Matteo Renzi: travails

Renzi’s support plummets

The rightwing offensive on immigration and gay partnerships, combined with the corruption of local administrations, has left the PD struggling, writes Toby Abse

This year’s local and regional elections have left Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi in a far weaker position than he was in at the height of his popularity in the immediate aftermath of last year’s European election, in which his centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) scored an unprecedented 40.8% of the vote[1].

The loss of the Ligurian region was followed a fortnight later in the second-round run-off ballots for the municipal elections by the loss of Venice - a traditionally leftwing city in the otherwise rightwing region of the Veneto - and of the Tuscan city of Arezzo, where Maria Elena Boschi, the 34-year-old minister of constitutional reforms, one of Renzi’s closest political associates, was believed to be in a position to impose her choice of mayor without any difficulty.

The premier may still get favourable coverage in the American press as the “demolition man”,[2] but his position at home has been undermined by a number of factors - particularly the escalating immigration crisis and major corruption scandals that have discredited the PD in Rome and elsewhere. Whilst it is more likely than not that Renzi’s PD-led coalition will manage to survive until the general election scheduled for early 2018, any idea that the he could push through any changes that he wanted without any compromise and at a frenetic pace seems to have gone.

It is more probable that, like many an Italian premier before him, he will be at the mercy of quarrelsome factions within his heterogeneous parliamentary majority and sometimes become reliant on votes from sections of a fragmented opposition.[3] Even his plan to move away from controversial economic questions, where his neoliberalism annoyed the vestigial left wing of the PD, to the apparently safer ground of introducing legislation on civil partnerships for gays and lesbians is now coming under fire from his coalition partners in the Nuovo Centro Destra (NCD - New Centre Right).

Some prominent members of the NCD took part in an enormous demonstration on Saturday June 20 in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni[4]  - traditionally the site of mass mobilisations by the Partito Comunista Italiano and the trade unions - against civil partnerships and, rather less predictably, gender theory, which seems to be seen as a major threat to the heterosexual identity of the younger generation.

The Irish referendum has made Italy the Vatican’s last redoubt in western Europe against any notion of gay civil partnerships, let alone gay marriage, so that the more bigoted elements of the Catholic laity and parish clergy organised a ‘Family Day’[5] on an unprecedented scale, even if the figure of one million attendees broadcast by the instigators was probably an exaggeration. The pope and the bulk of the Italian bishops diplomatically kept some degree of distance, but it is hard to imagine that something on this scale could be attempted without implicit endorsement from the church hierarchy. Nor was this a purely Catholic event - the more hard-line representatives of all the Abrahamic faiths were as one in their homophobia. Whilst Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi, could not attend on the Jewish sabbath, he sent a letter of support and the Sunni imam of Centocelle, Ben Mohammed, thundered against “the mad project that wants to destroy humanity and pollute the brains of our children”, adding: “It is an evil path for humanity. With our force we can defeat it.”[6]

Although the alleged connection between civil partnerships and adoption by gay couples - something which Renzi has never proposed and is extremely unlikely to ever contemplate[7] - echoed the tactics of Catholic propagandists in the Irish referendum earlier this year, the emphasis on gender theory was odd, to say the least. Most participants had probably never heard of the term before it became central to chants in the square (“Siamo contro la teoria del gender!”[8]) - occasional attempts by teachers in a few Italian schools to counteract homophobic bullying against children cannot be equated with the advocacy of the more extreme forms of queer theory fashionable on some American campuses or in Goldsmiths Students Union.


However, whilst this unusual mass display of homophobic bigotry demonstrated that militant Catholic reaction on the French model is becoming more prominent in Italy,[9] despite its declining church attendance, the growth of anti-immigrant racism is a more constant feature of Italian political and social life, even if in this instance we cannot possibly blame the Catholic church, since Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the Italians to adopt a more welcoming attitude to migrants.

As I have suggested in previous articles dealing with Beppe Grillo and the Lega Nord, immigration has become a major issue in Italian politics, playing a key role in the resurgence of the Lega Nord under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, who has sought and obtained an alliance with the Front National at the European level - just as Grillo’s rightwing populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) has joined Nigel Farage’s group in the European parliament. Given the astonishing willingness of New Left Review to equate M5S with Podemos as a new leftwing party, it seem worthwhile to highlight Grillo’s appalling racist tweet of June 17 - “Elections for Rome as soon as possible! Before the city becomes submerged by rats, rubbish and illegal immigrants.”

