Beppe Grillo: is his party heading for government?

Playing into Grillo’s hands

Toby Abse reports on the balance of forces following Renzi’s re-election

On April 30, former premier Matteo Renzi gained an overwhelming victory in the Partito Democratico (PD) primary (leadership contest). He scored 69.17% against justice minister Andrea Orlando’s 19.96%, and Puglian regional president Michaele Emiliano’s 10.87 %.

However, somebody less arrogant than Renzi would have had cause for concern, since the reduced turnout demonstrated the waning influence of the PD over its traditional voters. The reduced turnout - 1,900,000, compared with 2,800,000 in December 2013 - meant that Renzi actually got fewer votes - 1,390,000 - than the 1,895,000 he had scored in his 67.5% victory on the previous occasion. The fall in turnout was most marked in the three ‘red regions’ - Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria - as well as in Piedmont, of which Turin is the capital. Significantly, the most marked fall was in Emilia-Romagna (capital: ‘Red Bologna’), where only 200,000 voted - half the 2013 figure. The other marked feature of the primary was that 66% of the voters were over 60, with only 10% being drawn from the 16-34 age group.1

Renzi has used the primary to reassert his control over the party - and drag it further to the centre - but he has done so in a way that reduced the PD’s chance of beating Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) at the polls in the next few months. He seems to have divided his opponents - gaining the support of Emiliano’s delegates at the May 7 national assembly for his candidate for the PD presidency and isolating the more serious opposition from Orlando’s supporters.

Renzi was determined not only to obtain a new mandate as PD secretary in a bid to wipe out the memory of his humiliating defeat in the December 2016 referendum on constitutional reform, but also to make absolutely sure that he would be the leader in the forthcoming general election, and therefore guarantee that he had the final say over which forces the PD might ally with, before or after the election, since it stands no chance of gaining the 40% required under the current law to gain the majority premium of 55% of the seats and form a single-party government. Renzi completely rejected the notion that the two roles of party secretary and prime minister were in practice incompatible - a view expressed by some of his critics, who claimed, with some justification, that during his premiership from February 2014 to December 2016 he had neglected the PD’s internal affairs: weakening its organisation on the ground in cities like Rome and Naples, and allowing membership to decline.

Weakened opposition

By provoking a split in the PD on the eve of the primary,2 he had ensured that the internal opposition to him would be considerably weakened, now that Pierluigi Bersani - his predecessor as secretary - and a large proportion of those who had come into the PD from the ex-‘official communist’ Democratici di Sinistra (DS) had departed for the more social democratic Articolo Uno - Movimento Democratici e Progressisti (MDP). As a result of the breakaway, in the initial qualifying phase of the primary, confined to PD branches, he had already obtained two-thirds of the vote. His two opponents - the broadly social democratic Orlando and the erratic populist Emiliano - had got 25.3% and 8% respectively.

Although the division amongst his internal opponents probably strengthened Renzi’s position, he would have been victorious even in a straight fight with Orlando, who, despite the contradictions involved in his own role as justice minister in both Renzi’s government and Paolo Gentiloni’s current administration, had gathered the support of all Renzi’s serious opponents within the PD, and endorsements from some people with no DS past, such as former premier Enrico Letta and, implicitly, another former premier, Romano Prodi. On the other hand, Renzi had the support of the majority of the remaining party apparatchiks, once most of the layer of older, ex-DS activists associated with Bersani had gone.

Moreover, Renzi tried as far as possible to avoid debating with his opponents - the only television debate Renzi deigned to participate in was on Sky, limiting the audience to those fanatical sports fans willing to pay for their satellite dishes: not necessarily the portion of the viewing public with the deepest interest in the PD leadership, or even Italian politics in general. Renzi actually withdrew at the last minute - with a lame excuse - from a programme that intended to run parallel interviews (rather than a genuine debate) with all three candidates, as well as turning down invitations for interviews from a number of well-known presenters of current-affairs programmes, with whom he had fallen out in the past, and from whom he feared tough questioning.

In the course of the campaign, it became clear that one of the main issues at stake concerned the political forces with which the PD would ally itself if, as seems very likely, it is not in a position to form a majority government after the next election. Renzi has made it clear that he will not form an alliance with the MDP or any other political party to the left of the PD, branding all those who have broken away in opposition to his neoliberal policies as “traitors”. Whilst Renzi still claims that he would be willing to reach some agreement with Giuliano Pisapia, the former mayor of Milan, and his rather nebulous movement, the Campo Progressista, he has emphasised that he would have no further interest in a deal with Pisapia if it meant also having to include the MDP.

On the other hand, Renzi has refused to reject out of hand any notion of an alliance with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in a ‘grand coalition’ against populist forces such as M5S and Berlusconi’s own nominal allies, the Lega Nord and the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (FdI). Emiliano’s position was rather confused, but he appeared open to a hypothetical deal with M5S. Orlando, on the other hand, was committed to the idea of a “broad centre-left” as the only way to block both M5S and the traditional centre-right. He was implacably opposed to a deal with Berlusconi, saying that Renzi should put that idea to a referendum of all PD members, assuming that, however far they had moved towards the centre, they would never swallow this. Given that the MDP, the Campo Progressista, Sinistra Italiana and other lesser fragments of a similar nature are all fundamentally social democratic, Orlando’s proposal was perfectly viable and quite likely to allow a broad PD-led centre-left coalition to win the next election.

