Can Europe Make It?

In Italy's centre-left, the hyphen is morphing into a wide blank space

The ruling Democratic party is on the verge of a breakup – given its history, this comes as no surprise.

Alessio Colonnelli
16 February 2017

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) hands over the cabinet minister bell to Italy's newly-appointed Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni at the handover ceremony at Chigi Palace in Rome, capital of Italy, on Dec. 12, 2016. PAimages/Xinhua/Sipa USA. All rights reserved.

"Matteo Renzi has pressed the self-destruction button," Pierluigi Bersani said a few days ago. The former is the (centrist) leader of the ruling Democratic party (PD), the left wing of which is informally headed by the latter, a diehard communist in his youth.

Dramatic words. Should we be surprised? Perhaps not. PD "was born dead," prominent philosopher Massimo Cacciari famously stated years ago. Today, his apocalyptic judgement feels tragically spot on. The party, many analysts fear, could soon fall apart, each component going separate ways.

Back in 2007, many hoped the newly founded outfit would finally get the centre-left moving and hunt down Silvio Berlusconi. Yet, ten years down the line, having masterly achieved what it set itself out to do (it even received over 40% of the vote in the 2014 EU elections), PD looks about to pack up. It's imploding, despite having run the country for four years now and curbed tax evasion by a considerable amount.

Has success gone to its head? It has, in a sense: Renzi boastfully linked the outcome of the 4 December constitutional referendum to his premiership. Italians for once turned up en massevoted against his reforming wishes – with many in reality casting their ballots exclusively against him (“Half of No-voters couldn't care less about the constitution,” the well-known analyst Michele Serra wrote the next day) – and he duly stepped down as he said he would.

The opposition inside the party now wants to get rid of Renzi as a party chief. The 'real' left wants to dethrone him and put one of their lot there (possibly Michele Emiliano, the current president of Puglia and a major, outspoken party figure).

This is why Renzi would like to anticipate the party's conference, whose apex will be the primary elections. The former prime minister is hoping to be reconfirmed for another four years.

Last Monday, Renzi managed to crank up the party's engine the way he wanted: at an official gathering in Rome of all the senior executives, an overwhelming majority of these (107 against 12) backed Renzi's proposed document to kick-start the procedure to set a date for the conference. The primaries could take place on 30 April. But then what?

PD's left does not want to bring the conference forward. And it won't back down on this. Bersani, in fact, would like premier Paolo Gentiloni (who swiftly replaced Renzi) to take the government by the hand to the end of its natural mandate, February 2018. Renzi's eagerness to hasten everything is seen as foolish: as it stands, the country doesn't even have an electoral system.

Parliament would have to sort out that hurdle first. On Sunday 19, a party assembly will have a final say on whether the conference will take place sooner rather than later – and that's tantamount to a make or break scenario.

It is this serious. However, it's also hardly surprising. Old communist chieftain Massino D'Alema – an erstwhile premier and Bersani's ally – has always had a bee in his bonnet about PD as a project since its early days; in 2008, he claimed that the party was "a botched amalgam".

A mixture gone wrong, then. Right from the incipit. "And it was also [D'Alema's] fault, as he's regularly put major spanners in the works so that PD wouldn't succeed," political analyst Massimo Giannini pointed out on Rep TV. "I suspect that all the party leaders of such a chimerical centre-left will soon behave like lemmings – unaware they have no wings to take off, they'll just drop off a cliff."

As it stands, the fragmented 'pure' left, ready to welcome PD's mutineers, doesn't rate anywhere near 10%. That being said, the government opposition is engulfed in its own self-made deep crises. Five Star's ratings have been falling slightly, with a mayor visibly unable to heal Rome from its organised crime infections.

The centre-right is still leaderless. The future is very uncertain for everyone, no one excluded (Italy's perpetual state of being, after all); but also very interesting to watch. As a show, Italian politics is never dull – especially now.

So, beware of the countdown. The centre-left bomb is about to go off. As to who will pick up the pieces, that's anyone's guess. Nevertheless, one thing we do know: given Bersani and D'Alema's past reaching back to the pandemonium of the late '60s, this could even be interpreted as communism's swan song.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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