Matteo Renzi: praying that the centre ground holds

Renzi vs Grasso

It looks as though a ‘centre-left’ coalition headed by Matteo Renzi will be opposed by a leftwing bloc in the 2018 general election, writes Toby Abse

The disastrous Sicilian election result of the Partito Democratico and its allies on November 5 forced PD leader Matteo Renzi into very reluctantly accepting the need for a national coalition of the ‘centre-left’. The PD is clearly in no position to win the coming general election - widely expected to take place in March 2018 - without allies1.

Only two Italian centre-left governments have gained office in the post-cold war period - the Ulivo of 1996 and the Unione of 2006, both led by Romani Prodi. However, given Renzi’s obstinate refusal to make any major programmatic concessions that would reverse, or even dilute, either his neoliberal labour law - the Jobs Act - or his ultra-managerial education law - the so-called Buona Scuola (‘Good School’) - it seemed extremely unlikely that any conceivable ‘centre-left’ coalition would include forces that had taken serious (rather than merely rhetorical) exception to the neo-Blairite policies he pursued as premier.2 Even Renzi realised he was not the best person within the PD to attempt to negotiate with any group claiming to be to its left, especially given the amount of personal and not just purely political abuse he had hurled at them, even after his Sicilian defeat.

Therefore, Piero Fassino, one-time leader of the ex-‘official’ communist Democratici di Sinistra (DS) and former mayor of Turin, was assigned the role of chief negotiator with the group considered to be to the left of the PD. This was a logical enough decision, since the social democratic Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP) was largely made up of former PD members, who had been in the DS before the PD’s formation in 2008, whilst Campo Progressista leader Giuliano Pisapia, as a former centre-left mayor of Milan, would undoubtedly have had some real common ground with somebody like Fassino. Fassino seemed to have been genuinely disappointed by his failure to win the MDP round to this new ‘centre-left’ project, since, unlike Renzi, he had no personal animosity to the older leading MDP figures like Pierluigi Bersani and Massimo d’Alema, who had followed a similar trajectory to his own from the Partito Comunista Italiano via first the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) and then the DS to the PD, regarding them as fellow-members of what all this generation had colloquially called La Dita (‘The Firm’).

Needless to say, as far as Renzi was concerned, it was only a question of the PD going through the motions of a negotiation in order to subsequently brand the MDP as sectarians - he had no genuine desire to make peace even with the fairly amiable Bersani, let alone the much more aggressive d’Alema. Fassino seemed at first to have more luck with Pisapia and the Campo Progressista, but negotiations finally broke down on December 6. Fassino had imagined Pisapia might be satisfied with minor concessions in, say, the current budget. During the negotiations, Pisapia tried to veto the participation of foreign minister Angelino Alfano’s Alternativa Popolare (AP) - formerly the Nuovo Centro Destra (NCD - New Centre Right) in the ‘centre-left’ electoral coalition,3 but even after AP’s debacle in its Sicilian heartland on November 5, Renzi regarded AP as a more important ally than Pisapia, since he subscribes to the Blairite dogma that elections are always won in the centre ground.

Even in the absence of Pisapia and the now defunct Campo Progressista, Renzi will undoubtedly gain some very junior partners for his PD-led electoral coalition. Angelo Bonelli, the leader of the Greens, is personally willing to do a deal with Renzi, despite the appalling recent record of the PD on many environmental issues, such as drilling for oil off Italy’s coast, or keeping open the notoriously unsafe and polluting Ilva steel plant at Taranto - apparently, the deal needs to be ratified by a referendum amongst Green Party members. Initially, the Radicals - probably best characterised as the petty bourgeois civil libertarian party that has sometimes allied with Berlusconi and sometimes backed the centre-left - seemed the PD’s most certain allies, but their best known living figure, Emma Bonnino - a former foreign minister and European commissioner - seems to be having second thoughts, and it is Bonnino herself whom Renzi wants to draw into the coalition: her colleagues are political nonentities. There is also a recently constituted pro-European list, ‘ +Europa’, which seems to overlap with the Radicals to a very substantial extent - one is bound to assume that if in the end it gains sufficient signatures to run candidates, it will do so in alliance with the PD, despite Renzi’s intermittent and demagogic criticism of the European Union Commission (and implicitly the European Central Bank because of its continuing feud with the Bank of Italy).

