Reckless Renzi provokes split

With the splintering of the centre-left, the door has been opened wide for Grillo and the right, writes Toby Abse

Splitters: Michele Emiliano, Enrico Rossi and Roberto Speranza

At the very moment when Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) had finally started to run into serious difficulty as a result of the antics of its Roman mayor, Virginia Raggi, the Partito Democratico (PD) leader, Matteo Renzi, has come to its rescue, vastly increasing the chance of Italy having an M5S premier1 within the next 12 months - perhaps the next six months.

Renzi’s stubborn, irrational behaviour had been criticised by even his old friend, Graziano Delrio, the minister for infrastructure, in a private conversation with a PD deputy on February 17, unaware he was still being recorded by television journalists after the official end of a public meeting.2 As a result of this behaviour the PD has now split, with much of the vaguely leftwing opposition walking out on February 19. In all probability this will lead to an electoral defeat for a divided and fratricidal centre-left. Given the divisions amongst the forces of what one has to call the ‘traditional’ centre-right,3 M5S is more than likely to be the strongest force in the next parliament. Indeed, an Ipsos opinion poll for Corriere della Sera taken on February 16 - in other words, before the PD split on February 19 - already put M5S ahead of the PD by 30.9% to 30.1%.4

The widespread notion that the split was an inevitable consequence of the impossibility of the original 2007 fusion between the ex-communist Democratici di Sinistra (DS) and the ex-Christian Democratic Margherita, which created the PD, is unconvincing. Many older former Christian Democrats had no real difficulty in working alongside former DS members.

The problem was Renzi, his intolerance and his desire for revenge for his defeat in the December 2016 constitutional referendum. Renzi has never accepted the consequences of his defeat, hanging on to the party leadership until his temporary resignation on February 19 - a formality that was required to trigger a PD congress5 and new primaries. He acted as a backseat driver, even after choosing his own successor as premier - his former foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni. Renzi remains obsessed with the idea of an early election - even if September 24 may have replaced June 11 in his dreams6 - in which he would be the PD’s candidate for premier.

He seemed to pay no attention to the Consulta (constitutional court) when, exactly as president Sergio Mattarella had already done in January, it stressed the necessity of having compatible and broadly homogenous electoral laws for the two chambers, pointing out in its detailed explanation of its earlier negative verdict on Renzi’s Italicum7 that it was the role of parliament, not the judges, to work out precise details. Renzi is indifferent to precise details, provided he chooses all the PD candidates and, having pushed his most serious internal opponents out of his own party, is unwilling to attempt to reach any broad consensus with other parliamentary forces.

Whilst Renzi became the main advocate of an early PD congress - something which he had originally opposed when it was first suggested by his internal opponents immediately after the referendum - he only did so as a staging post towards an early election. When he still hoped for an election in March or April, he had viewed an early congress as an obstacle, wanting to hold one at the December 2017 date expected in the PD constitution, after his planned general election.

Under the rules of the PD, which were set up by Walter Veltroni in 2007 as an American-style electoral machine, rejecting the emphasis on policies that had dominated the congresses of the old Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) and its immediate successor parties - the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PdS) and the Democratici di Sinistra (DS) - the congress is essentially an instrument for electing a party leader via open primaries of self-proclaimed PD sympathisers, choosing amongst the candidates shortlisted by the congress.8

Rightwing bulldozer

On February 13, Renzi got the endorsement of the PD’s direzione (roughly the equivalent of the Labour Party’s national executive committee) for his plan for an early party congress. His aim was to complete the primary process in April (finally a date of April 30 was agreed), so that the new party leader would be in place before the local elections due in June. Renzi’s majority in the direzione was overwhelming - 107 votes to 12. A few other dissenters either abstained in person or walked out before the vote, but even if these vacillators had registered an openly negative vote, it would have made no substantial difference to the balance of forces.9

