Giuliano Pisapia: doing deals

Pisapia’s soap opera

Thankfully the attempt by the former mayor of Milan to pull fragments to the left of the PD back into the fold has ended in failure, writes Toby Abse

Disputes over the budget look like dominating Italian parliamentary politics this autumn - minimising the time available to discuss other issues, perhaps even the latest electoral reform proposals, the so-called Rosatellum,1 let alone what looks like a doomed attempt to revive the ius soli.2

Whilst the imminent general election - probably scheduled for February or March 2018 - means that the government led by Paolo Gentiloni has no desire to bring in a really harsh and unpopular austerity budget, the measures now being outlined fit into the same broadly neoliberal framework that has characterised the budgets of the two previous governments - those of Enrico Letta and Matteo Renzi - that held office during the present parliamentary term. It is undoubtedly the case that there is considerable pressure from the German government and the European Central Bank to curb spending, on welfare in particular, because of what they see as Italy’s sacred duty to reduce its considerable national debt, and the weakness of Italy’s banks make resistance difficult. However, Gentiloni shows no great desire to resist.

It is therefore not surprising that the government rejects trade union demands not to raise the pension age to 67, and that its proposed solution to youth unemployment is to reduce employers’ national insurance contributions if they take on workers under the age of 29, rather than to begin much needed public investment. Instead of attempting a detailed analysis of the budget, one might summarise it as being pro-business rather than pro-labour - no surprise there. However, the left social democratic Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP) has caused a bit of a crisis by seeking to ‘unduly influence’ it.3 The MDP has, since its split from Gentiloni’s Partito Democratico (PD) in February, offered frequent verbal criticism of the neoliberal economic and social policies of both former prime minister (and continuing PD leader) Renzi and current premier Gentiloni. However, in choosing to take a stand over the budget it has ceased to behave as an organic part of the government’s majority in parliament.

On October 3 Filippo Bubbico, the deputy minister of the interior - the only MDP member to hold government office - resigned his post in accordance with his party’s new, more oppositional line. This ‘tougher’ stance was shown in the vote in the Senate on October 4 on the update to the Documento di Economia e Finanza (DEF), which gives broad advance indications of the proposed budget and on which the MDP abstained. Rather predictably, however, the PD had recourse to the votes of groups to its right, which are not formally part of Gentiloni’s coalition, in order to preserve its nominally wafer-thin majority in the Senate. In fact, the government easily won the vote - by 164 to 108 - which, as many journalists pointed out, made the MDP seem rather insignificant.

In the other budget-related vote on the very same day - the proposal to postpone the balancing of the books until 2020 - the MDP voted with the government, giving Gentiloni a substantial winning margin of 181 to 107. The reasons for this rather nuanced stance by the MDP were, firstly, that the second measure had to have an absolute majority of all the senators rather than just a majority of all those senators participating in the vote, so there was theoretically a more real chance of bringing the government down; and, secondly, that if it had not passed, this would have rapidly triggered an automatic rise in VAT, which would, as an indirect tax, have hit the working class constituency that the MDP claims to represent particularly hard.

It is now very unlikely that the government will be brought down over any aspect of the budget, both because the MDP is, as I have indicated, somewhat half-hearted in its opposition - leading MDP figures have repeatedly stated that they would not do anything that would bring the troika to Italy4 - and because the votes from dubious figures like Denis Verdini (notorious for numerous cases of alleged financial malfeasance, including the sudden collapse of his own small Florentine bank), which proved so important on October 4, will be forthcoming on subsequent occasions.5

Quarrel on the ‘left’

However, even if the MDP’s abstention on the DEF proved to be of purely symbolic importance in terms of the parliamentary arithmetic, this episode once again exposed the totally incoherent position of Giuliano Pisapia, and precipitated the final breach between his Campo Progressistaand the MDP.

There had been various attempts to bring about a reconciliation between the MDP and Campo Progressista after the quarrel precipitated by Pisapia’s public embrace of Maria Elena Boschi, which I discussed at length in an earlier article,6 including one meeting in September attended by 10 representatives of both groups, which led to a temporary truce. However, trouble flared up on every occasion when Pisapia was forced to make a choice between the MDP and the PD.