Whilst an opinion poll carried out on June 23-24[10] still put the economic crisis top of the list of threats facing Italy, with 40% of respondents giving it pride of place, 25% now saw immigration as the most serious issue facing the country. This is a marked shift from December 2014, when 67% had highlighted the economic crisis and only 13% opted to place their emphasis on immigration. Needless to say, this growing public anxiety about immigration is reflected in a rapid increase in racist sentiments. Only 16% believe that Italy must welcome the refugees who are fleeing from conflicts, whilst 17% go so far as to support military measures against illegal immigrants and 22% prefer deportation. Only 2% believe that immigration is a resource for Italy[11] and even the rather more neutral view that immigration is an inevitable phenomenon that has to be managed obtained a mere 28%. A clear majority has a very hostile attitude to migrants - 38% see immigration as linked to terrorism and a further 29% see it as posing other grave threats to the country.

Whilst Islamic State has made threats against Italy - and its foothold in Libya from which most of the current wave of migrants are arriving gives such threats plausibility - it should be obvious that the vast majority of migrants are either fleeing violent conflicts or seeking to escape from desperate poverty and have no interest in waging a jihad.[12] Renzi’s response to Italian anti-immigrant sentiment - essentially to try to push the rest of the EU to play a larger role in accepting asylum-seekers to alleviate Italy’s burden - has not placated the xenophobes.[13] Reportedly Renzi did not mince his words when addressing the leaders of the eastern European countries who destroyed the European Commission plan for compulsory quotas in relation to a relatively small number - 40,000 over two years - of migrants who had arrived in Italy or Greece. Allegedly he said:

If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it. Either there is solidarity or we are wasting our time … If you want a voluntary agreement, you can cancel the whole thing; we’ll do it by ourselves. If you don’t agree with 40,000 refugees, you don’t deserve to be called Europe.[14]

Only 2% of the sample saw Renzi as defending Italian interests on immigration in the best possible way. 25% were prepared to acknowledge that at least Italy had the merit of raising the question at the European level, but once again the majority had a negative view of Renzi’s initiatives - 34% believed that the government was not looking after the national interest. It seems unlikely that the voluntary quotas agreed at the recent EU summit will make any difference to the popular assessment of the situation.

Rather paradoxically, the desire to stop immigration into Italy is so overwhelming that it seems to breed resentment towards other countries that have taken harsh measures against immigration. Hungary’s construction of a border wall - as usual the euphemistic term ‘fence’ is employed - on its Serbian frontier is regarded as a mistaken policy by 57% of the sample, even if 17% have what might be seen as an ideologically consistent racist position, believing that the wall is a “correct choice” because “it is absolutely necessary to stop the arrival of migrants”.


The fact that the wave of corruption scandals about public works contracts that has surfaced in the last few months has concerned the building of immigrant reception centres, whether in Rome or Sicily, has done nothing to lessen popular hostility to migrants. However, those scandals would in any event have boosted the fortunes of rightwing, populist, anti-system parties like the Lega Nord and M5S, both of which are given to anti-migrant rhetoric.

The Venetian scandal centred round the Mose scheme - an expensive and much criticised plan, which its proponents claimed would deal with the flooding of the city by rising water levels in the surrounding lagoon. Regardless of the plan’s technical merits or lack of them, large sums were misappropriated by leading PD politicians as well as entrepreneurs, and the discovery of these fraudulent transactions precipitated an early municipal election in Venice. Whilst Renzi did his best to blame the PD’s defeat in the June municipal election on the Venetian PD’s choice of mayoral candidate - Felice Casson, a former magistrate on the party’s left wing, who had opposed, or abstained on, a number of Renzi’s more controversial measures in parliamentary votes - in reality this squeaky-clean outsider could not escape the popular reaction against his predecessors, who probably did nothing to help him anyway.

