How the Italian left ceased to exist

The election of the new President of the Republic ended up in a mess for the Democratic Party, devastating both its cohesion and political capital. Is this the end of the road for an united Italian left?

Michele Barbero
24 April 2013
Democratic Party leader Pierluigi Bersani resigns after failing to have any of his candidates elected to the Presidency. Demotix/Ruggero Delfini. All rights reserved.

Democratic Party leader Pierluigi Bersani resigns after failing to have any of his candidates elected to the Presidency. Demotix/Ruggero Delfini. All rights reserved.

Everybody knew that the election of the new President of the Republic would be a difficult task for the Italian political system, which currently faces its most serious crisis in twenty years. However, even the most skilled and imaginative pundits could hardly have predicted what happened last week.

After six dramatic election rounds in Parliament, the Chief of the State is exactly the same as before: for the first time in the country's republican history, the incumbent, 87-year-old Giorgio Napolitano, has been given a second mandate at the Quirinale. But what has changed is the main left-wing party. Indeed, to use more suitable words, the Partito Democratico (PD) has virtually ceased to exist.

How the most voted for political force of the February elections ended up collapsing in total chaos is a complex story, with several factors at play: the lack of leadership by secretary Pierluigi Bersani, strategically disastrous decisions taken by him as well as other key actors of the Italian post-electoral arena, political and personal rivalries within the party, and the growing diconnect between the party elite and its electorate.

When the time to choose its candidate for the Presidency came, the PD - as always in these past few weeks -was faced with a difficult choice: either look for a convergence with Berlusconi's centre-right (which has repeatedly offered the forming of a 'grand coalition' to get out of the political deadlock) or adopting a more intransigent approach, stressing the PD's left-wing identity.

At first, the Democrats went for the former option: they proposed Franco Marini, one of the most respected figures of the party's moderate-catholic wing. But Marini failed to get the necessary majority. A large part of the centre-right supported him, but a component of the PD itself didn't: in particular, those close to the young Matteo Renzi, nicknamed “Rottamatore” (the demolisher) for his insistence on renewing the party with a younger leadership.

Round 2

Feeling that many MPs weren't following him on the road to a deal with Berlusconi, Bersani changed his approach and put forward Romano Prodi, a former PM, President of the European Commission, and one of the PD's main founders. Prodi met firm opposition from the right – Alessandra Mussolini, the Duce's granddaughter and an MP, wore a t-shirt with “The devil wears Prodi” printed on it – but was unanimously acclaimed by the assembly of PD representatives. Therefore, there were good reasons to hope that such a choice, by marking the distance from the Democrats' main adversaries, would have contributed to softening the divisions within the party that were compromised in the previous vote. 

In theory, Prodi had a good chance to be elected. But when the time to vote came, last Friday, the unbelievable occurred. In the secrecy of the electoral booth, one out of four of the PD representatives “betrayed” their leader by not voting for the party's official candidate. Prodi, falling short of more than a hundred votes from the required majority, suffered a heavy and unexpected humiliation. Bersani spoke of “an event of absolute gravity", adding that "the mechanisms of responsibility and solidarity have fallen apart.” He resigned the same night, with the entire party leadership. The atmosphere turned sour: one of the PD's top managers, Dario Franceschini, said on TV that the “traitors” should be “found and pursued with a stick.”

Later on, with the Democrats in chaos and unwilling to 'sacrifice' any other of their top personalities, all the main parties (with the relevant exception of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement) agreed on reconfirming Giorgio Napolitano as Chief of the State.

Fear and loathing on the Italian left

Who exactly in the PD voted against Prodi is not easy to say and even harder to prove. But according to the rumours and accusations that inevitably followed that dramatic day, the group was quite a heterogeneous mix of age and political orientation - which shows how deep and intricated the conflicts within the party are.

Indeed, far from smoothing out these tensions, the vote showed that the Italian centre-left has been absolutely incapable of dealing with them. Since it was founded in 2007, the PD has always struggled to define its position on the political spectrum: it gathers forces with different backgrounds, from the social branch of the old Christian Democracy to the moderate wing of the Communist Party, making it hard to find a common identity and common ground.