What remains of the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) - largely discredited by the huge corruption scandal associated with Bettino Craxi - also seeks an alliance with the PD. Recently, there has been talk of a ‘left’ list amalgamating Riccardo Nencini’s PSI, Bonelli’s Greens and some remnants of the right wings of the now defunct Campo Progressista and Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, under the leadership of Massimo Zedda, the mayor of Cagliari.

Presumably, the hope is that this mish-mash would overcome the 3% threshold needed to secure parliamentary representation, as each individual component would only score 1% or less. Obviously, some centrists will throw in their lot with Renzi, even if others return to the Berlusconian fold. (Renzi’s coalition plans were further weakened by the unexpected decision of Angelino Alfano - former justice minister, interior minister and foreign minister - to withdraw from parliamentary politics, announced on December 6.)

Whilst a minimum of 3% is required to gain representation in the proportionally elected section of parliament, the PD can bribe smaller groups uncertain of breaking through the threshold with endorsements of prominent individuals as coalition candidates in allegedly safe seats in the ‘first past the post’, single-member constituencies.4 Furthermore, any votes gained by coalition allies that score between 1% and 3% in the proportional section count towards the coalition’s overall total, and will be divided proportionally between the luckier coalition parties that exceed the 3% threshold, so even the votes gained by such micro groups will assist the PD in its struggle against its main competitor: namely the centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo’s right-populist Movimento 5 Stelle.5

Left coalition

The MDP rejected Fassino’s overtures relatively quickly, and firmly committed itself to an electoral coalition with Nicola Fratoianni’s Sinistra Italiana (SI - Italian Left) and Pippo Civati’s Possibile -1,500 delegates were elected to the coalition’s founding assembly which took place in Rome on December 3.6 According to La Repubblica (November 28), the delegates were chosen by 158 provincial assemblies, in which roughly 42,000 people participated.

Whilst there was clearly an element of top-down decision-making by the party leaders - the MDP was allocated 50% of the delegates, SI 35% and Possibile 15% - the whole process was far more transparent and democratic than anything Pisapia’s Campo Progressista had even been willing to engage in, although d’Alema’s claim in Corriere dellaSera (November 29) that “the greater part” of the participants “were not enrolled in any movement” seems a bit exaggerated.

The more horizontalist ‘civic’ movement led by Anna Falcone and Tomaso Montanari, which had originally been the fourth component of the new project - announced when the MDP finally lost patience with Pisapia’s “soap opera”7 - broke with the MDP, SI and Possibile a few weeks ago. Falcone and Montanari cancelled at extremely short notice a large national gathering of their own supporters that was supposed to discuss the role the ‘rank-and-file’ groups would adopt in the new broader left formation. Whilst Falcone and Montanari seemed, albeit in rather opaque language, to lame all three remaining participating organisations for their reliance on ‘old-fashioned, top-down’ organising methods, it was significant that the duo were equally critical of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC - Communist Refoundation), which the mainstream press claimed had in reality provided the logistical infrastructure behind this apparently spontaneous nationwide movement.