The most spectacular scandal is not the Venetian, but the Roman one, which involves not just mundane corruption and clientelism - all too familiar in Italian local government over the decades - but a network whose employment of systematic blackmail and intimidation reminiscent of organised crime in Sicily, Naples and Calabria has led to it being branded ‘Mafia Capitale’. Mafia Capitale appears to be an autonomous Roman creation, not a mere local branch of Cosa Nostra or the Ndrangheta, of the type that has periodically surfaced in Milan and other northern cities.

The leading figure in this criminal association is Massimo Carminati, whose extremely violent criminal career[15] goes back to the 1970s. At that time he was involved in both the particularly murderous neo-fascist terrorist group, the Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR) - other members of which, including Carminati’s close associate, Valerio Fioravanti, planted the bomb at the Bologna railway station in August 1980, killing 85 people - and the Banda della Magliana, the dominant force in the Roman criminal underworld throughout the 1970s.

Carminati’s entourage first began to dominate the awarding of outsourced public works contracts in Rome during the mayoralty of Gianni Alemanno (April 2008-June 2013). Alemanno was not only on the very extreme fringes of the mainstream fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in his youth, upholding ‘third position’ views that brought him into contact with various NAR members,[16] but decades later remained close enough to the neo-fascist skinhead hard core to be greeted by a crowd of fans chanting “Duce! Duce!” and publicly giving the fascist salute in the very centre of Rome on his election in 2008. This was an episode which went viral and was seen all over the world, but appeared to do him no harm in Rome.

Alemanno’s tenure in Rome was marked by a series of minor scandals about former NAR terrorists without relevant qualifications being placed in secure and well-paid local government employment, but no journalist or magistrate appeared to notice Carminati’s rather more influential role in local political life. However, his web of influence extended far beyond councillors with a background in the former MSI. Carminati was shrewd enough to see the merits of buying off the opposition on the council, both to stop them asking any awkward questions about the awarding of contracts and to try and ensure that his system would survive any alternation in office between his far-right contacts and the PD and its allies.

A large section of the Roman PD hierarchy was drawn into Mafia Capitale’s sphere of influence via cooperatives controlled by Salvatore Buzzi, an allegedly rehabilitated ex-offender who had graduated in jail[17] and whose Cooperativa 29 Giugno gave employment to other ex-cons, whom he was supposedly reintegrating into mainstream society. Given the level of Mafia-style threats and intimidation used by the Carminati-Buzzi gang, which seems to have had a side line in smuggling hard drugs via the Roman port of Ostia, most of the evidence against it comes from telephone taps carried out by investigating magistrates. The victims were too frightened to refuse their requests (and suspected there was no point in complaining since it was likely that the gang had bought off local police and carabinieri). There were no super-grasses within its own ranks, where a code of silence - omerta - borrowed from the Sicilian Mafia was practised, although the prolonged detention on remand of Carminati, Buzzi and other prominent members of the organisation may well lead some of them to talk in the hope of reducing their sentences by plea bargaining. Needless to say, most of the PD officials and councillors under investigation deny all wrongdoing, with some patently absurd explanations of seemingly incriminating wiretapped conversations being offered to the press.

Blame Marino

This scandal, which has given rise to successive waves of mass arrests with extensive press coverage over the last few months, clearly had a negative impact on the PD vote elsewhere in Italy, so it is in no way surprising that Renzi should seek to lance the Roman boil. However, the form taken by Renzi’s reaction to the episode does him little credit. He seems anxious to load the blame for all Rome’s undeniable municipal problems on to the current PD mayor, Ignazio Marino.

Marino, a former surgeon rather than a career politician, won the Roman PD’s mayoral primary to the considerable annoyance of the self-evidently corrupt PD machine in the city. Widespread allegations of vastly inflated membership figures and other undemocratic practices in Rome’s PD circles preceded the arrests in relation to Mafia Capitale, and the national leadership of the PD has in effect suspended the local officials in favour of a nationally appointed commissioner, whilst an attempt is made to start again with a clean slate.

In view of Marino’s outsider status, it is perfectly plausible that he knew little or nothing of what was going on in the murkier recesses of the municipal administration - his corrupt opponents within the Roman PD would have had every reason to conceal their antics from a disapproving reformer. Renzi and his associates have in effect endorsed longstanding local claims that Marino had shown little competence as mayor, even if they have never dared to cast any doubt on his honesty or integrity.