Before the budget votes, the most serious dispute had been over which presidential candidate (and therefore which list) to back in the Sicilian regional elections. At first, it was not clear whether foreign minister Angelino Alfano’s centrist Alleanzna Popolare (AP), which is stronger in Sicily than in any other region, was going to ally with forces to its right or left. The PD, aware of its own weakness on the island, decided to try and build a broad coalition around a so-called ‘civic’ candidate, with no previous publicly avowed party allegiance, and chose Fabrizio Micari, the rector of Palermo University, for this role. The MDP made it clear from the start that they did not want to be part of this project if it also involved AP. Pisapia, although he had frequently made public criticisms of Alfano, was much more enthusiastic about a broad Micari-led alliance.

When it became certain that the hard-right Forza Italia was going, despite Berlusconi’s initial marked reluctance, to support an alliance led by neo-fascist Nello Musumeci, which wanted to have no truck with AP, and that AP was therefore negotiating with the PD for places in Macari’s bloc, the MDP started discussions with Sinistra Italiana (SI) about standing a leftwing list. Eventually, Claudio Fava - the son of a leftwing journalist murdered by the Mafia and himself previously associated with groups to the left of the PD - agreed to head what was essentially a combined MDP/SI list.

Pisapia took umbrage, saying that the MDP had acted without consulting him, effectively breaching the implicit conditions of the MDP-Campo Progressista alliance. But, given Pisapia’s enormous hostility to SI - a grouping largely composed of the left wing of the now dissolved Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (SEL), the very party with which Pisapia himself was once associated - this reticence about consulting him was hardly surprising. As far as one can tell, Pisapia now appears to back Fava rather than Micari, but Campo Progressista has done little or nothing to support the more leftwing candidate.

Pisapia has tried to put forward a similar line of argument - about the disloyal unilateral actions of the MDP - in relation to the budget vote. Pisapia and two representatives of the MDP had a meeting with Gentiloni about the contents of the budget a couple of days before the vote. The meeting seems to have been rather inconclusive - the premier probably confined himself to generalities - and the MDP said they would wait until finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan made a detailed statement to parliament the following day. Quite reasonably, the MDP parliamentarians, having listened to Padoan’s speech, concluded that no substantial concessions had been made, and therefore decided they could not vote for the DEF.

However, the six self-proclaimed supporters of the Campo Progressista inthe Senate voted with the government.7 Pisapia’s immediate response to the MDP’s abstention over the DEF was to attack Massimo D’Alema as being “as divisive as Renzi”, proclaiming with absolutely no sense of irony: “I am available for a unitarian project; he continues to make divisive declarations.” The former mayor of Milan (Pisapia) rather arrogantly urged the former prime minister (D’Alema) to “take a step aside”. Pisapia even alleged that D’Alema had wanted the MDP to abstain on the vote postponing the balancing of the budget - an abstention which would have automatically provoked a rise in VAT.

Nichi Vendola, the former leader of SEL and still influential in SI, responded pointedly on social media: “Pisapia is right: D’Alema is divisive; he divides the left from the right.” The prickly Pisapia - so often ludicrously depicted as the calm and reasonable voice of the left by the mainstream media8 - angrily tweeted back at his former comrade (and in their SEL days party leader): “One can change ideas, but not forget - you governed Puglia in very varied company. In Milan, there were no rightwingers in the cabinet.”

‘Broad coalition’

Within days of this public quarrel, Renzi made an appeal to those to his left to join a “broad coalition” and claimed that “our adversaries are not those people who have gone from here” (ie, the MDP). This apparently welcoming rhetoric was clearly designed to split Pisapia’s followers from the MDP, since Renzi has absolutely no intention of making any serious programmatic concessions. Moreover, any Renzi-led coalition of the ‘centre-left’ would in reality involve three lists: on the right, AP and any other ‘centrist’ flotsam and jetsam, probably including what the Italian media euphemistically call “unpresentables” like Verdini; in the middle, the predominant partner, namely the PD; and on the ‘left’ Pisapia’s followers and any other tame non-PD ‘centre-left’ that can be rounded up.

The MDP president of Tuscany, Enrico Rossi, responded in a lucid and forthright interview with La Repubblica (October 8) that “Renzi is presenting a more affable face, but in his actions he is accentuating the turn to the right in order to create the ‘party of the nation’.”