Significantly, Renzi’s followers would not even allow a motion from the minority, confirming the PD’s confidence in the government of Paolo Gentiloni, to be put to the vote - a clear indication not only of their desire for an early general election, but also of their intention to bring down a government led by a man from their own party, who holds broadly similar Blairite views to Renzi, even if his much calmer and more conciliatory personality has won him some popularity amongst an electorate grown weary of Renzi’s aggressive ranting and crude Power Point presentations.10

Renzi has, of course, done nothing to help his successor as prime minister (or indeed the nation he claims to be so concerned about) by his demagogic attacks on the European Commission over its warnings to Italy for exceeding the previously agreed percentage for the budget deficit. He has not suddenly abandoned his attachment to the general principles of neoliberal austerity: it is merely that he is chasing the votes of those drawn to M5S or the Lega Nord by adopting populist, Europhobic rhetoric - a similar kind of counterproductive strategy to that propounded by those in the Labour Party who claim that the best way to beat the UK Independence Party is to ape its policies on Brexit and immigration.

All this is happening at a time of low economic growth rates in Italy, recent spikes in the ‘spread’ (the gap between the yields of German and Italian government bonds, the main precipitant of Silvio Berlusconi’s fall in November 2011) and concerns about Italian banks and general market volatility in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s victory. So to exacerbate the conflict with the Commission at a time when the outgoing governments of Germany and the Netherlands, threatened by rising far-right parties, are playing to their pre-electoral domestic gallery - hostile to the alleged ‘spendthrifts’ from southern Europe - is very unwise, and adds to Gentiloni’s difficulties.

Even some key figures who have remained in the PD after the split were dismayed by Renzi’s taste for unnecessary confrontation. Although both Andrea Orlando, the justice minister, and Dario Franceschini (culture) tried to restrain Renzi (more openly and publicly than Delrio did behind the scenes) and to act as mediators with the minority associated with the former PD leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, they had no success at all. Orlando’s thoughtful suggestion of a programmatic conference before the congress, which might well have placated the minority, by allowing them to attempt to modify at least some of Renzi’s neoliberal Blairism on issues such as ‘vouchers’11 or the Buona Scuola12 in a mildly social democratic direction, was rejected out of hand.

Renzi’s proposals were put to a national assembly of 1,000 PD delegates on February 19. These delegates had been elected more than three years ago - during the December 2013 primaries, and therefore originally mirrored the percentages of the three candidates who had stood on that occasion - Renzi with 67%, Gianni Cuperlo (19%)13 and Pippo Civati (14%). Since the maverick young leftist, Civati, left the PD in May 2015,14 and some of Cuperlo’s nominal delegates now belong to a faction known as the Giovani Turchi (Young Turks), some of whom subsequently defected to Renzi when he became prime minister, it has proved hard to give exact figures for current allegiances. Nevertheless, in the days leading up to the national assembly, it was clear that Renzi had every reason to feel confident that the assembly would back any course of action he advocated, provided Dario Franceschini stood by him, as he did.15

According to La Repubblica, 45% of the delegates were pure ‘Renziani’, whilst Corriere della Sera estimated his support at 44%. La Repubblica gave Franceschini (who supported Renzi in the 2013 primary) 20% of the delegates, while Corriere gave him 23%.16 In the immediate aftermath of the February 13 direzione, there was some talk of the minority - or some of them - boycotting the February 19 assembly, but in the event Massimo D’Alema was the only prominent minority member to do so.17 Bersani sat in silence, leaving it to Epifani - the interim leader in 2013 between Bersani’s resignation and Renzi’s election - to make the best statement of the minority’s case. Bersani had made it clear immediately after the direzione meeting that the result of the assembly would be “cut and dried”.18

Contemptuous

Since Renzi behaved in his usual gratuitously aggressive fashion - both in the wording of his opening speech and in his contemptuous refusal to bother to make use of his right of reply to his critics at the end of the debate - the split was announced on the evening after the assembly. As Enrico Letta, the man whom Renzi ousted as prime minister in 2014, pointed out,