Given the extent to which municipal funds were for years being diverted from the purposes for which they had been officially assigned and given the irrelevance of considerations of efficiency in the tendering process (in so far as there was any competitive tendering at all under the Carminati-Buzzi regime), it is not surprising that many Roman services were not delivered and that the municipality was incapable of balancing its books. That has now led to increasingly desperate requests by the council for central government funding to cope with the forthcoming Papal Jubilee and Rome’s latest Olympic bid.

Whilst it could be argued that an elected executive mayor has to take responsibility for all the failings of his administration, it does look as if Marino is being made a scapegoat for the crimes and errors of others. The episode for which the beleaguered mayor has been forced to make a humiliating apology is in fact his finest hour - a speech he made at the Festa dell’Unità on June 21. Marino said:

If I wrote a book in 2023 about what I have seen, I would have to start with a phrase from Blade runner. I have seen things that you humans have never seen. Because those are the ruins left to us by the right, which now raises itself to be the moral bulwark of this society. But have they no shame? Why don’t they return to the sewers from which they came? And these heirs of Nazi fascism should stop giving us lessons on rigour and democracy.

This was understood by all to be a reference to the 1970s leftwing slogan, ‘Fascisti carogne, tornare nelle fogne!’ (‘Fascist rats, get back to the sewers!’).[18] Of course, the PD leadership are happy to go along with the pretence that people like Alemanno have ceased to be fascists, regardless of the fact that the former mayor has now returned to the ranks of overt neo-fascists in the form of the Fratelli d’Italia rather than sticking with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Moreover increasing pressure is being exerted on Marino to engage in bipartisan dealings with the rightwing opposition on the council in order to promote the Jubilee and the Olympic bid, the latter of which will clearly have no benefits for the mass of Roman citizens, as the experience of Athens and London has amply demonstrated. Whilst Marino is not particularly leftwing, his distaste for fascists and criminals is clearly seen as a liability and he looks likely to be dumped by the national party in the near future.

Of course, this short-sighted desire by Renzi to shoot the messenger will only increase the chances of M5S taking over the capital, whenever the next municipal elections are called.[19]


[1]. According to some Ipsos PA opinion polls cited in the Corriere della Sera (June 29), Renzi had a 61% confidence rating when he became prime minister. This reached 70% in the immediate aftermath of the European election, slipped to 47% in January 2015 and is now down to 36% - exactly the same level as the Lega Nord’s Matteo Salvini, who was on 27% when he became leader of the Lega and 34% at the start of this year. Beppe Grillo has risen to 30% from 23% in January 2015.

[2]. The New Yorker June 29 2015.

[3]. In the Senate he currently has a majority of only nine, even if the coalition’s position in the Chamber of Deputies is more secure.

[4]. It is worth noting the contrast with the actions elsewhere in western Europe on the same day - not only the People’s Assembly march against austerity in London, but demonstrations in solidarity with Greece’s fight against austerity in Paris and Berlin.

[5]. This English phrase was used on this occasion, as it had been for similar demonstrations in the past, some of which were attended by Berlusconi. That was before his involvement in a succession of scandals involving prostitutes and underage girls made his presence too embarrassing even for the hardened cynics of the Curia. Previously they had turned a blind eye to his status as a divorced man, who had remarried and had another family by his second wife, which made it impossible for him to take communion.

[6]. This ecumenical homophobia is not unique to Italy. Recently in the 26 counties the Catholic hard-liners made common cause with conservative Protestants amongst the migrant communities against gay marriage and, whilst Sinn Féin’s latter-day liberalism has spoilt things for the church in the Six Counties, traditionally a very similar united front between Ian Paisley and the Catholic hierarchy could be mounted on this type of issue - even if republicans objected to the first word in the famous slogan, ‘Ulster says no to sodomy’.

[7]. Unless in relation to a child who is the biological offspring of one of the partners - the German legislation on which Renzi’s proposal is based has this provision.

[8]. The English word ‘gender’, not its Italian equivalent, genere, was used.

