59–101.
Vanni, M. (2004) ‘Scivolo verso la pensione per 14 dirigenti della Provincia’, La Repubblica,
13 October.
Veltroni, W. (2007) La nuova stagione. Contro tutti i conservatorismi, Rizzoli, Milano.
Fabio Bordignon teaches Methodology of Political and Social Research at the
University of Urbino Carlo Bo. His main areas of research are electoral behaviour and
the personalisation of politics. He is the author of Il Partito del capo. Da Berlusconi a
Renzi (2013) and L’Europa unita … dall’antipolitica (2009); and with Ilvo Diamanti
and Luigi Ceccarini he edited Un salto nel voto. Ritratto politico dell’Italia di oggi
South European Society and Politics 23
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