It is so easy to destroy! It is so much more difficult to construct. To destroy you need a minute; to construct you need a lifetime. It is not possible to destroy everything like this, to challenge the minority and even to be happy if they leave. The secretary has the greatest responsibility for the rupture.19

From his new academic post in the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), Letta is sufficiently detached to realise that “a motorway is being opened for Grillo, for Salvini and for the return of Berlusconi”. Whilst former centre-left premier Romano Prodi has described the PD split as “suicide”, he claims to have made dozens of private phone calls to the leading protagonists in an attempt to reconcile them, and refuses to publicly assign greater blame to either faction.20

Whilst the national assembly, like the direzione meeting that preceded it, was a walkover for Renzi, the balance of forces amongst the PD parliamentary groups is a little less certain. Bersani was still party leader at the time of the 2013 general election, and the candidate lists reflected this. Of the 303 PD deputies in the chamber, 40 were pure Renziani and 40 were with the Bersani-Cuperlo minority before the split, with the majority belonging to other intermediate factions that turned to Renzi after his seizure of the premiership from Enrico Letta in 2014. Of the senators, 15 were pure Renziani and 21 were with the minority, while a majority belonged to the more opportunist intermediate currents.

Given Cuperlo’s decision to remain in the PD, it is very improbable that all those once considered part of the PD minority faction in parliament will join the breakaway, but Bersani has a much greater weight than Cuperlo. Moreover, if Renzi starts excluding his milder critics from general election candidate lists, or placing them in unwinnable situations (such as low down in a party list if the election is conducted by proportional representation), a second wave might be inclined to defect before polling day. In any case, it remains to be seen whether Renzi could rely on the more opportunist parliamentarians voting down Gentiloni’s PD-led government, if the outcome would be an early general election - in which many would lose their seats (and high salaries).

After days of animated discussion about various possible names, the new political grouping was formally founded in Rome on February 25, with the official title of ‘Articolo 1 - Movimento Democratico e Progressista’.21 The shorter, everyday name for its parliamentarians (and eventually its members) is Democratici e Progressiti (Democrats and Progressives), abbreviated as DP. It begins its life with 38 deputies - 21 ex-PD and 17 ex-SEL {Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà - Left, Ecology and Freedom) - and 13 senators (all ex-PD). This makes DP a much more substantial parliamentary force than the residual Sinistra Italiana (SI), which, after the very recent SEL/SI defections, is left with 14 deputies and eight senators. Nonetheless, DP is, of course, far weaker than the post-split PD, which still has 282 deputies and 101 senators. Gentiloni’s PD-led coalition still has a majority in both houses, without the DP parliamentarians, although in both cases the PD is more dependent than ever for that majority on an array of small centrist factions.

The final point that has to be made in relation to the pre-split PD minority (and thus of whichever of these rebels actually make the break within the next week or so) is that the minority is not all that leftwing, even if most of its members are to the left of the ultra-Blairite, Renzi. The more ideologically consistent anti-Renzi PD parliamentarians like Pippo Civati or Stefano Fassina had already departed in earlier small splits22. Loathsome as Renzi’s talk of “scrapping” the old guard (repeated ad nauseam throughout 2014-16) was, there is a small kernel of truth in the notion of a purely generational conflict. It seems reasonable to see the elderly Bersani as a sincere social democrat, to some extent still influenced by his years in the PCI. As he put it at the Teatro Vittoria gathering of about 1,000 minority supporters in Rome on February 18 (the day before the assembly), “I am one who has remained faithful to the ideals of his youth”. He also made a point of quoting Enrico Berlinguer’s exhortation: “When you don’t know what to do, do what you ought to do”.23 In his first television interview after the split, Bersani said: “I don’t want to create the Cosa Rossa, but nor do I want something that spits in the face of the left.”24

The 58-year-old president of the Tuscan region, Enrico Rossi, clearly feels that Renzi has pulled the party too far to the right.25 Another leading figure in the split, the rather younger Roberto Speranza, resigned from a prestigious parliamentary position in open protest against one of Renzi’s measures.

