He is, according to one fellow former Italian premier, the most unpopular man in Italy.
His small political party is polling at 3 per cent and faces being wiped out at a future election. Yet Matteo Renzi, 46, prime minister of Italy from 2014 to 2016, is in a triumphant mood.
Mario Draghi, the ex-president of the European Central Bank celebrated as the saviour of the euro, is on the cusp of forming a national unity government. And none of this would have happened, Renzi insisted in an interview with the Financial Times, without him.
Last month he brought down the coalition government of Giuseppe Conte by withdrawing the support of his small Italia Viva party. Faced with political chaos in the middle of a pandemic, Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella invited Draghi to try to form a new governing majority. He could be sworn in as early as this week.
“The only way in the middle of a pandemic was to call in the best player, because Mario is the best player,” Renzi told the FT. “Italy is back, just like Joe Biden said about the US. If you look at financial markets, international leaders, the confidence of our citizens, it is a miracle.”
Renzi, who in 2014 became Italy’s youngest ever prime minister (“The second youngest is Mussolini,” he noted, “not a good benchmark”) before resigning in 2016, has not won many fans in Italy for his high-wire political plotting.
Even those inside his own party had their doubts. “In my inner circle a lot of people were telling me, ‘but are you crazy?’,” he said. “Every talk show in Italy was saying, look at this crazy guy opening up a crisis for personal reasons.”
Many accused him of trying to threaten to bring down Conte to increase his own influence on the coalition, something he denies.
“A lot of people said to me, you are doing this just to get more ministers, just for yourself. But one month ago I had the golden share in the government. With Draghi I don’t. I lost power with this operation.”
Renzi maintains that the plan all along was to create an opening to bring in Draghi. “The possibility to be led by Mr Draghi was an unbelievable hope,” he said. “So I decided to risk everything, because the goal would justify that risk.”
Helping Italy bring in Draghi has not, however, resulted in Renzi becoming any more popular.
“With 2 per cent, 3 per cent [in the opinion polls] it is not easy to be understood,” he said. “I have received a lot of messages saying: ‘one month ago I wrote on Facebook you were a son of a bitch, but now I recognise you had courage’,” he said. “But it’s a minority. For a lot of people I continue to be a son of a bitch.”
Even at the height of the recent political crisis he found new ways to make himself unpopular in Italy. Last month, after he had accused Conte, then still prime minister, of treating democracy “like a reality TV show”, Renzi took time out to interview the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a conference panel, prompting widespread criticism in Italy.
He defended his work with Saudi Arabia. “In Italy this is not very normal,” he said. “It is normal for Tony Blair, or David Cameron, all the guys, Nicolas Sarkozy or former US presidents. In Italy, I am one of the first to do it.”
Unlike the figures he mentions, however, who retired from politics before they began working with foreign governments, Renzi is a sitting Italian senator and party leader.
The appearance of Draghi on the scene has already transformed Italian politics. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the rightwing League party, who only five years ago toured the country with a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “no more euro”, has now pledged to back both Draghi and the EU.
“Welcome to Italian politics,” Renzi said. “We are in Rome, the eternal city. There are two possibilities. The first is [that] it is the first miracle of Saint Mario of Rome, the second is more political. I believe Salvini has understood finally that there is no more road for populists in Europe.”
Renzi ruled out serving as a minister in the Draghi government, however. “It is like cycling,” he said. “I did a good job, and now I have to remove myself, step aside, and now it is time for the captain of the team, Mario Draghi, to go. I am so happy and so proud, but I know also it is time to leave the role to others.”
When Renzi first began threatening to bring down Conte, another former prime minister, Massimo D’Alema, said it was akin to trying to replace “the most popular man in the country to do a favour to the most unpopular one”.
But Renzi insisted he does not care about his “personal popularity” or future, adding: “This is a problem, I know, because in politics popularity is important. Paradoxically, being unpopular allowed me to try this.”
“Of course I prefer to be loved than hated. But if I want only to be loved, then my job would be as an influencer, not a leader.”