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Home Opinion Italy is back – but so are Renzi's PD pains
State of the Left - Italy

Italy is back – but so are Renzi's PD pains

Mattia Guidi - 13 November 2015

The Italian prime minister must hope the economic success he has secured nationally can counteract his party’s failings at local level

There is a striking contradiction between the good signs that the Italian economy has been showing in the last few months and the popularity of the Partito Democratico (PD) in recent polls. This could be just a temporary misalignment (as prime minister Matteo Renzi believes), or it might signal a deeper disconnection between Renzi and the electorate. But what could explain this disconnection?
A relevant role is certainly played by the problems the party is experiencing in Rome, where PD mayor Ignazio Marino was forced to resign a few weeks ago. Marino had not been directly involved in the scandal that was discovered last year in Rome, but his attempts to tackle the myriad inefficiencies of the city have only partly succeeded. In the weeks preceding his resignation, he was accused of having paid some personal expenses with the mayor’s credit card. This last event was used by his opponents, within the PD and from the opposition, to ask him to step back.

The Roman scandal did not involve the mayor, but it involved several members of the PD. In response to this, Renzi had decided to clear out all local officers of the party, giving PD president Matteo Orfini the power to close constituencies that had connections with the corruption cases discovered. While this process is still ongoing, and is having bad repercussions on the party’s image, the local party is left without a clear leadership. Next spring’s election of the new mayor could be very risky, as the centre-right, or even the Five Star Movement could take the city.

There is, in general, a diffuse perception that at the local level Renzi has not been able to replicate the renovation of the party that he carried out at the national level. While his preferences and priorities shape the party leadership and the government’s action, power in cities and regions is still very much held by politicians that were there well before Renzi appeared on the scene. In several cases, he had to passively accept candidates that he did not like but could not oppose. And even when he could choose, his candidates did not always enjoy the support he expected.

Turning to the national level, the battlefield until the end of the year will be the 2016 budget law. The government’s proposal contains a confirmation of previous tax cuts and further reductions for firms and house owners. Renzi indeed plans to increase the deficit (using the flexibility allowed by the European commission to the greatest extent) to reduce taxes. As usual, Renzi is trying to ‘sell’ these proposals to the voters as ‘the right thing to do’, regardless of partisan preferences. More precisely, he is again combining measures that have traditionally been proposed by the centre left (reducing taxation on labour-related activities, for instance) with measures that were always advanced by the centre right (cutting the property tax or increasing the threshold for the use of cash in economic transactions).

The elimination of the property tax for principal residencies, in particular, was first passed by Silvio Berlusconi in 2008, and then abrogated by Mario Monti in 2011. In the few months of the Letta government, there was a furious fight between PD and Berlusconi’s PDL on the re-elimination of this tax. Berlusconi won in the end, but the PD repeatedly reaffirmed its ‘ideological’ opposition to this measure. The fact that Renzi, who had argued against the elimination of the property tax in 2013, now proposed it came as a surprise for many inside the party. This and other disagreements have led some PD members to conclude that there has been a ‘genetic mutation’ of the party. Stefano Fassina, who had been responsible for the PD’s economic proposals under Pier Luigi Bersani, and vice-minister of the economy under Enrico Letta (only two years ago) has left the PD with other MPs, forming a new federation of leftist parties and movements called ‘Italian left’. In their view, the PD is no longer a centre-left party, but it has become just a centrist party. Therefore, their new party should represent all those leftist voters who do not recognise themselves any more in Renzi’s PD.

Next spring, the most important Italian cities (Rome, Milan, Turin, Naples) will vote to elect their mayors. Renzi hopes to be able to fight these local elections on national issues, using the good results he has achieved on the economy (summarised by finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan’s ‘Italy is back’) to overcome the many difficulties and contradictions that the PD and its centre-left allies are undergoing at the local level.

Mattia Guidi is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Political Science of LUISS Guido Carli in Rome

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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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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