Opportunist D’Alema

However, it is, to say the least, unfortunate that the most enthusiastic advocate of a split in the PD has been none other than Massimo D’Alema, who may have a following amongst some PCI/PDS/DS career apparatchiks, but will repel many on both the radical left and the centre-left for a wide assortment of reasons.

D’Alema was one of the group who showed most enthusiasm for liquidating the old PCI in 1989-91 (although, typically, he was very keen to blame the arch-liquidator, Achille Occhetto, for the loss of the 1994 general election, rather than accepting collective responsibility for a shared strategic line). Whilst D’Alema later posed as a traditionalist in opposition to his avowedly ‘modernising’ Blairite rival, Walter Veltroni,26 the founder of the PD, the rivalry was more personal than political, just like the Blair-Brown rivalry in the UK.

D’Alema was incredibly eager to seek a shoddy compromise with Berlusconi in 1996-98, saving the tycoon from a serious attack over the ‘conflict of interest’ question, at the time of the Bicamerale - a parliamentary commission drawn from both chambers - which came up with regressive, anti-democratic plans for a constitutional reform very similar to those D’Alema fiercely denounced when Renzi put them forward last year. D’Alema is generally believe to have been the man behind the fall of the first Prodi government in 1998 - a backstabbing operation equal in deviousness and hypocrisy to Renzi’s February 2014 coup against Enrico Letta, and one that involved such figures as the sinister Francesco Cossiga, the former president associated with Gladio, and the corrupt Christian Democrat Clemente Mastella.

D’Alema is seen by many as continuing his vendetta against Prodi until 2014, giving secret instructions to the 101 PD traitors who deprived Prodi of the votes needed for the presidency of the republic, even if some others suspect Renzi may have played a role in this disgraceful episode that led a devastated Bersani to resign the PD leadership in disgust.27

In any event, D’Alema was responsible for the privatisation of Telecom Italia on terms that favoured a bunch of scoundrels, arguably setting a precedent for Berlusconi handing over the state-run Alitalia airline to another set of rogues at a similar fire-sale price. Moreover, D’Alema played a very murky role in a number of attempts, successful and otherwise, to merge banks with which he appeared to have some hidden connection.28 His penchant for sailing in immensely expensive yachts has drawn much comment over the years, given the marked contrast with the austere lifestyle of such PCI leaders as Enrico Berlinguer and Alessandro Natta. Whether or not D’Alema’s particular hatred of Renzi is really connected with an unfulfilled desire to get Italian government backing for his pursuit of the post of EU foreign affairs spokesperson, as Renzi constantly claims, is irrelevant - the notion of D’Alema as a principled advocate of even mild social democracy, let alone any broad left party that might absorb elements of the radical left, is utterly laughable.

Quite apart from the damage to the splitters’ public image if they are too closely associated in voters’ minds with the unscrupulous D’Alema rather than the more sincere Bersani, Epifani, Speranza and Rossi, the split has often been overshadowed in the media by the grotesque behaviour of the overweight and garrulous president of the PD Puglian region, Michele Emiliano. Emiliano joined Rossi and Speranza on the platform of the Rome gathering on February 18, even being photographed as part of a trio which was compared with the Three Tenors. Although he made the most virulent attack on Renzi of any speaker at the rally, it was undoubtedly very significant that he adamantly refused to join in the singing of Bandiera Rossa.29 On February 19 he made a conciliatory - some might say grovelling - speech at the national assembly, shocking Rossi and Speranza, but failing to get Renzi to make any response.