However, the PRC is not joining the new formation. Whilst one can see that that it might find the current demands of groups like the MDP insufficiently radical8 or that its grudges against figures who treated them badly in the past (the most obvious example being d’Alema’s underhand scheming during the 1998 crisis that brought down the first Prodi government and split Armando Cossutta’s followers away from the PRC) are understandable, purist isolationism does not really square with the PRC’s previous willingness to join electoral cartels like Rivoluzione Civile in the 2013 general election, the Lista Tsipras in the 2014 European election and indeed ‘Cento Passi per La Sicilia’ in last month’s Sicilian election. Moreover, the general line of the European Left Party, in which the PRC still plays a prominent role despite its electoral decline, is to reach out to those sections of social democracy that are finally breaking with neoliberalism.9

The new formation has been given the slightly nebulous name ‘Liberi e Uguali’ (LeU - Free and Equal People) rather than the much more resounding ‘Libertà e Ugualianza’ (Liberty and Equality), which, despite some support, was rejected a few days before the national assembly. Significantly, both the final choice of name and its main challenger harked back to the French Revolution of 1789 rather than the Russian Revolution of 1917, and there was even some ridiculous trepidation that the word ‘Uguali’ might be linked to Gracchus Babeuf’s ‘Conspiracy of the Equals’ (1796) - the doomed coup against the Thermidorians that aimed to go beyond the Jacobins and introduce agrarian communism in late 18th century France.

A few days before the founding assembly, d’Alema explained to Corriere della Sera (November 29) that the name would not be ‘La Sinistra’ (‘the Left’ - a suggestion probably derived from an analogy with the German Die Linke), which had been discussed in the press, and had presumably been favoured by Sinistra Italiana members. Unfortunately, although the vast majority of LeU’s members or supporters are clearly on the left - even if they are on the social democratic rather than communist left - there is the depressingly familiar tendency, expressed by d’Alema in this interview, to seek ‘broadness’ at all costs; to reach out to an almost fictitious right wing of socially aware former Christian Democrats.10

Repubblica (November 28) claimed that the organisation’s symbol would be a red rose, explicitly borrowed from the British Labour Party, but so far there appears to have been no final decision on the matter. The same article claimed that a Labour delegation and a Podemos delegation would be sitting in the body of the hall next to the older generation of ‘historic leaders’ - Bersani, Basco Errani11, Guglielmo Epifani12, d’Alema and Nichi Vendola13. The most important Italian invited guest was Susanna Camusso, the secretary of Italy’s largest and most leftwing trade union confederation, the CGIL.

It should be noted that the national assembly had originally been scheduled for Saturday December 2, and was only postponed until Sunday December 3 because of a CGIL ‘day of action’ on the Saturday. This had been called by Camusso in response to the Gentiloni government’s refusal to postpone the raising of the pension age to 67, and the character of the budget as a whole - issues on which the MDP, SI and Possibile were in total accord with the CGIL.

Initially, there had been talk of a political general strike by the CGIL on December 2, but the action was later downgraded to a sectorial strike by its affiliate, Food and Agricultural Workers, along with five regional demonstrations in Rome, Turin, Bari, Palermo and Cagliari. Some tens of thousands of workers, pensioners and students, alongside many leading figures from the MDP and SI, participated in the Roman demonstration.14 Perhaps the CGIL lost its nerve about calling a general strike in isolation from the other confederations, which might have exposed its increasing weakness among currently employed labour, as opposed to the pensioners, whom it has been remarkably successful in organising.

Another consideration in relation to the abandonment of the general strike may have been the fact that a number of CGIL leaders remain PD members, and are less enthusiastic about a head-on clash with a PD-led government than Camusso is. Although Camusso invoked the refusal of CGIL leader Di Vittorio to back the PCI over the invasion of Hungary in 1956 to support her claim (Repubblica November 24) that “the CGIL has always been too big to stay in one party”, one suspects that the PD’s continuing influence among CGIL apparatchiks is the main factor holding her back from total alignment with LeU.

However, returning to the December 3 assembly, keeping the older generation of ‘historic leaders’ on the floor of the hall was a conscious tactic. The three younger leaders, all in their 40s, who were the official secretaries of the MDP, SI and Possibile- Roberto Speranza, Nicola Fratoianni and Pippo Civati - shared the stage to dispel any idea that LeU is a collection of elderly dinosaurs, as Renzi’s followers often try to make out. However, the new overall leader of LeU, Pietro Grasso, elected by acclamation at the founding assembly, is 72, slightly older than either Bersani or d’Alema.

