Saggio da San Frediano #2: Renzi a Firenze


Amid the food booths serving everything from Gyros to Brazilian Churrascaria with plenty of pizza intermixed, the Teatro Falcone was the staging area for a public “chiacchierata”, or chat by Matteo Renzi, the ex Prime minster of Italy, now National Secretary of the Partito Democratico (PD), the largest Party in Italy with 283 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The PD coalesces with other mostly center left parties to garner 394 seats for a secure majority in a Camera of 630 total.

Christina and I were at the Festa de L’Unita to hear Renzi. In many ways the gathering was extraordinary by US standards. The ex Prime Minister (PM) appeared without the presence of armed guards and without any sophisticated pre-screening for a crowd that numbered over five hundred. He spoke alone from the stage without notes or teleprompter to a home crowd of Fiorentini. He engaged the crowd spontaneously with “battute” impromtu and banter with the audience. At one point he compared the improbability of his becoming the youngest Prime Minister at age 39 in 2014 to the seeming impossibility of the home team Fiorentina winning the “Scudetto”, the Italian championship of Serie A soccer/Futbol. His ease with the microphone and back-in-forth reminded me of the skilled and crafty Bill Clinton at his best.

Who is Renzi? Renzi is a local boy made good. Raised in Rignano sull’Arno, a small town in the outskirts of Florence, he was brought up in a strong Catholic political tradition and was a Catholic Boy Scout. A brilliant student, he was also a contestant at 19 on a high profile game show and won 48 million lire (about US$30,000). He also was an accomplished futbol referee in Serie “B” of the Italian Calcio league. At a young age he was elected Governor of the Province of Florence. Than he became Mayor of Florence and by most accounts did some very good things. One among them is the provision of fresh mineral water in many public piazzas. Here in Piazza Tasso we can refill our bottles every day with both “regolare” and “frizzante or gasata”. Renzi became a high visibility leader of the newly constituted PD and wrested control of the party apparatus from Enrico Letta and became PM. In December of 2016 after his first 1000 days he bet his career on the passage of a controversial referendum (Stansbury Forum) that would have reformed the structure of Italian government. In effect he told the voters if this referendum loses, I resign. The referendum lost and as promised he resigned the job of PM. However, now he is campaigning full bore in advance of the regional elections in Sicily that will be a bell-weather for the national elections in 2018.

Matteo Renzi, ex PM, and now national Secretary of the PD. Photo: Peter Olney

His commanding performance was in Le Cascine, which is the major recreational park of Florence. This is a public space that borders the Arno and would make Frederick Law Olmstead proud. The Festa de l”Unita is a remnant of the annual festivals in celebration of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) whose newspaper was entitled L’Unita. The PD has appropriated much of the old membership (especially demographically) of the PCI and also its annual festival. But no longer are there speeches in support of workers struggles and third world liberation; only cultural presentations and dry discourses from local, regional and national PD figures. Renzi was certainly not a dry presenter. The crowd was partisan to him and warmed to his remarks. The demographics of the crowd however were indicative of the challenge of the PD. Christina and I were about the median age of the crowd. I looked around and figured that 45 years ago when I last lived in Firenze, these would have been the “compagni’ presenti” at a demonstration against the war in Vietnam in the main Piazza della Signoria. The crowd was also exclusively white; no immigrants from Africa or America Latina. My wife experienced the lash of an Italian journalist’s racism and sexism when he tried to dislodge her from a press perimeter that was full of Italian men, none of whom were with the media.

The message from Renzi, while spirited, was a defense of his premiership and the premiership of his successor Paolo Gentiloni, also of the PD. There were facts and figures on growth and jobs, all positive, to combat the slanders of the know nothings of the right. While “fake news” or “alternative facts” are problems in Italy, the problems with economic growth, the environment, youth unemployment are also pressing and daunting. The speech was a defense of the status quo somewhat similar to Hillary’s defense of Barack’s record and that of her husband, Bill. The polls are showing that while Gentiloni is the most popular political figure in Italia, the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement led by political outsider and comedian Beppe Grillo) probably will win a plurality of seats in the Camera unless things change radically between now and 2018. The fact-based critique of anti-establishment populism was one major theme of Renzi’s speech.

The other theme was a call for left unity. In February of 2017 a group of PD deputies left the party to form the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP). MDP has 43 deputies in the Camera and still coalitions with the PD and other smaller parties to form a government, but the MDP is refusing to coalesce with a united list in Sicilian regional elections threatening the center left and potentially throwing the election to the right. Many view the MDP’s abstentionism as a shot at Renzi. If the PD loses in Sicily then Renzi’s brand is damaged, and he will not be in position in 2018 to make another run at the Prime Minister position.

This is a delicate dance that recalls the Sanders ballet within and without the Democratic Party. Certainly the 2018 Congressional midterms pose a similar challenge. To recapture the house for the Democratic Party 24 seats need to be flipped from Republican to Democrat. Many candidates may run on platforms that stand for social justice and anti-corporate values, but not all Democrats will be 100% up to snuff on the progressive measuring stick. Is control of the House worth holding one’s nose and voting for an imperfect Democrat? I say yes. Many Italians of the left face similar choices and challenges.


Next in Saggio #3: A poet in Emilia Romagna writes in his native dialect, Romagnolo.

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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