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Italy ex-premier Renzi returns to take on 'the other Matteo'

Charles ONIANS
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Former prime minister Matteo Renzi has proposed a M5S-PD alliance to pass the budget, despite past virulent exchanges between the two parties

Matteo Renzi, one-time darling of the Italian centre-left, has made a relatively humble but significant return to politics to take on "the other Matteo", far-right leader Matteo Salvini.

A re-energised Renzi on Tuesday held an empassioned press conference at the Senate, slamming Salvini's bid to topple the government shortly before it failed and thrusting himself back on Italy's political stage.

The two Matteos are politically far removed but have much in common.

Both took over their respective parties in 2013, the Democratic Party (PD) for Renzi and the League for Salvini.

They were almost the same age (38 for Renzi and 40 for Salvini), highly ambitious with the same ability to be omnipresent on social media and the same stated desire to overturn traditional politics.

When the PD was in power in 2014, Renzi made his move, pushing out the party's number two Enrico Letta who also happened to be prime minister.

Renzi was hailed as a reformer and became Italy's youngest premier at the age of 39.

But the only previous political experience of the trained lawyer and former boy scout leader, married with three children, was as mayor of Florence.

- Renzi's brief political honeymoon -

Initially, his energy and dynamism, social media presence, public speaking skills and boyish looks seduced many.

In 2014 European parliamentary elections, the PD won 40 percent of votes, inspiring the entire European left.

But the honeymoon was brief. Trade unions took to the streets to protest his programme.

Often accused of an arrogant or authoritarian leadership style, Renzi never managed to deliver on his ambitious promises to revamp Italy and cast away the political old guard during his time at the helm.

He was increasingly accused of surrounding himself with his chosen few, frequently fellow Tuscans, who did little to boost his reputation.

He did manage to deliver his flagship labour market reforms and modest growth, while overseeing the granting of legal recognition to gay relationships for the first time.

- The other Matteo -

The other Matteo, Salvini, turned the separatist Northern League into a national, nationalist political movement called the League, and trained his guns on Renzi.

Things came to a head in December 2016 when Italians voted down Renzi's ambitious reforming plans to make the country "more efficient and simpler" at a referendum.

Renzi immediately resigned, but remained as head of the PD, albeit in the background.

The party scored less than 19 percent in March 2018 national elections, prompting Renzi to finally step down as party leader.

But first he ensured the PD would not ally itself with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) which had for years been ferocious in opposition.

Instead, the M5S turned to Salvini's League, which doubled its score to 34 percent in European elections a year later, while the M5S floundered.

Renzi, now a mere senator, himself became "the other Matteo", as interior and deputy prime minister Salvini appeared incessantly on television screens and social media.

Nevertheless, today Renzi has 3.4 million Twitter followers, compared to Salvini's 1.1 million.

When Salvini last week pulled the plug on the League-M5S coalition in the hope of bringing down the government and calling snap elections that he hoped would make him prime minister, Renzi swallowed his pride and sought a deal with M5S.

Those overtures risk a clash with new PD leader Nicola Zingaretti, who has been noticeably absent from the political crisis being played out over the last week.

Zingaretti believes an alliance with the M5S would only help Salvini.

Whatever happens next, and despite Zingaretti being the unofficial leader of the opposition, Salvini is not about to change the main target of his attacks.

During Tuesday's rowdy Senate session, Salvini mentioned Renzi's name 13 times during his 10-minute speech.

"Either he's in love or he's obsessed," noted Renzi.