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The “strange loves” of Matteo Renzi

by Manuela Perrone

There is an unusual new entry in the majority supporting Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government: his name is Denis Verdini and he is an eminent defector from Forza Italia, the center-right party of the former prime minister and Renzi opponent Silvio Berlusconi. Prime Minister Renzi jokingly referred to it as one of the “strange loves,” quoting a famous Italian pop song by Laura Pausini.

The facts: on February 25, nineteen members of the group founded last year within the Senate by Verdini (called ALA, for Liberal Popular Alliance – Autonomies), which formally is the opposition, supported the government for the first time in a confidence vote on the civil unions bill for homosexual couples.

These votes weren’t decisive for the approval of a strongly debated law, but nonetheless they were highly significant from a political point of view.

One week later, the senators gathered around Verdini went once again to the aid of the majority when it was time to approve the vehicular homicide law.

“These are the numbers inside the Senate,” Renzi said.

The absolute majority in that chamber is gained with 161 votes, but when everything's fine the Democratic Party and its allies can gather 170 votes. We are talking about precarious balances, and this situation makes Verdini's group very useful.

“After considering these numbers, we have made a deal with Verdini's group. The meetings are a bit strange. Some loves are strange, as someone would say at Sanremo Music Festival,” said the Italian prime minister.

And this is love for sure, but not so strange though.

Renzi and Verdini are both from Tuscany. Verdini, born in 1951, can boast a personal history in business and politics: he graduated in Political Science at the University of Florence; then he started working as a meat trader and later he became accountant, publisher, bank director, and real estate agent.

He was investigated for being allegedly involved in the P3 and P4 lodges and for bankruptcy. He was indicted to stand trial in three different occasions: for fraud and bankruptcy, for illegal funding and fraud, and for involvement in corruption.

But Verdini has always had politics at the bottom of his heart: he began his political career in the Republican Party, and then he became a member of Forza Italia immediately after the foundation of this party in the mid-'90s.

And back then there was already a bond with Renzi's family: in fact, the future prime minister's father's company was in charge of the distribution of the “Giornale della Toscana,” the newspaper published by Verdini.

In the same period a young Matteo Renzi took his first steps inside the Italian People's Party that later became part of Romano Prodi's The Daisy party (the Catholic core of Italian center-left).

Verdini, from the center-right, kept an eye on him. He admired Renzi. And in 2005 he introduced him to Silvio Berlusconi, giving his word that “he's a good one.”

In February 2014, after the experience as president of the province of Florence and mayor of the city, and after winning the primary elections of the Democratic Party, Renzi became Italy's prime minister.

Verdini is still a member of Forza Italia, the opposition. But he's the one who thought up the so called “Patto del Nazareno,” a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” between Renzi and Berlusconi to approve some institutional reforms, from the electoral law (Italicum) to the reform of the Senate that will put an end to equal bicameralism.

This agreement lasted until Renzi's nomination of Sergio Mattarella as President of the Italian Republic without Berlusconi's consent.

With this move, Renzi lost Berlusconi's support to back his reforms. But Verdini decided to take his side and last summer he said goodbye to Forza Italia and founded his own group.

And Verdini's approach to Renzi was finally crowned last week with the entrance/non-entrance of his group in the majority.

“We won't step back until the end of this legislature,” said Verdini on TV.

And he did it without bragging about the fundamental role of his group to the majority, but just presenting himself as a trustworthy supporter, a problem solver. And defining as “inevitable” a shift towards a “an agreement between all center parties.” 

The hint about the idea of forming a coalition of all centrist parties in the government majority (including ALA) is crystal-clear. It should act as a counterweight to the left of the Democratic Party that is often opposed to Renzi and not by chance looks at Verdini with suspicion.

Politicians are already looking ahead to the next legislature in 2018, when according to Renzi and his allies the next elections will take place, with the new electoral law which introduced the 3% minimum threshold, the second ballot and the majority bonus system.

The current fragmentation of the center-right is good for the Democratic Party. The center parties however working together could get more than 3% of the vote, guaranteeing a place in parliament. And at that point they would support the Democrats in parliament on a bill by bill basis, coming to Renzi’s aid when he needs it.

It's more a national majority than a national party, of variable geometry. A majority which is able to gather the votes of that increasingly mobile Italian electorate gravitating towards the center. And Renzi said it clearly: “Who's picky about where votes come from is going to lose the elections.” Strange loves, on the contrary, could win them.


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