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Home Opinion The Italian left at a crossroads: Where now for the PD?
Italy • Party Politics • Leadership

The Italian left at a crossroads: Where now for the PD?

Lilia Giugni - 27 August 2014

Although many observers focus on the recent success of Matteo Renzi, the Partito Democratico faces a number of organisational, strategic and ideological doubts

There is evidence that the Italian left has undergone, during the last decades, a never-ending transition. And that the leadership question, albeit crucial, is only a part of the problem.

Organisationally, the PD needs to decide what party model it wants to embrace, what relationship it will entertain with the state and the society and what role to give to its membership. Even in the era of web politics and liquid organisations these points are far from being banal. Fabrizio Barca, former Minister for Territorial Cohesion in the Monti cabinet and a supporter of Civati at the 2013 primaries, recently published a memoir describing the party he imagines and inviting the Democrats to debate organisational and identity matters. He stands for a hierarchic but non-oligarchic organisation, an agency for the exchange and production of ideas, which is not an emanation of the state but does interact with it. The reputed political scientist Piero Ignazi has welcomed this above all methodological stance, and a lively discussion has followed within left-wing intellectual circles (Barca 2013, Barca and Ignazi 2013). We don’t know that much, however, about Renzi’s own position. He has always preferred focusing on elections and government issues rather than on the party management itself.

Nonetheless, the new leadership won’t long be able to ignore the organisational dimension. The PD is witnessing an extreme balkanisation and worrisome grassroots disaffection. The shameful episode of the Italian presidential elections in April 2013 made this brutally clear. The party factions were unable to unite behind any candidate. 101 unknown plotters prevented Romano Prodi, one of the party founders, from being elected Head of State. The membership and sympathisers reacted with indignation to what they perceived as a real coup d’état (Amato 2013). Today, the PD is a (not particularly comfortable) home for a bunch of ideological and interest groups, frustrated activists and local leaders exerting strong micro-level power (Calise 2013). An organisational recipe capable of bringing them all together is urgently needed.

Strategy-making is also on the agenda. The Italian left needs to prove able to win elections, which largely explains why Renzi won a landslide victory at the primaries (an analogy with the 1994-1997 Tony Blair?). This means building a new coalition of interests and constituencies, attracting new categories while constantly reassuring left-wing core voters. The new leader is doing his best to talk to the middle-class and the entrepreneurs, without alienating the poorest and the public sector employees. It proved to be a winning strategy at the May 2014 European Parliament elections. At the national level, we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, the PD is forced to adjust to its new condition as a pillar of the Italian government and institutions, struggling to reconcile its own electoral interests and its responsibilities toward the country. No wonder that the famous pundit Ernesto Galli Della Loggia wrote of a ‘Christian-democratisation’ of the Italian left, that has inherited the part once played by the Christian Democrats (aren’t they two Catholics, Renzi and Letta, – he notices - those who dominated the party during the last months?) (Galli della Loggia 2013).

Identity represents the last challenge. The PD never framed a fully coherent theoretical framework. Many have argued that no contemporary post-ideological, catch-all organisation has a monolithic political culture. One wonders, though, whether a party that has traditionally relied on identity incentives and partisan voting behaviour can work efficiently without a minimal underlying vision and set of common values. So, the PD calls itself reformist. What does reformism mean today? It declares that it pursues equality and justice. How does it interpret and enact these principles? And, again, it aims at solving the Italian institutional, economic and social crisis. Shouldn’t it come up with a political project providing guidelines for this attempt?

Intellectuals tend to take an interest in the making and remaking of partisan identities. That’s what happened with the American New Democrats, Britain’s New Labour and the entire Third Way policy network. And Italian cultural elites got initially enthusiastically involved when the PD was created. Then, ambiguities and failures froze any enthusiasm. Their attitude toward Renzi is now cautious, if not diffident. Without their contribution, the party factions are still stuck in their internal struggle and no compelling, majoritarian, well-developed philosophy seems to be emerging.

What is more, time has passed and the left as a whole is now looking for different answers. Renzi, like Walter Veltroni before him, is often compared to Tony Blair. Yet, after 20 years, the Third Way has revealed its limits and the European scenario has dramatically changed. When building a new and attractive narrative, the PD will have to carefully take such transformations into account. It also needs to question whether this identity-reconstruction process can take place exclusively at a national level or needs to be framed into a transnational dialogue and a common platform of values and policies. The Italian political system certainly has its own characteristics, but many European left-wing parties are engaging in a similar process. That is why international observers may find the recent developments in the Italian PD worthy of further analysis.

Lilia Giugni is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Cambridge University

A longer version of this piece was published by Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy

Amato, M. (2013) Democrat. L’ambizioso sogno del partito mai nato, Roma: Centoautori.
Barca, F. (2013) Un partito nuovo per un buon governo, Roma: Mimeo.
Barca, F. and Ignazi, P. (2013) Il triangolo rotto. Partiti, società e stato, Bologna: Laterza.
Calise, M. (2013) Fuorigioco. La sinistra contro e i suoi leader. Bari: Laterza.
Galli della Loggia, E. (2013) ‘Democristiani loro malgrado’ in Il Corriere della Sera, 30th November.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Lilia Giugni , Matteo Renzi , Partito Democratico , Italy , centre-left , politics , Fabrizio Barca , strategy , elections , Tony Blair , European Parliament , identity , organisation , institutions , economy , crisis , Third Way , values , policies

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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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