Addressing Renzi’s apparent opening to the left, Rossi shrewdly observed:

It seems to me an attempt to convince Pisapia. As the opinion polls show, Renzi is not taking more votes from the right, so he tries to turn to the left. But at the same time he confirms the alliance with Alfano and speaks of Calenda9 as the moderate pole. Verdini is the man who has in reality entered the majority. We have reached the ‘party of the nation’, even if it is dressed up in a more attractive manner; however, an alliance with Forza Italiaafter the election has not been excluded.

Roberto Speranza, the official leader of the MDP, expressed the same thoroughly understandable impatience in an interview with Corriere della Sera (October 8):

Pisapia is naturally the protagonist of this story, but one can’t lose even a minute more … It has become an unsupportable soap opera … Mine is an appeal to everybody, everybody will make their own decisions … The future of the country and of the Italian left is at stake. Now is the time - we can’t go beyond November.

The closing words were a reference to a planned ‘democratic assembly’ on November 19, involving the MDP and unspecified others; according to an article in the Corriere della Sera, the MDP was working for a list that included Nicola Fratoianni’s SI, Pipo Civati’s Possibile and even the more horizontalist, radical left movement led by Anna Falcone and Tomasso Montanari, whose meeting at Rome’s Teatro Brancaccio earlier this year gave a resounding boo every time the name of Giuliano Pisapia was mentioned.

Pisapia exploded with rage as soon as he read Speranza’s “soap opera” interview: “There is no problem. On your bike, Speranza, and your little party of the three per cent.” In an interview with La Repubblica (October 9), Pisapia pompously repeated his usual empty phrases about “the need for a new centre-left that is open, broad and makes a break with the recent past”, but made it obvious he was open to a deal with Renzi.

Needless to say, the devious and scheming Pisapia, who never made any real effort to build the Campo Progressista at a grassroots level, is now seeking to detach the weaker elements of the MDP parliamentary group from Speranza. Whilst it is too early to judge who will succumb to the lure of allegedly safe seats and to hopes of ministerial office in a list linked to the PD, it was predictable that amongst the seven names profiled in the Corriere della Sera (October 10), none had followed the trajectory of the core group of the MDP, which collectively broke with the PD as an organised current in February. All seven potential defectors had been in three or more parties: two were ex-Rifondazione, two were former Greens, five had been in SEL at some stage. In short, an unsavoury collection of rightward moving, burnt-out former leftwingers who have already yielded to financial temptations and parliamentary cretinism. They, like Pisapia, are no great loss.

The soap opera is thankfully at an end. It remains to be seen whether the more serious elements of the MDP will succeed in their new unity project with SI, Possibile and the movement led by Falcone and Montanari. But the fact that the MDP leadership is opening up to elements to its left and, unlike Pisapia, imposing no vetoes, bans or proscriptions on the participants, suggests there is more hope of a revival of the Italian left than at any time since the PD eliminated communists from the Italian parliament in 2008.


1. This draft law was originally associated with Ettore Rosato, the Partito Democratico group leader in the Chamber of Deputies.

2. ‘Right to the soil’ - legislation giving citizenship to Italian-born children of immigrants on certain conditions.

3. The MDP’s opposition to the ‘Superticket’ - charges for medical tests and consultations that undermine the general principle of a health service free at the point of use - has been ridiculed basically over technicalities.

4. Whether or not the failure to pass a budget would actually have such apocalyptic consequences is debatable, but in the light of the events in 2011 during Berlusconi’s last months as prime minister, as well as the troika’s interventions in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, it has some plausibility.

5. It is not just a question of assorted scoundrels whose parliamentary seats shield them against a judicial process. There is a more mundane consideration for many parliamentarians with no hope of re-election. As a legislature draws towards its close, they are anxious to hold on for as long as possible to their high salaries, expenses, contribution-based increases in pension entitlements and so forth.

6. See ‘Pisapia’s deadly embrace’ Weekly Worker August 31.

7. According to La Repubblica (October 5), at this stage Campo Progressista had 20 deputies and two senators - these figures presumably originated from Pisapia. None of these Pisapia fans were elected as such; the six senators were defectors from either the left-populist Italia dei Valori or the Five Star Movement (M5S).

8. A fawning profile in Corriere della Sera (October 9) claimed that Pisapia was distinguished by his “tact and prudence”.

9. Another centrist minister in Gentiloni’s government.