[9]. However, there does not seem to be the same direct links with the far right to be found in similar French movements against equal marriage - Manif Pour Tous in particular - in which the Front National, under first Jean-Marie and then Marin Le Pen, has played a leading role, even if the old man has implied that his daughter is not homophobic enough. Although the relatively moderate NCD was not the only right-of-centre party present, it was the most conspicuous.

[10]. Ipsos PA opinion poll for RAI News, cited in Corriere della Sera June 16 2015.

[11]. Presumably arguments about the aging population and low birth rate amongst Italian citizens make little impact, given the high level of unemployment, particularly amongst the young.

[12]. A disproportionate amount of publicity was given to an incident in which a group of Muslims threw their Christian fellow passengers into the sea; this may have owed as much to quarrels over very limited supplies of food and water as to genuine religious fanaticism. Less emphasis has been given to the large number of Eritreans fleeing from a brutal secular-nationalist dictatorship in a former Italian colony, a group amongst which jihadi factions do not appear to have made converts - perhaps unsurprisingly, since many young male Eritreans are seeking to escape compulsory lifelong military service reminiscent of tsarist Russia.

[13]. It has to be conceded that many reception centres in Lampedusa, Sicily and the south have genuinely become overcrowded. However, the unwillingness of the generally more prosperous northern Italian regions to accept more migrants does not help Renzi’s attempt to get northern and eastern European countries to accept a larger quota of the new arrivals. Giovanni Toti, the newly elected Forza Italia president of Liguria, has joined his Lega Nord counterparts in Lombardy and the Veneto in threatening to cut the financial resources of municipalities in their regions that take more migrants - the fact that such threats may be both illegal and impractical does not diminish their contribution to inciting racial hatred.

[14]. Quotations taken from the Evening Standard June 26 2015 - roughly similar remarks appeared in other British newspapers. Arguably only a former Christian Democrat PD leader would have had the courage to address the virulent racism of the eastern Europeans towards darker-skinned refugees from Africa or Asia; an Italian former communist would have been too wracked by a misplaced sense of guilt about Stalinism to dare to confront their shameless xenophobia. Moreover, one assumes that Renzi as a regular churchgoer is very conscious of pope Francis’s position on the question, as well as of the widespread Polish hostility to what is perceived as the excessive liberalism of the Argentinian.

[15]. Carminati has been acquitted in two murder cases. One concerned the murder of two leftwingers - Fausto Tinelli and Loraenzo Ianucci - in Milan in March 1978. The more notorious case was the murder of the journalist, Mino Pecorelli. Carminati was acquitted of this, along with his co-defendant, former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, at their first trial. They were then found guilty at an appeal court trial, after the prosecution appealed against their acquittal. Finally, they appealed to the Cassazione (supreme court), where they were acquitted in 2003. Carminati lost an eye in a gunfight with border guards in 1981, while attempting to illicitly cross into Switzerland. Although he has been tried and acquitted for a variety of offences apart from the murders mentioned above, he has only ever been convicted for his complicity in a raid on the Bank of Rome strong room deposit boxes, for which he served four years in gaol. It is widely believed that the deposit boxes contained documents which he was able to use to blackmail various important people.

[16]. Alemanno was arrested, charged and acquitted in relation to three violent incidents in the 1980s, ranging from a fascist street gang attack on a leftist in 1981, via throwing molotovs at the Soviet embassy, to a violent altercation with the police at a protest against president Bush’s visit to Rome in 1989.

[17]. Buzzi, unlike Carminati, had been found guilty of a murder. In June 1980 he had killed Giovanni Gargano, who had been his accomplice in stealing cheques from a bank where Buzzi worked, but had started to blackmail him. It was a particularly frenzied killing, in which Buzzi stabbed his victim 34 times. Buzzi was initially sentenced to 20 years, but in 1994 he was pardoned by president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, as a seemingly ideal example of somebody who had abandoned his criminal past.

[18]. This healthy chant of militant anti-fascists has long since been demonised by the mainstream Italian media, which equates it with terrorism - itself now always equated in official discourse with the Brigate Rosse rather than the kind of groups with which Carminati was associated.

[19]. Even if the international scandal of the possible dissolution of the Roman municipality on the grounds of Mafia infiltration - a legal measure that has been implemented in many southern cities and towns with this degree of Mafia involvement - is avoided, it looks increasingly likely there will be early elections in Rome next year.