But the picture is further complicated by several other lines of fracture, all piling on top of one another - with explosive results. One has to do with the attitude towards the right, particularly Berlusconi. In the party, some accept the possibility of dealing with him, and the choice of Franco Marini was a concession to this line of reasoning. Others, on the contrary, are inflexible in refusing any compromise with the political rival. This cleavage doesn't coincide with the catholic-communist one: Romano Prodi, for example, comes from a catholic and moderate background, but has always considered Berlusconi as a virus for Italian politics, and acted as follows. 

But the list of conflicts jeopardising the PD's existence is not over. Recent years have seen the rise of a new star in the party's sky: Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence. Young, charismatic, proposing a sort of Italian version of New Labour (so much so that many have strong doubts of his left-wing credentials). Renzi has become the head of a new wave within the Democrats: centrist in its politics but radical in challenging the current leadership of older politicians such as 61-year-old Bersani.

In such a mess, there are several lines of reasoning that may have led many MPs to vote against the candidate that they had publicly acclaimed only a few hours before. Without an absolute majority in parliament, and with Grillo rejecting all alliance proposals, some Democrats must have thought that the election of Prodi would have precluded the only other viable way to government: a broad coalition with the centre-right. Others may have rejected Prodi simply in order to hit the secretary: in this case, the representatives linked to Renzi (who lost the 2012 PD leadership election to Bersani) are among the main suspects, in spite of their leader formally supporting Prodi.

In sum, the tensions that have characterised the party in the last years have dramatically come to the surface. The future of this political force, although it is still the strongest in Parliament, is uncertain. A formal schism probably won't happen in the immediate future, but it remain a concrete perspective. And to be sure, the party congress in June will be the occasion for a tough showdown.

A five star challenge

It is, however, not only the party's unity which has been put at risk by these recent events. Also, its already waning political credibility in the eyes of the electorate has suffered extremely serious damage. Once again, the PD has shown an evident inadequacy in facing up to the key political challenges posed by these difficult times. 

Furthermore, its leadership has given the impression of being trapped in games of power and rivalry, with little interest in the demands of the base. This point is illustrated by the party's relationship with Grillo. In these nervous days, one of the few things most of the party leaders always agreed on was the refusal to consider the candidate proposed by the Five Star Movement: Stefano Rodotà, a fiercely anti-Berlusconian jurist who is respected and appreciated not only by the 'grillini', but also by most left-wing voters. Rodotà wasn't necessarily a better (or  easier to elect) candidate than Marini or Prodi, but by ruling out a priori its support for him, the PD missed another occasion to show receptiveness to the aspirations of renewal that now characterise a big part of the Italian society. The PD pursued its own strategy, which turned out to be disastrous.

In fairness, it has to be said that Grillo also bears some responsibility for the attitude the PD adopted towards him. The acceptance of the M5S candidate by the Democratic Party would have been much easier if Grillo hadn't repeatedly refused to dialogue with the centre-left in the past two months. True, last week he cautiously mentioned the possibility of starting government talks if the PD supported Rodotà. But this was too little, too late. By that time the Democratic leadership, frustrated by endless, useless attempts to ally with the 'grillini', had ceased believing in the chances of any fruitful agreement with the M5S.

It is probably worth noting that Grillo's battle to sweep away and renew the existing political class as a whole has worked, so far, only in its easiest part: causing serious distress to the leadership of the centre-left, a force that, in Italy, already had an impressive record of self-destructive moves such as the ones seen in recent days. On the other fronts, however, the M5S has little to rejoice in. With respect to the President of the Republic, an exhausted party system found no better way out of the stalemate than re-electing an almost 88-year-old Napolitano. Regarding the government, the PD is currently forming a broad coalition with Berlusconi's People of Freedom, led by Enrico Letta, the PD's Deputy Secretary. The M5S MPs will be relegated to the opposition, cut out of every key executive role. All in all, not exactly an encouraging scenario for an in-depth renewal of the country and its troubled politics.

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