2017 03 – news from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Matteo Renzi resigned as Prime Minister in December following his defeat in the referendum on constitutional changes. He had staked his political future on a successful outcome promising to “withdraw from public life” if he lost. The outcome was seen as a clear personal rebuff to the centre-left leader. President Mattarella then chose Paolo Gentiloni to lead the government through a series of changes to modify, and render legal, the currently unconstitutional electoral system. Elections must be held by the Spring of 2018.

Renzi’s period as leader of The Partito Democratico (Pd) has been riven with discord. Renzi is popular nationally, being seen as young, energetic and keen to deliver, rather similar to the young Blair and now Macron; attractive but vacuous politically. His legacy was neatly summed up by Stefano Folli in La Repubblica (22 Feb) who quoted the very venerable left-wing political commentator Emanuele Macaluso asking “what are the politico-cultural principles of the Pd?” Well replied Folli: “No one knows with clarity”.

By mid February Renzi’s retreat from public life still hadn’t included relinquishing the leadership of the Pd. Polls were showing that 86% of voters still had confidence in him. But 76% of self-declared Pd voters thought that the party’s internal schisms were sufficiently serious to warrant a party split. Renzi chewed over his options, saying that he preferred to resign rather than to continue putting up with continual sniping. His preferred path was to see Gentiloni (someone called him Renzi’s “photocopy”) prepare for elections while he stood against any contenders for the party leadership. It could then be possible to hold a general election at the same time as the Municipal elections in June 2017.

Long-serving Pd members believed that Renzi’s tactic was misguided. It was crucial to remember that the party had been formed by an amalgamation of leftist groups in order to provide Italy with a strong party to oppose the right. Walter Veltroni, the Pd’s first leader and Secretary, believed that the disparate ideas and points of view of “comrades and friends” were enriching and necessary.

There was a short period of activity when attempts were made to unify the party, talks about a split occurred and it was suggested that this would be avoided if Renzi agreed not to stand again as Secretary. It was obvious that Renzi was undeterred by the prospect of the party dividing. He stated that this was not only undemocratic but “blackmail”.

The district of Testaccio, in southern Rome, a centre of the left-wing intelligenzia, was the venue for two important rallying meetings where the “red flag” symbolically stirred or didn’t stir the factions to unite. Pier Luigi Bersani, former Pd Secretary (2009 – 13) explained the position of the left in a television interview. He was adamant that the fault lay with Renzi who he accused of “raising the wall”. He went on to say that Renzi needed to appreciate that the party was at a delicate point and there needed to be a change of course on Renzi’s part. Fruitful discussions would be impossible if Renzi insisted on rushing.

Bersani mentioned the doomsayers who predicted that Italy itself would “crash” if the Pd “crashed”. Renzi gave another view, that the talk of splits was just giving a gift to the opposition, particularly Beppe Grillo’s M5S. The Pd and M5S are approximately level in the polls. Even though, said Renzi, they have trouble with their life insurance policies; always good to include a laugh. Grillo is pointedly avoiding criticism of Virginia Raggi the M5S mayor in Rome, for fear of denting the Moviment’s popularity. One of her progressively unpopular administration’s many difficulties is that she is under investigation for “abuse of office”. One of the issues is that she made a senior appointment to her team, tripling the appointee’s salary. It was later found that he had taken out three life insurance policies naming Raggi as benificiary.

The Pd split occured. Bersani, quoted Enrico Berlinguer (significant one-time Secretary of the Italian Communist Party) at a rally in Testaccio. “One needs to be faithful to the ideals of your youth. When you do not know what to do, do what you must”. The new party will be led by Enrico Rossi, currently Presidente della Regione Toscana, and Roberto Speranza previously group head of the Pd in the Lower House. Rossi expressed his criticism of the direction of the Pd “We are not disposed to participate further in the transformation of the Pd into the party of Renzi”, with a “Leaderism” similar to Macron in France. “We need a partisan party that is clearly on the side of the workers”.

The dilemma of whether to sit on one’s hands or to act with conviction and optimism was summed up in Senator Manuela Granaiola’s resignation from the Pd. “The bitter debate within the Pd is a political symptom of a long-announced heart attack, probably little understood by our voters.” She  goes on to say that this political crisis is causing confusion “throughout the “democratic” West”. It will mean something if the new and dangerous neo-nationalism manages to unite the large sections of  the electorate that previously supported the left. For her there are three issues for which solutions have urgently to be found….”schools, work and poverty”.

Paul Pombeni, Emeritus Professor of the School of Political Science at the University of Bologna envisages that Gentiloni’s Pd Government will be unlikely to be able to continue if the party “is plunged into the vortex of a split”. The new group have stated that they support the continuation of the Government until 2018, but Pombeni questions whether that is realistic in practice?

On 25 February 2017 the new break-away party was formed, comprising (on 2 March) 36 members of the Lower House and 14 in the Senate. A future tie-up with other left facing groups is envisaged. The title is uncertain. It could be Article 1 – Movimento di Democratici e Progressisti, Mdp. There are prior claims to parts of the title, so it may change. Massimo D’Alema (53rd Prime Minister 1998 – 2000) suggested the reference to Article 1 of the Constitution: “Italy is a democratic republic founded on work”.

On 23 February Myrta Merlino blogged in huffingtonpost.it saying that Italy has successful strategies to appoint women to political posts, indeed there are 8 women and 7 men in Renzi’s cabinet. Why are no women involved in these new developments? Do they have “less muscle and more brain, make less noise and more mediation, less grandstanding and a greater propensity to listen? More political in fact. And I know it seems to be a paradox to ask for more politics in politics. But it shouldn’t be a paradox, it should be a revolution”.