We don't know for sure that Matteo Renzi likes to play cards, but he certainly has an excellent poker face. Italy has grown accustomed to the prime minister's all-in moves: He has placed all of his chips on a few key reform laws.
From the Jobs Act to the new electoral law (the so-called Italicum) to the civil unions, Renzi's game was simple: he personalized every debate, turning each issue into a dramatic and personal referendum. His underlying narrative has been: "You're either with me or against me." Due to his popularity and the weakness of the opposition, Renzi has been gradually winning the pot, and is on his way to victory.
Renzi has used this same "go big or go home" strategy in the most important game of all: the October referendum on constitutional reform. The referendum intends to simplify the country's institutional structure, speed up the legislative process, and reduce the cost of Italian politics by a billion euros a year. In other words, it intends to weaken the Senate's power.
Former President Giorgio Napolitano and the EU had long hoped for a referendum on these reforms. However, the upcoming referendum has quickly turned into an outright "Rexit" that has split the country in two.
Recent polls show that more and more people are planning to vote "no" in the referendum, and that Renzi's approval ratings have fallen. Meanwhile, the economy continues to struggle. Is this the end of the honeymoon period for Renzi? Probably. Will it have a boomerang effect? Likely.
Recent polls show that more and more people are planning to vote "no" in the referendum, and that Renzi's approval ratings have fallen.
Besides feeding the opposition's campaign against him, Renzi's technique of making every issue a personal one also risks influencing the results of the June administrative elections, in which all the major cities, including Rome, Milan, Turin and Naples, some smaller cities, such as Bologna, Cagliari and Trieste, and over 1,300 districts will take part.
Risk-taking is not in Renzi's nature, and it would be too dangerous for him to try to transmit these local votes into votes for himself. There is also the fact that the opinion polls do not bode well for the Democratic party, of which Renzi is the secretary. He must concentrate on the challenging task of performing well in Rome and Naples.
Naples is firmly within the grip of the left-wing former magistrate Luigi de Magistris, who has the support of 14 local parties. The Democratic party is at risk of not even appearing on the ballot there.
In Rome, which is still simmering after the bizarre reign of the former surgeon Ignazio Roberto Maria Marino, the front-runner appears to be the 5-Star Movement's candidate, Virginia Raggi. However, the situation is still uncertain. The recent legal troubles of the 5-Star Movement and the less-than-transparent behavior of its leaders (apart from Beppe Grillo) seem to have slowed down the party's momentum. The right, divided by two strong candidates -- Giorgia Meloni, an ex-minister in the Berlusconi government, and Alfio Marchini, an Italian billionaire -- could lose the capital, or at least the vote, to the Democratic party candidate, the ex-radical Roberto Giachetti.
In Turin, the polls are showing Piero Fassino, the current Democrat mayor and former secretary of the Democrats of the Left party in the lead, although Chiara Appendino, the 5-Star Movement candidate, is making a strong showing in the polls.
The real test, however, will be in Milan, where Renzi has a loyal candidate at his disposal: Giuseppe Sala, who successfully organized the 2015 Expo in Milan for the government. Sala will go head-to-head with another manager with proven experience, the center-right candidate Stefano Parisi. If the Democratic party loses in Milan, it would be a huge blow for Renzi.
The European elections of 2014 showed an unexpected 40 percent support for the Democratic party and allowed Renzi to solidify his grip on power and strengthen his agenda. The local elections and the referendum are, essentially, midterm elections. Their results will determine the fate of one of the houses of the legislature, as well as potentially extend Renzi's rule for another term. And there are already whispers of a vote in spring 2017...