Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is one step closer to again vying for power of the country. Renzi was confirmed party leader of the Italian Democratic Party (PD) during primary elections April 30, defeating Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Apulia Regional President Michele Emiliano with more than 70 percent of the vote. The wide margin of victory was especially notable given that voter turnout was much higher than expected. The win legitimizes Renzi's role as party leader and gives him a boost in his effort to fight the rise of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
Renzi resigned from his post as prime minister last December, after a referendum on constitutional reforms that he endorsed failed to pass a public vote. He then resigned as PD leader in February, but conflict over him and his departure still split the party: a group of anti-Renzi members created the Democratic and Progressive Movement (MDP).
Renzi's decisive win puts him in a strong position to lead the ruling party and to possibly again lead the country. Renzi has repeatedly said that he wants elections to be held before Spring 2018, when they are currently scheduled. Yet, he has also clarified that the decision to dissolve parliament and call early elections should fall to Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and President Sergio Mattarella. There is also the possibility that Gentiloni could resign, opening the way for Renzi to step back into the prime minister role.
There are three main factors that will determine whether early elections are held: The Italian budget law that is pending approval, PD's public approval and Italy's new electoral law that is currently under dispute. The Italian budget law will include some measures that will be painful for Italian voters, so holding elections before the controversial budget law is approved in Fall 2017 could help the PD's popularity. Still, allowing Gentiloni to pass the budget before elections are held could also help distance Renzi from the unpopular measure. Right now, PD's approval is about equal to that of its main rival, the Five Star Movement. But PD has coalition options, whereas the Five Star Movement doesn't appear to. This connects to the third factor, Italy's electoral law, which was ruled unconstitutional in January. The Italian parliament is working on a new electoral law, and a final vote is expected in late May or early June. When and whether it is approved will certainly factor into the decision over early elections.
Regardless of whether elections are held early, Renzi knows that the stakes are high. As PD leader, Renzi is trying to negotiate for a deal that would benefit his party while preventing the Five Star Movement from forming a government. Despite his success in primary elections, Renzi is aware that his party has been weakened by the referendum defeat and by internal party divisions and that the Five Star Movement or a right-wing coalition with the Northern League could manage to grab power. And that would have serious implications not just for Italy, but also for all of Europe.