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Matteo Renzi has returned quickly to frontline politics in Italy.
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Party members in Italy re-elected Matteo Renzi as chairman of his Democratic Party (PD) by a resounding majority, raising hopes that the former prime minister will return to power in next year’s elections. But Italian media and analysts are warning that his climb back to the top is all but certain.

© REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Not even Matteo Renzi could have bet that there would be 1.8 million voters taking part in the race to lead the center-left Democratic Party (PD) – and this is a politician often accused of being an arrogant risk-taker.

Lest we forget, the last time Renzi took a gamble it ended in bitter defeat. As prime minister he called a nationwide referendum on December 4 of last year to let voters decide on a series of constitutional changes. Nearly 60 percent slapped down his proposal, and Renzi swiftly resigned, as he had promised to do.

Ahead of the PD poll on April 30, Renzi appeared humbled, indicating he would consider even one million voters taking part a success. So it came as a great surprise when he ended up with more than 70 percent of the vote in the primary, far ahead of Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Michele Emiliano, the governor of the southern Puglia region. Italian media pointed out that Renzi had received as many as 1.8 votes (on a turnout of 2.8 million) in the 2013 primary vote – which is true enough, but the ex-prime minister and former mayor of Florence had been facing a long and slippery road back to the top. The painful referendum defeat in December exposed deep fault lines within his party. In late February the PD’s left wing, led by Massimo D’Alema and Pierluigi Bersani, split off and formed a new party called the Progressive and Democratic Movement (MDP). That has complicated Renzi’s hopes for a comeback.

A glance at France’s presidential race and fellow centrist Emmanuel Macron could provide an important model for Renzi. The two have similar platforms and aims – after all, Renzi’s motto is “In Cammino,” a direct translation of Macron’s popular “En Marche!” After the PD primary Macron directly congratulated Renzi, tweeting: “Bravo à @matteorenzi “in cammino”/en marche lui aussi. Ensemble, changeons l’Europe avec tous les progressistes,” or “Bravo to Matteo Renzi ‘in cammino/en marche’ as well. Together let us change Europe with all the progressives.”

It didn’t take long for Renzi to tweet back: @EmmanuelMacron Merci à toi cher Emmanuel! Nous sommes avec toi. Vive la France, vive l’Europe (que nous allons changer ensemble), or “@EmmanuelMacron Thanks to you dear Emmanuel! We are with you. Long live France, long live Europe (which we will change together).”

Renzi’s public support for Macron comes as he prepares his own ambitious campaign for Italy’s elections next February. It is no secret that Renzi would like to form a strong alliance with future President Macron, one that could stand up to Berlin and Brussels’ demands for rigid austerity policies that are widely unpopular in France and Italy. It was just September of last year that Renzi lashed out at the EU and Germany during a speech in New York, accusing Berlin of benefiting from draconian austerity measures that were destroying Europe. Macron, meanwhile, told an audience in Berlin he had registered French voters’ rage toward Europe and would take it into account.

A Dose of Reality

In in the center-left daily la Repubblica, Italian commentator Stefano Folli warned Renzi would do well to avoid the temptation for revenge, particularly because his latest victory still pales in comparison to the December referendum drubbing. Renzi had been brash and impetuous, grossly miscalculating the public mood, says Folli; he might repeat his mistake if he fails to examine the more troubling aspects of the primary poll.

Forty percent of those who cast their ballots were over 65, for example. And while Renzi did gain traction in the south of the country, he sustained big losses in the central “regioni rosse,” or red belt, region, once a stronghold of the communist PCI party until its split in 1991. Meanwhile, Folli points out that France’s socialist candidate Benoît Hamon also scored well in the primary, but his party suffered an historic collapse in the first round of the presidential election.

Hamon’s fate is part of a larger trend sweeping Europe as the traditional big parties witness their support dwindling. Philosopher and politician Massimo Cacciari argued in the weekly news magazine l’Espresso that these parties have forgotten their roots. At their conception, they helped shape the structures of the nation state – a state that developed a social system and facilitated the redistribution of wealth. Big parties were forced to confront each other and compete, and the ability to negotiate and compromise was a key pillar of policy-making. Now, says Cacciari, that pillar is vanishing.

“Today, party leaders declare themselves the direct representatives of the so-called people without having any organization behind them, and without understanding that these convoluted structures are the symptom of our democratic crisis, not the antidote,” he said.

In the liberal daily Corriere della Sera, journalist and politician Antonio Polito argues that the voters who selected Renzi to be PD chairman in April are not the same electorate that voted for him in 2013. Back then he garnered widespread support because of his popularity; the party also believed Renzi was the man to push back Beppe Grillo and his growing Five Star Movement (M5S). Today they know better: the PD is still trailing the M5S in the polls. Polito believes the Democratic Party is increasingly looking to secure the “capo” (mafia boss) votes, a move that strengthens Renzi but weakens the party on a whole.

One of the PD’s leading voices, politician and economist Michele Salvati, is more optimistic about their chances. He said that the high voter turnout in the primary would breathe life into the political landscape. Italian media are hotly debating who Renzi would choose as coalition partner if the PD were to win a majority next February: Could he mend ties with his erstwhile allies, Massimo D’Alema and Luigi Bersani, and join forces with their MDP party? Might Renzi look to the former Mayor of Milan, Giuliano Pisapia, and his Progressive Camp movement? Or is it even possible that he could turn to his archrival, scandal-plagued ex-prime minister and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, to establish a majority?

Salvati believes all the wrangling over possible outcomes is irrelevant: “In the future, the political struggle will take place between two new camps: those for and against the EU.”