It is well known that the financing of political parties is one of the most controversial and most judicialised issues in the public life of many countries. In the case of Italy, it once took the political life of one of the most dazzling politicians of the last third of the 20th century, the Lombard Bettino Craxi (1934-2000), who, overwhelmed by the many "avvisi di garanzia" (indictments) he received between mid-1992 and mid-1994, had no choice but to go into exile in the small Tunisian town of Hammamet, where he died almost six years later, when he was about to reach the age of 66.
Almost thirty years after the famous corruption macro-case known as "Tangentopoli", which led to the "Mani pulite" ("Clean Hands") operation, it is now another dazzling politician, Matteo Renzi, who is getting closer and closer to being brought to justice. And when comparing him to Craxi, we should not forget that Matteo Renzi is still the youngest man to sit in the Presidency of the Council of Ministers: after more than 75 years of republican life and after 31 different "premiers", it was Renzi who on 14 February 2014, at just 39 years of age, accepted the "incarico" of the President of the Republic to form a government.
The truth is that Renzi, who presided over the third longest republican government in history (1,020 days) has a very serious problem called the "Open Foundation", which was, in essence, his political launching pad. This foundation, which was created in 2012 and ceased its activity in 2018, was the one that financed, among other things, the annual political assembly that Renzi holds in the old station of Florence, his hometown, and which is named "Leopolda". But it financed many more political events, being instrumental in enabling Renzi to run in the Democratic Party (PD) primaries of 2012 (which he lost to Pierluigi Bersani) and 2013 (which he won with an overwhelming 70% of the vote, a triumph he would repeat in June 2017 with the same winning figure), as well as other events.
The problem is not the creation of a foundation or the holding of political assemblies. The problem is different: for the "Procura" of Florence, the Open Foundation acted, in reality, as a political party, even though Renzi was always running under the name of the PD, and therefore should have declared the money received, and thus paid the corresponding taxes, but in practice what he did was to benefit from the tax exemptions that all foundations have. A thesis that the former Tuscan Prime Minister rejects outright, as he considers that the "Open Foundation" was more a kind of non-profit "laboratory of ideas" and therefore both he and his collaborators acted at all times in accordance with the law.
The fact is that the investigation, which began in 2018, has now been completed, the investigating judges have concluded the investigation, and have decided that Renzi and eight of his collaborators (including his "right-hand woman", Maria Elena Boschi, who was the Minister without portfolio for Constitutional Reform in the Renzi government), must sit in the dock. If so, this could spell the end of Renzi's political career, since, at a time when coalition-building is key to standing in the general elections to be held in a year's time, it seems clear that no one will want to form a coalition with a Renzi whose picture sitting on a bench is not the best way to win votes.
Of course, the young Tuscan politician has not stood still. He has not only filed a lawsuit against the three magistrates who are to try him, but he also took the time to appear on the most watched political programme in the country ("Porta a porta", directed by the veteran and prestigious RAI journalist Bruno Vespa) and there he made public that one of the magistrates of this court, for example, who goes by the name of Giuseppe Creazzo, was once convicted of having committed sexual abuse. In front of the television cameras, Renzi showed the documents proving Creazzo's conviction, stating that he did not intend to allow himself to be judged by someone with so little credibility. So he has asked the Superior Council of the Magistracy in Genoa for protection, requesting the assignment of another court.
Whatever happens, Renzi's tactic is clear: by means of appeals and more appeals, he hopes that by the time it is inevitable that he will sit in the dock, the next general elections will have already taken place. In this way he will be able to save his political career, which is at its most delicate moment since he became mayor of Florence in 2009.
In reality, the country has long had a serious problem with the justice system, which is taking too long and which has led the current prime minister, Mario Draghi, to commit himself to a full-scale reform of the current judicial system so that less time elapses between indictment, interrogation, trial, possible conviction or declaration of innocence or not guilty.
Moreover, beyond Renzi's low popularity, perceptible in the polls month after month, the tendency of the left, generally unable to win at the ballot box against the right except on rare occasions (so far this century only Bersani has been able to win a general election, and by the minimum, in February 2013), to judicialise political life is well known. Because it is not only Renzi who has problems with the law, but also the main leader of the centre-right, none other than Matteo Salvini, who even before the summer of 2019 had already been accused of taking a "bribe" of more than 50 million euros to finance his party using a public company (what became known as "Moscopoli"). Paradoxically, in what seems like a mere coincidence but which in reality is not, "Moscopoli" has not been mentioned again since Salvini stepped down as deputy prime minister and interior minister after his failed attempt, in August 2019, to provoke early elections. Since then, Salvini has only gone downhill: he was defeated in the Emilia-Romagna elections (January 2020); he won only four of the seven regions in the September 2020 elections; and in October 2021 his candidates for the main cities in the race (including the capital, Rome) lost heavily to the centre-left candidate.
Time will tell whether Renzi is guilty or not, and whether or not this is the end of his political career. But what is clear is that this is the umpteenth occasion on which a politician (usually from the centre-right) has run afoul of the law just when he is at his political peak. Because, in Renzi's case, in a legislature where he has been tripped up to the point of exhaustion, he was beginning to get his head out of the sand and to think about a strong coalition that would give him the possibility of retaining his seat and continuing to be one of the country's leading politicians. But first he has to face the judicial reality, and Renzi is ready to go all out. And we already know that the still young Tuscan politician is not one to shy away from any kind of adversity.
Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021 (Sílex Ediciones, 2021)