- - Thursday, March 1, 2018

ROME | Barely a year and a half ago, Matteo Renzi was on top of the world.

Riding high at home, boosting Italy’s profile as a major force in the European Union and gearing up for a national referendum on his signature political reform, the young, dynamic center-left prime minister in October 2016 was being feted as the guest of honor at the lavish final White House state dinner of the Obama presidency.

In a Rose Garden Ceremony, President Obama hailed the 43-year-old Italian leader as a “good friend” and describing his governing style as “a vision of progress not rooted in fears but rather in hope.”

Within two months, Mr. Renzi went from being the toast of Washington to resigning as prime minister after Italian voters roundly rejected his electoral reform package. Mr. Renzi, whose highest political office before becoming prime minister was mayor of Florence, has been floundering ever since.

Renzi wasn’t prepared to be prime minister,” said Riccardo Puglisi, a political economist with Italy’s University of Pavia. “He rose too fast. He was a young star, but because of a lack of experience in politics, he just wasn’t up to the task of being prime minister.”

Six months after stepping down as both prime minister and as head of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, Mr. Renzi maneuvered to regain the party’s leadership position. That means he would become prime minister again if the party manages to garner at least 40 percent of the vote in Sunday’s. But pollsters say that is very unlikely, with most predicting the Democratic Party to get a little more than a quarter of the vote.

In the last national election in 2013, by contrast, the leftist alliance led by the Democratic Party won a clear majority of the seats in the Italian national legislature. But like center-left parties in France, Germany, Austria and other Western European countries, Italy’s Democratic Party has struggled to find its footing in the populist age of Brexit and Donald Trump.

Italian voters are defecting as the party is wracked by ideological divisions, especially in the economically struggling southern parts of the country.

The resurrection of Mr. Renzi, a centrist, as party leader was so controversial that some of the more left-leaning factions of the party broke away to form splinter groups. While center-left Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is personally popular, that hasn’t translated into support for the party behind him, especially given Mr. Renzi’s low approval ratings.

Mr. Renzi made a lot of enemies during his 22-month stint as head of government, and so it is probably a long-shot for him to head any coalition cobbled together after Sunday’s vote.

“You could see some kind of umbrella coalition, but it’s unlikely they’d select a polarizing figure like Renzi to head the that group,” said Franco Pavoncello, president of Rome’s John Cabot University and a frequent commentator on political topics.


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