Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned from his role of secretary of the ruling center-left Democratic Party on Feb. 13. But rather than signaling that Renzi wants to step back from politics, it shows that he is serious about strengthening his political position. The move comes after Renzi stepped down from the country's premiership last December, following the rejection by popular referendum of constitutional reforms that he had proposed and supported.
Renzi's resignation as party leader was necessary in order to hold new party elections, in which he plans to run again for the top spot. Renzi has been under strong criticism from a minority faction of the party, which he hopes to defeat. A recent opinion poll by Demos & Pi, Ipsos and Winpool shows that 67 percent of Democratic Party voters still support Renzi, giving him a good chance at re-election.
The Democratic Party will now hold a party congress, and candidates for primary elections will be nominated. There is no clear timeline for the process. Previous transitions lasted several months, but Renzi has been pushing for early parliamentary elections, possibly as soon as June, and could try to speed up the process in the Democratic Party. But the party is divided over when to hold the next parliamentary elections, with Renzi's opposing faction preferring the parliament to complete its mandate and to hold elections as scheduled in February 2018.
The decision on whether to hold early elections is ultimately in the hands of Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who has the power to dissolve the parliament. But the Democratic Party currently holds the majority in parliament, which means that if its leaders call for an early vote, it would be hard for Mattarella to oppose it. That's why these elections are so important: The outcome of primary elections in the Democratic Party could shape the timeline for the next parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, the Italian parliament still has to work on electoral reform, after the constitutional court ruled in January that part of the latest electoral law was unconstitutional. The lower chamber of parliament is scheduled to start the debate Feb. 27, and Mattarella indicated that he would be against early elections before the electoral reform is completed.
The electoral law would automatically give a majority of seats in parliament to the party or coalition that gets at least 40 percent of the vote. However, opinion polls show that at the moment no party or coalition would reach the threshold. The Democratic Party is polling around 30 percent, followed by its main opponent, the Five Star Movement, just a couple of points below. Markets are worried about a potential victory of the Five Star Movement, which wants to hold a referendum on Italy's membership in the eurozone. Even after new elections, the Italian parliament could remain fragmented, and a new government would again be fragile.