By the evening, Rossi and Speranza, imagining they had got him back onside, got him to sign a joint statement supporting the split. Then, after a couple of days of very public vacillation, he turned up at the PD direzione meeting on February 21 and announced that he was staying in the party. Whilst Emiliano denounced the absent Renzi at this meeting, and made it clear that he was going to challenge him for the leadership in the PD primary, his candidacy may well have less credibility than that of the more consistent Andrea Orlando. Orlando, whilst criticising Renzi’s behaviour and to some extent his policies, had always made it clear that he had no interest in a split. In any event, Renzi, with his usual arrogance, did not even bother to attend the meeting - instead flying off to California to meet some Silicon Valley tycoons. Since his lackeys have assured him that he will secure 60%-70% in any primary contest with Emiliano and Orlando, he clearly thinks, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’

Inevitably, massive daily press coverage of the wrangling in the PD took Raggi and her crooked clique off the Italian front pages. The split in the PD will boost M5S’s chances in the coming general election, as the French journalists of Le Monde were very quick to recognise. The whole history of the Italian left and its earlier splits suggests that the combined percentage vote of the two parties will be lower than that of the united party in the last pre-split election. Renzi has in all probability handed the country to Grillo, who, even if his followers fail to reach the 40% threshold needed for the majority premium, will make some sort of formal or informal post-electoral deal with his fellow Europhobes and racists in the Lega Nord and the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia - with the blessing of Trump, Putin and Marine Le Pen l

Notes

1. Whilst M5S has not yet officially chosen its candidate for premier - which will presumably be done through an online primary run by Davide Casaleggio’s firm in its customary opaque fashion - 29-year-old Luigi Di Maio is currently being groomed for the job. Di Maio’s grasp of history and foreign affairs is comparable to that of Donald Trump, and is best illustrated by his notorious remark about “Pinochet’s Venezuelan dictatorship”. Beppe Grillo, despite his iron grip on party policy, is unable to lead M5S in parliament because of his old manslaughter conviction.

2. The 56-year-old Delrio, a devout Catholic father of nine children, had no political sympathy for the PD minority, whose older members were former communists. Moreover, Delrio, always loyal to his old friend Renzi, desperately attempted to backtrack in substantial but unconvincing interviews with both La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, published on February 18.

3. The collapse of Italy’s cold war parties, especially the Democrazia Cristiana (DC) in 1991-94, meant that the forces associated with Berlusconi’s coalition governments - Forza Italia, the Lega Nord and the neo-fascists - became the ‘traditional’ centre-right. Although their combined strength in opinion polls sometimes exceeds 30%, the 80-year-old Berlusconi has lost control of what were once his junior partners.

4. Figures taken from Corriere della Sera February 18 2017. The preceding Ipsos poll on January 11 had given the parties exactly the same percentages as the February one. It is notable that the Raggi affair has not eroded the M5S vote, even if it may have prevented its increase. In this respect, M5S resembles France’s Front Nationaland Donald Trump in being largely immune to damage from scandals of the type that would destroy conventional career politicians.

5. According to the PD constitution, congresses can only be held every four years unless a leader resigns.

6. He has deliberately chosen the date of the German election on September 24. Given the general atmosphere of crisis in the EU, this once more demonstrates his complete lack of judgement, further illustrated by his demagogic, Europhobic turn discussed below. His apparent belief that such a coincidence of timing would enable him to put more pressure for ‘flexibility’ in budgetary matters on the Germans is totally insane, given the rigid and inflexible character of German finance minister Wolfgang Schaüble, who took such sadistic delight in the ‘waterboarding’ of Alexis Tsipras in July 2015.

7. This verdict was discussed in my last article, ‘In the hands of the courts’ (Weekly Worker February 9 2017).

8. These are the three contenders with the most votes, providing they exceed a 5% threshold.

9. These doubters seem to have come into line with Renzi by the time of the PD national assembly on February 19.

10. The appallingly narcissistic Renzi is undoubtedly very jealous of Gentiloni’s current standing as the most popular of Italy’s major politicians. Gentiloni now has a 43% approval rating, up from 35% in December. Conversely, Renzi has sunk to 32% from 35% in December. M5S’s probable candidate for premier, Luigi Di Maio, has 33%, Grillo has 29% and Berlusconi 23%. These figures are taken from an Ipsos poll reported in Corriere dellaSera on February 18 2017.

