Italy: What does Renzi’s win in Democratic Party primaries mean for Europe?

Former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi was re-elected as secretary of the Democratic Party on April 30.
May 6, 2017

Italian Democratic Party (PD) members re-elected former prime minister Matteo Renzi as party secretary with 70% of the votes in primaries on April 30. Renzi’s re-election carries important significance for both Italy and Europe.

It confirms that PD voters approve the centrist policies implemented by their party in recent years. The PD has approved and enacted several unpopular neoliberal laws. For instance, in 2012 it voted in favour of amending Italy’s Constitution to mandate balanced budgets.

The Italian government, a coalition between PD and the New Centre-Right (NCD) party, has also approved a law that allows employers to sack workers without providing any justification.

Further examples could be listed, reflecting the fact that the PD has completely forgotten its Communist background and that the working class no longer recognises itself in the party.

Social democracy

The PD is a clear example of the “centrist turn” taken by the whole of European social democracy in the name of stability and governability. Similar situations are occurring in the German Social Democratic Party, whose leader Martin Schulz (a strong supporter of EU austerity policies) will probably be the next German chancellor.

The French Socialist Party is now paying a price for such a turn, becoming marginal in France’s political life.

A long series of compromises have resulted in the abandonment of left-wing policies by the European social democrats. In this sense, it is hardly surprising that in the European Parliament, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is more “in tune” with the centrist Popular Party (EEP) than with the left in the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL).

At a European level, the re-election of Renzi means nothing will change and that the current political alliances will be maintained. However, it is also true that the S&D group has been weakened by the hammering taken by the French Socialist Party and the likely defeat of the British Labour Party in general elections next month.

At a national level, the PD primaries add a piece to the puzzling scenario of the Italian left.

After many separations, the Italian left is currently divided into three blocs. There is the PD, which has become a full-fledged centrist party.

A second bloc is the so-called Progressive Field, a centre-left movement led by Milan Giuliano Pisapia, whose intent is to create a broad coalition including all the progressive and centre-left forces of Italy, from the PD to the environmentalist movements.

In other terms, Pisapia’s project aims at reunifying the Italian centre-left and reducing the undisputed leadership of Renzi. Among those who joined the Progressive field is the Movement of Progressive Democrats (MDP), a new party created by Pierluigi Bersani and other former PD members in opposition to Renzi’s policies.

Radical left

The third bloc is a radical left one and includes Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), Sinistra Italiana (SI), Possibile (led by the former Democrat Giuseppe Civati) and other left-wing and environmental groups and movements.

PRC secretary Maurizio Acerbo is working hard to create a united left-wing movement able to provide a concrete alternative to PD policies. “Only a united left can take effective action against the neoliberal policies of the PD,” Acerbo said. “However, if we are separated, the whole Italian left will be politically irrelevant.”

The MDP and the Progressive Field seem not to share Acerbo’s view and prefer to look for unlikely alliances with the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) — trying to pursue a new government proposal rather than identifying themselves with the left.

They are also trying to convince SI and Possibile to join their side and abandon the project of reunifying the radical left.

However, the field is still wide open and things will get clearer when the parliament approves a new electoral law. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the new system following the Constitutional Court’s decision cancelling the “Italicum” (the latest electoral law, strongly advocated by Renzi).

At first, many political forces seemed in favour of a majoritarian voting system, including PD, the Progressives and a part of the centre-right. However, Renzi surprised everyone saying, after his re-election, that he would work for a proportional electoral law, similar to the German one.

Such a proposal could satisfy almost everyone, from the Progressives to Forza Italia, the right-wing party led by ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The radical left, however, supports a purely proportional electoral system, with no amendments or majority bonuses, so that the representation of minor parties would be guaranteed.

Right and populist forces

The populist and reactionary groups do not have a clear position. The leader of the far-right Northern League, Matteo Salvini, said he will endorse any electoral system, on condition that elections are held as soon as possible. The right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia endorses this view.

The populist M5S is very ambiguous on the issue. It has its own legislative proposal, a supposed proportional one, but strongly amended in a centralistic way at the expense of local authorities. Moreover, the M5S defines its own proposal as “radically innovative and alternative”, despite the fact it is based on the D’Hondt method, a calculation method for allocating parliamentary seats dating back to 1878.

Exactly how a proposal based on a 150-year old method can be considered “radically innovative and alternative” is another story.

However, the M5S has verbally agreed to support different proposals, but nothing concrete has been done. Luigi Di Maio, a key member of M5S and vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies, recently gave Renzi an ultimatum to reach an agreement on this thorny issue, but it seems more an electoral strategy than a concrete proposal.

In view of the broad consensus he has achieved, Renzi is sorely tempted to run for the new elections with no allies, following the French centrist Emmanuel Macron’s model. He clearly said of the MDP: “they who left the PD are not welcome in an eventual coalition”.

Most likely, Renzi will try to push through a new electoral law that allows him — and other major political forces — to make alliances after elections. In other words, he will advocate a proportional electoral law with a majority bonus to be assigned to the first-placed party, with a 5% threshold for representation. By so doing, he will also be able to reinstate the “Macron model” without compromises with other forces.

The whole centre-right (from NCD to Forza Italia) would approve such a system.

In theory, the M5S should also be in favour of such a proposal, but there is no way to tell if it will be willing to facilitate the work of Renzi and the PD.

The Progressives, for their part, do not mind Renzi’s proposal, but would prefer to assign the majority bonus to a coalition, rather than to a single party.

A 5% threshold and majority bonus would penalise the minor parties, including the radical left, while ensuring a place in parliament to the “traditional” parties and the M5S.

The temptation to exclude the radical left (and other minor parties) from parliament is strong. Consequently, at the moment it is unlikely the changes will go against the interests of the major parties.

Unity needed

The only chance is that as many forces as possible join Acerbo’s call for unity of the radical left, rejecting the Progressive’s mild proposal. The left has to get back to its left-wing identity, rather than playing into the hands of centrist forces.

Italy desperately needs the radical left back in parliament, where it has been missing for almost 10 years. This is a political and social problem, as for some time now, a significant part of the working class relates to populist and even far-right forces, and does not feel left-wing parties or trade unions defends its interests.

It is therefore likely that the ongoing chaos of the Italian left will result in a new right-wing government.

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