From Macron to Renzi: the Centre fights back

Written by Mike Rann on 15 May 2017

Emmanuel Macron | Photo credit: Press Association


Emmanuel Macron's decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election has calmed fears of a eurozone crisis and boosted the hopes of centrists and of business in Europe that the momentum for populist parties has been stalled, at least for now. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to describe Macron's win as a "victory for a strong, united Europe". With British Prime Minister Theresa May's victory in the UK election in June now seemingly assured, attention will soon turn to Germany, where Merkel's Christian Democrats face a serious challenge from Martin

Schulz's Social Democrats in late September. The focus will then move to Italy where the populist Five Star Movement is currently leading the polls ahead of elections due between October and February 2018.  

Two of Macron's first visitors to the Elysée Palace are likely to be Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. For Macron and Renzi, their high-profile meeting will be designed to seal a winning image of young, dynamic moderate leaders of a rejuvenated Europe rather than one that is falling apart. They will be critical of the Brussels bureaucracy but will fight for both EU reform and its survival. Macron is expected to take a hard-line with the UK on Brexit terms

Echoing Tony Blair, the two self-styled 'radical centrists' will try to forge a way forward to outflank populists to their left and right. This will not be easy and their rhetoric must be matched by policies capable of producing real results, particularly for both countries' flagging economies. 

For the first time in France, neither major party - the Republicans or the Socialists - won enough votes to be listed on the second-round presidential ballot paper, such is the disenchantment with the political establishment. However, Macron and his 'En Marche!' movement do not yet have any members in the 577 seat National Assembly and have no experienced party machinery embedded nationwide. 

This could pose real problems for the new President in June's parliamentary elections. The inevitable, and necessary horse trading that is likely to follow could well take the shine off Macron's and the centrists' momentum and reinforce fears of "politics as usual" to a cynical electorate. 

Meanwhile in Italy, Renzi has just been re-elected leader of Partito Democratico (PD), the centre left party that is the dominant grouping in Italy's coalition government. Renzi resigned as Prime Minister last December following the defeat of his referendum on constitutional reform. 

In February he resigned as PD Party Secretary but immediately announced he would seek re-election and a new mandate as party leader and, if successful, would again be a candidate for the prime ministership.  

Renzi was overwhelmingly re-elected in the PD primaries, a much better result and turnout than many expected. Renzi, however, remains a polarising rather than uniting figure with the broader electorate. The referendum became a vote of confidence on him, a gift for populists on the right and left. He will now face a surging Five Star Movement which has been narrowly leading in opinion polls for some month, terrifying business.  

So what is likely to happen during the next few months? Soon campaigning will again dominate, side-lining much needed reforms. However, in the immediate future, the main topic of contention will be proposed changes to Italy's complex electoral laws which will require prolonged and bitter negotiations with other parties.

President Mattarella is not expected to give a green light to elections before this issue is resolved. 

Despite this Renzi will continue to push for the earliest possible election, which will also be resisted by many of the ministers in the government he previously led. This will weaken and destabilise the government now led by his mentor Paolo Gentiloni.  

Gentiloni will remain as Prime Minister until the election while Renzi barnstorms the country as party leader. Southern Italy will become a campaign and policy focus given that there Five Star is currently attracting 40 per cent of the vote.  

Internationally, there will be complications for the government given that Renzi is keen to regain a high profile in international as well as domestic politics. Renzi and Gentiloni are, however, likely to coordinate their foreign policy positions, except in statements about the EU where Renzi will take a harder line. Domestically every crisis, such as the current financial black hole faced by Alitalia, will be used by Renzi to push for elections.

To compete with the Five Star movement, Renzi will at times attack the government his own party leads to distance himself from unpopular decisions and from coalition partners and the leftists who recently quit PD faced with the prospect of Renzi's return. In doing so he will have to walk a tightrope of looking like a populist opposition leader one day and a Prime Minister the next. For instance, he is likely to challenge the government with alternative proposals on economic measures. 

Ironically Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, now 80 years old and sidelined by serious health and legal problems, could also be heading for a comeback. The European Court of Human Rights last week announced it will examine Berlusconi's case. A decision is expected during the summer. 

A positive ruling would enable Berlusconi to seek re-election for public office, and this could accelerate the centre-right's support for snap elections in October 2017. However, this support also depends on an agreement between Berlusconi and the Northern League on who will lead the combined centre right opposition parties into the election.  

Despite Renzi's comeback, the Five Star Movement remains the favourite to win the most votes of any party. 

Most pundits, however, do not predict that a Five Star government will be sworn in after the next election even if the party wins more votes than PD. Most predict another 'grand coalition' government.  

If the election is close, Forza Italia could well be part of the new mix which means Silvio Berlusconi could play an important role in the formation of the next government even if his own party polls poorly. If that happens it is no means certain that Matteo Renzi's dominance of PD will mean he will resume the Prime Ministership.  
 

 

About the author

Mike Rann is CEO Rann Strategy Group, Australia's former Ambassador to Italy and High Commissioner to the UK.

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