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Home Opinion Leading the left: the race for the Partito Democratico
SOTL • Italy • Election

Leading the left: the race for the Partito Democratico

Andrea Romano - 12 September 2012

Who will win? It is hard to say. But one thing is certain: for the first time in more than ten years,  Italian progressives are about to be engaged in a genuine leadership contest

For the first time in more than ten years, Italian progressives are about to be engaged in a genuine leadership contest. Recent centre-left leaders, such as Romano Prodi and Pierluigi Bersani, were elected by their parties but in both cases their competitors never really stood a chance: they used those competitions rather to gain some marginal inner-party weight.

This time, the contest between Pierluigi Bersani, secretary of Italy’s Democratic Party (Partito Democratico), and Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, promises to be an authentic and intense race. The prize they stand to win is not only control over the party, but also the means to shape the centre-left’s basic strategy for the next few years.

At first glance, Renzi’s arguments appear based primarily on generational turnover, but behind the facade of youth, there are important and substantive differences between him and Bersani. The Florentine’s principal rhetoric is one of promoting a new generation of younger administrators and encouraging an older generation of leaders – on the scene since the early Nineties – to retire. In this sense, he taps into a strong sentiment among voters. Not only among centre-left militants, but among the population at large.

On the one hand, recent years have seen strong anti-political feeling in Italy, due to a disconnect between the political class and the general population. Renzi therefore expresses a sentiment that is widespread in the country. On the other hand, centre-left militants are well aware that their leaders have been on the scene for more than twenty years now – much longer than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Figures such as Massimo D'Alema, Walter Veltroni, Piero Fassino and even Pierluigi Bersani reached the top of the party hierarchy in the mid Nineties – when Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin and Gerhard Schroeder were in power.

Unlike their British, French and German colleagues, however, the Italians have held on to their seats with all their might. And they have succeeded in doing so despite the party itself changing its name (from the Democratic Party of the Left, to Democrats of the Left, to the current Democratic Party).

The party changed names, yet the leaders stayed the same. Renzi’s promise of a changing of the guard is well received in all those areas of the Left that have never had the chance to inform the party's direction and leadership.

Pierluigi Bersani responds to Renzi’s criticism by defending the veterans and by announcing that he will be the one to promote a new generation of leaders. But only after winning the upcoming leadership contest.

Beyond the issue of generational change, the substance that separates Bersani and Renzi is political. It is focused on different interpretations of the idea of economic growth, the role of the state and the Italian crisis.

Pierluigi Bersani, with the support of the traditionally social democratic segment of the electorate, blames the centre-right and its “neoliberal” policies for the current economic crisis. The problem with this interpretation is that Berlusconi's policies could hardly be considered "liberal", let alone "neoliberal". Indeed, under Silvio Berlusconi, the fiscal pressure on Italians grew, the role of the state increased and the space for economic competition shrank. All this hampered the country’s growth potential and led to the dramatic public debt crisis that led to Mario Monti’s arrival.

Moreover, Bersani claims that he will overcome the reform agenda set in place by Monti, and that he will go back to negotiating with the unions so as to realise more traditional “social” policies.

In other words, Bersani’s majority dreams of a return to the tax and spend days of the Seventies and Eighties; he risks undoing all those reforms launched by the Monti government which are currently allowing Italy to recover credibility.

Matteo Renzi, on the other hand, believes that the future of the Left in Italy lies in drawing up coherent strategies to promote competition and to liberate Italy’s great entrepreneurial, cultural and creative energies, thereby allowing the country to live up to its potential.

Furthermore, he promises to maintain and further those reforms launched by the Monti government. In truth, this agenda is very similar to that espoused by the left in the Nineties, of which Bersani and his followers are very critical (they tend to see Italy’s centre-left governments in that period as "hostages to neoliberalism").

Who will win? It is hard to say. But one thing is certain: Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence, gets criticised by Bersani’s supporters for being an outsider, for failing to adhere to the mainstream leftist tradition. Sometimes they even accuse him of being a kid who would never be able to handle "real politics" and to speak to international leaders. Who knows if these supporters realise how much they sound like the Tories, fighting Tony Blair during the 1997 elections with the unhappy slogan: "Don't let a boy do a man's job". That time the result was a Labour landslide. This time, we will see.

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of centre-left politics

Andrea Romano is professor of contemporary history at the University of Rome Tor Vergata and director of the think tank Italia Futura

Tags: Andrea Romano , State of the Left , SOTL , Italy , Election , Partito Democratico , PD , Romano Prodi , Pierluigi Bersani , Matteo Renzi , Massimo D'Alema , Walter Veltroni , Piero Fassino , Pierluigi Bersani , Silvio Berlusconi , Tony Blair , Lionel Jospin , Gerhard Schroeder , Mario Monti , British , French , German , Democratic Party of the Left , Democrats of the Left , Democratic Party , neoliberal , neoliberalism , neo-liberal , neo-liberalism , crisis , financial , economic ,

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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