11. Explained in ‘In the hands of the courts’ Weekly Worker February 9 2017.

12. This measure gave greatly increased powers to head teachers, and has proved unpopular with classroom teachers, a major sector of the PD electorate in recent decades.

13. Cuperlo was the candidate supported by the traditionalist left of Pier Luigi Bersani and Massimo D’Alema. He subsequently broke with Bersani over the constitutional referendum, belatedly joining Renzi’s ‘yes’ campaign. He has now decided to remain in the PD, although he publicly stated: “Renzi seems not to have understood the effect the split would have had” and regards this as “the confirmation of his inadequacy” as PD leader (La Repubblica February 21 2017).

14. Civati is now leader of a micro-group called Possibile. Possibile remains distinct from Sinistra Italiana(SI), the fusion between the remnants of Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (SEL - Left, Ecology and Freedom) and other leftwingers like Stefano Fassina, who split from the PD in reaction to its rightward drift under Renzi, long before the current split by Bersani and his followers. SEL lost a substantial number of parliamentarians on its right wing to the PD in the early days of Renzi’s premiership - most notably Gennaro Migliore, a former RifondazioneComunista stalwart, whose latter-day adulation of Renzi is utterly nauseating.

15. Dario Franceschini was the only PD leader before Renzi to come from a Christian Democrat, rather than a communist (or, in the case of Guglielmo Epifani, socialist) background. Most of Franceschini’s supporters are former Christian Democrats who joined the PD in 2007 from the Magherita, not the DS. Whilst they may have been suspicious of the younger, disproportionately Tuscan, group that makes up Renzi’s hard-core support, they have little in common with the former DS, often ex-PCI members who made up the core of the PD minority.

16. Figures taken from La Repubblica February 14 and Corriere della Sera February 15 2017.

17. In a long television interview on February 21, he claimed to have had a cold on February 19, from which he had presumably made an extraordinarily rapid recovery.

18. He actually said, “cotto e mangiato”, which literally means ‘cooked and eaten’.

19. Corriere della Sera February 21 2017. It should be stressed here that Letta is a former Christian Democrat, who came to the PD via the Margherita, and in no way a hard leftist from the DS, even if he has a good personal relationship with Bersani. Letta let his own membership of the PD lapse in 2014, after Renzi’s stab in the back.

20. La Repubblica February 21 2017.

21. ‘Articolo 1’ is a reference to article one of the Italian constitution, which specifies that “Italy is a republic founded on labour”.

22. Even SI it its initial parliamentary form was hardly on the radical left. Arguably, the election of Nicola Fratoianni, ex-PRC and ex-SEL, as its secretary at the recent congress may represent a left turn.

23. Corriere della Sera February 19 2017.

24. La Repubblica February 22 2017.

25. However, it has to be said that his record on privatisation and outsourcing at a regional level has left a lot to be desired, as the local representatives of Rifondazione Comunista have often made plain.

26. Of course, Veltroni’s open identification with Tony Blair in the latter’s heyday - Veltroni was probably himself responsible for his media nickname, ‘Baby Blair’ - was a little more understandable than Renzi’s neo-Blairism, at a time when his proclaimed role model is remembered in the UK as the architect of the disastrous Iraq war, and a very well-paid lobbyist for an assortment of dictators. By 2008, Veltroni had transferred his affections to Barack Obama, and adopted a variant of ‘Yes, we can’ as the general election slogan of the Partito Democratico, which had taken its name from its American counterpart.

27. Giorgio Napolitano, who ‘reluctantly’ agreed to re-election as president in Prodi’s place, subsequently did nothing to stop Renzi’s coup against Letta.

28. D’Alema denied all wrongdoing, despite some very interesting wiretaps that were leaked to the press at the time - presumably by investigating magistrates.

29. As he recently admitted in a lengthy, rambling and self-justificatory interview with Corriere della Sera published on February 22 2017, “My father was a Messino” (ie, a member of the neo-fascist MSI).