Given Renzi’s obstinacy, it is possible that there may be a further split from the PD in the aftermath of his re-election as secretary. There are rumours that a centre-left list in direct opposition to the PD may be formed - one that would involve figures close to Prodi,3 as well as the more leftwing fragments, such as the Campo Progressista, MDP and perhaps Sinistra Italiana. Indeed, it has been rumoured that the former premier and head of the European Commission may give this combination his official endorsement. Significantly, Prodi has said in the aftermath of the 2017 primary result, “Effectively, my votes4 were numerically almost three times higher than those of last Sunday, but they were other times, there was a great hope … If the party wants to win an election, it must be inclusive.”5 This is a clear indication of his contempt for Renzi, and may well signal further moves towards involvement in an alternative centre-left.

All these divisions were reflected in the April 25 Liberation Day commemoration march in Milan, when Renzi’s PD adopted blue flags with the EU stars in a rather ham-fisted effort to identify themselves with French presidential candidate Emanuel Macron, whilst the MDP and Campo Progressista marched in a different part of the procession with banners containing (a certain amount of) red.

M5S deal?

As things stand, it is likely that the next general election will be fought on some kind of relatively pure proportional system, in which M5S will emerge as the largest party. Mainstream journalists in Repubblica and Corriere della Sera have been suggesting for some time that M5S will make some kind of post-electoral deal with the Lega Nord and FdI, given their shared hostility to the euro and the EU, as well as to the current wave of immigration reaching Italy from Libya. M5S’s official position is to deny this, repeating its shop-worn assertions of purity and its ‘neither right nor left’ sloganising, but its recent rightward shifts are not explicable on any other basis.

M5S is in favour of a referendum on the euro, bringing it back into line with the Lega’s reiterated desire to return to the lira. Moreover, M5S’s pronouncements on immigration have once again taken a strongly racist and xenophobic turn - a few weeks ago, M5S’s Luigi Di Maio claimed that 40% of Romanian criminals had come to Italy; and the latest M5S campaign suggests that the NGOs involved in saving migrants from death by drowning in the Mediterranean are in league with the human traffickers who, according to M5S, are their chief financiers. The M5S campaign has, as a secondary theme, made some allegations about George Soros playing an important role in financing the humanitarian NGOs. Regardless of whether Soros - himself a refugee at an earlier stage of his life - has or has not given any money to any of the nine NGOs involved, it should be obvious to anyone familiar with the weird world of internet conspiracy theories that this is an implicit reference to our old friend, the world Jewish conspiracy - the notion that Jewish financiers are flooding Italy with black migrants could have come straight from the pages of Mein Kampf.

It needs to be emphasised that these incitements to racial hatred come not from some maverick local councillor, but from the very top of M5S - repeated statements by di Maio, backed up by repeated endorsements by Beppe Grillo, on what Renzi and the mainstream press sarcastically describe as “the Sacred Blog”. Whilst it is possible that some prominent M5S members privately find this murderously xenophobic rhetoric distasteful, they have yet to criticise either Di Maio or Grillo publicly. While M5S has distanced itself from Trump’s recent military escapades in Syria and elsewhere, in marked contrast to Grillo’s initial public rejoicing at Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election, this shift is entirely due to M5S’s pro-Putin stance. Once its two anti-EU heroes clashed, it had to take sides.

Manlio Di Stefano, the M5S ‘expert’ on foreign policy6, destined for the foreign ministry in the event of an M5S electoral victory, is solidly pro-Putin. Di Stefano has had a number of meetings with Sergei Zheleznyak, the deputy leader of Putin’s United Russia Party and vice-president of the Russian duma. Di Stefano has also given numerous television interviews to Russia Today, and in June 2016 at the congress of United Russia made a speech in fluent English defending all Putin’s actions, including the invasion of the Crimea. This pro-Putin M5S line tallies with that of the Lega, whose leader, Matteo Salvini, has visited Moscow - there have been unconfirmed rumours of Russian financial assistance to the Lega. Obviously there are limits to the extent that M5S can follow the Lega and the FdI, but all these indications of an ideological convergence make the suspicions of mainstream journalists about a post-electoral alliance rather more credible than M5S’s official denials.

Projections based on current opinion polls would suggest that Renzi will not have the requisite numbers in a parliament elected on a proportional basis to realise his grand coalition of the PD, Forza Italia and centrist fragments like Alleanza Popolare (formerly known as Nuovo Centro Destro), so his hope of returning to Palazzo Chigi (the prime minister’s office) is probably delusional anyway, and merely opens the way to an M5S-led government.


1. All figures from Repubblica or Corriere della Sera between May 1 and May 7. In some cases they were either provisional or rounded up or down, but, there is no doubt about the accuracy of the general trends.

2. See ‘Hit by corruption scandals’ Weekly Worker March 30.

3. In other words, people from the left of the old Christian Democratic tradition rather than the former DS members involved in the MDP split from the PD.

4. In the centre-left coalition primary of 2005.

5. La Repubblica April 28.

6. At least, unlike Di Maio - who notoriously talked about Pinochet’s “Venezuelan” dictatorship - he appears to have some grasp of history and geography.