ROME — When Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister currently polling at about 3 percent, triggered the collapse of the Italian government last month, he became the target of near universal opprobrium and bewilderment for plunging the country into political chaos in the middle of a pandemic.
Now he is taking a victory lap.
Mr. Renzi’s gambit not only caused the fall of a prime minister and government he had excoriated as dangerously incompetent. It also resulted in a stunning upgrade that has led Mario Draghi, a titan of Europe largely credited with saving the euro, to assemble a broad national unity government, which is expected to take shape this week.
In Europe, Mr. Draghi’s renown has immediately increased Italy’s stature and credibility in absorbing and spending a huge relief package that could determine the future of both Italy and the European Union. At home, the gravity of Mr. Draghi’s arrival has reordered the Italian political landscape and undercut Mr. Renzi’s populist enemies.
“This was my strategy. I did it all alone, with 3 percent!” said Mr. Renzi, a onetime mayor of Florence who is not bashful about his ability to work the levers of power and outmaneuver the competition. “It’s all a game of parliamentary tactics. And let’s say that working for five years in the palace where Machiavelli worked helped a little.”
Admirers of Mr. Renzi have marveled at his magic trick, in which he somehow created the conditions for Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, to pull Mr. Draghi’s name out of a hat. They have looked to Mr. Draghi — who as European Central Bank president famously said he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro — as a savior after three years of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
“The choice belongs to President Sergio Mattarella, the credit belongs to Matteo Renzi and his whatever it takes,” wrote Christian Rocca, the editor of Linkiesta, a pro-European and anti-populist publication.
Mr. Renzi’s fans talk about how he did the dirty work, tacitly desired by various political forces, to remove Mr. Conte. By doing so, they say, he at least temporarily brought down the curtain on a period of populist politics, ushered in by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the nationalist League party of Matteo Salvini.
But the most effusive praise of Mr. Renzi may come from Mr. Renzi.
“It’s a masterpiece of Italian politics,” he said of the events that brought Mr. Draghi to Rome.
Mr. Renzi’s narcissism and naked ambition have made him insufferable to many Italians.
“Renzi remains the problem,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Bologna. Mr. Renzi’s insatiable need for attention was “the one constant” in Italian politics, he said.
Love him or hate him — and many now fall into the latter category — what is hard to dispute is that Mr. Renzi is Italy’s premier political operator, one who doesn’t pass up on a political opportunity, raging virus or no raging virus.
“Why now? Why now? Why now?” Mr. Renzi said even his friends asked him as he pulled the plug just as Italy began its vaccine rollout. But he said the pandemic put in terrifying focus the risk of staying on the same course, especially as the country had to decide what to do with more than 200 billion euros in European relief funds. “If we didn’t do it during the pandemic, we would have never done it.”
Mr. Renzi has had practice in this sort of thing.
In 2014, he infamously tweeted that the prime minister, from his own party, should “be serene,” and then took his job. The “demolition man” of Italian politics, as he was called, seemed unstoppable.
But in 2016, Mr. Renzi bet his office and ambitious reform agenda on a referendum to change the Italian Constitution, and all of his enemies aligned against him. He lost, resigned and promised to quit politics. Instead he stayed on as leader of the center-left Democratic Party.
That foothold mattered. In 2018, Five Star had the strongest showing in national elections, but lacked enough support to form a government on its own. It wooed the Democratic Party but Mr. Renzi wouldn’t allow the marriage. Instead, Five Star joined with the nationalists of Mr. Salvini’s League, forming an aggressively anti-European coalition. They chose Mr. Conte as their prime minister.
Mr. Renzi seemed yesterday’s news. But in 2019, Mr. Salvini, surging in popularity, jettisoned the coalition, seeking to prompt elections and grab what he called “full powers.” That’s when Mr. Renzi struck. He reversed himself and forged an alliance between his party and Five Star, icing Mr. Salvini out into the opposition.
To increase his leverage in the new government, Mr. Renzi formed a new party, Italia Viva, which had just enough support to force Mr. Conte to rely on him for the government’s survival. Mr. Renzi hoped his party’s support would grow. It shrank.
In the meantime, Mr. Conte led Italy through the early months of the pandemic. His popularity skyrocketed and ate into the centrist atmosphere where Mr. Renzi’s future ambitions resided. He took Mr. Renzi’s support for granted. Always a mistake.
In January, as Covid-19 deaths racked up, curfews fell and economic frustration mounted, Mr. Renzi made a move that many considered unthinkable.
But even as many chalked up his felling of the government to a craven attempt to win more cabinet positions and influence, they acknowledged Mr. Renzi had some strong critiques on his side.
He blamed the government for failing to reform a glacial justice system that scared away outside investment. He criticized the government for a lack of vision in spending hundreds of billions of euros in European relief money. He demanded that Italy apply for up to €36 billion in cheap E.U. loans earmarked for health systems.
It was a poison pill, as populists in Mr. Conte’s base of support in Five Star would never stomach giving Brussels too much power. The government fell, but Mr. Conte seemed confident he could replace Mr. Renzi’s support with other lawmakers. Mr. Renzi told him good luck.
Mr. Conte became increasingly desperate and offered Mr. Renzi “a ton” of cabinet posts to join the government again, Mr. Renzi recounted. Instead, he strung Mr. Conte along and then, at the last minute, when he was convinced Mr. Draghi would come in, walked.
Mr. Renzi said his near rock-bottom popularity “absolutely” gave him the freedom to maneuver because instead of fearing losing support, “I was worried about losing the opportunity.”
Days later Mr. Mattarella summoned Mr. Draghi.
That game of chicken played out in public. The question is: Did Mr. Renzi play a role behind closed doors in striking alliances to bring Mr. Draghi in?
Mr. Renzi said it was always his tacit desire to replace Mr. Conte with Mr. Draghi, whom he said he spoke to often about Italy’s economic situation, including during the crisis. But he insisted that Mr. Draghi “never spoke to me” about getting into the position. Asked whether he, Mr. Renzi, had spoken to Mr. Draghi about such an outcome, Mr. Renzi replied, “Next question.”
“I didn’t do anything, it was all Mattarella. Smile emoji,” Mr. Renzi said mischievously, adding that out of all the political maneuvers he had made over his career, “This operation was the hardest.”
Tellingly, Mr. Renzi’s once adamant call for the loans from Europe has softened.
Asked whether Italy would take the loan under Mr. Draghi, he said, “Could be. Draghi will decide.”
What was important is that Mr. Draghi had arrived. Five Star, already shrinking, risks implosion as its hard-core populists refuse to join Mr. Draghi while others flock to him. Mr. Salvini, whose northern base of businessmen is excited by Mr. Draghi, has to moderate, essentially tossing years of anti-Brussels demagogy down the drain.
Mr. Renzi will not have the leverage to hold the large coalition hostage, and he will have nowhere near as many cabinet slots as Conte offered him. Instead, he gets time and a new political tailwind that might blow him somewhere better.
In the meantime, Mr. Conte gave a news conference last week behind a desk in the middle of a square, looking as if he was soliciting passers-by to sign a petition.
Mr. Renzi said Mr. Conte, like Mr. Salvini before him, had gotten ahead of himself.
“Now,” he said. “Game over.”