Grasso, the current speaker of the Senate, resigned from the PD a few weeks ago, and, because of the politically neutral nature of his institutional role in the outgoing legislature, kept the media in suspense until the last minute over his willingness to front the new political formation as LeU’s official leader and prime ministerial candidate. Grasso, as a retired magistrate renowned for his role in major Mafia trials, is widely believed to be able to extend LeU’s electoral appeal beyond the supporters of its three founding organisations.

‘Zombie Blairite’

In conclusion, it looks as though next year’s general election will see a split between a PD-led ‘centre-left’ coalition and proponents of a left alternative broadly comparable to Corbynite left social democracy. Whilst the PRC and other groups using the ‘communist’ label will probably stand too, they will not cross the 3% threshold needed to gain any parliamentary representation - in contrast to LeU, which is scoring between 6% and 10% in opinion polls.

The new electoral law - the Rosatellum - deliberately makes any kind of stand-down agreement of the sort the PD’s predecessors and the PRC entered into on some occasions between 1994 and 2001 totally impossible. The Rosatellum explicitly prohibits voters from splitting their two votes in the way they can in the Greater London Authority or Scottish parliament elections (and could under previous electoral legislation in Italy between 1994 and 2001). Any voter for a ‘centre-left’ candidate in their FPTP constituency has to give their other vote (in the proportional section) to some part of the ‘centre-left’ coalition.

However, as the leaders of LeU point out, there seems no chance of the ‘centre-left’ winning a parliamentary majority anyway,15 and in the absence of a left alternative like LeU, its potential voters would either abstain or vote for rightwing populists (probably of the M5S variety) - given their total alienation from what UK observers might describe as the ‘zombie Blairite’ policies of Matteo Renzi.


1. It is important to note that Renzi’s initial irrational and narcissistic reaction to the Sicilian result was to dream of moving even further to the right and emulating Emanuel Macron by creating a new, personalised centrist formation. However, regardless of any support this crazy notion may have gathered amongst Renzi’s notoriously sycophantic inner circle, justice minister Andrea Orlando, the principal leader of the PD’s mildly social democratic left wing, and Dario Franceschini, representing the more thoughtful, older elements of the former Christian Democrats within the PD, were able to exert sufficient influence to prevent the reckless former premier from destroying his own (and their) party. Orlando and Franceschini were not alone in seeking to restrain Renzi. The so-called padri nobili (elder statesmen) of the PD - both former Premier Romano Prodi and the PD’s founding leader, Walther Veltroni - also played a very important role in ensuring wider support for the Orlando/Franceschini line of a broader PD-led ‘centre-left’ coalition.

2. It is, of course, true that some, though not all, of those who left the PD in February 2017 had accepted party discipline and voted for these neoliberal measures at the time (2014-16), whatever their personal reservations. It is also argued by thePartito della Rifondazione Comunista(PRC) and other left groups that Renzi was merely continuing - at a much faster pace and far more shamelessly - the general slow drift towards privatisation, deregulation, attacks on welfare provision and on the trade unions, that all those, such as Massimo d’Alema, who had liquidated the old Partito Comunista Italiano in 1991, had been complicit in for a quarter of a century.

3. The absurdity of including a group that was once very proud to adopt the ‘New Centre Right’ label in a ‘centre-left’ coalition is obvious.

4. 37% of the seats will be awarded to the victors in the FPTP constituencies, of which there are 232 in the Chamber of Deputies and 116 in the Senate.

5. Some of these rather bizarre rules are an obvious product of the unprincipled Renzi-Berlusconi lash-up that created the Rosatellum, the new electoral arrangements, which are deliberately weighted against M5S, which refuses to enter into electoral coalitions. Berlusconi’s use of micro-groups is even more cynical: Michela Brambilla, until recently a Forza Italia parliamentarian, has set up the ‘Movimento Animalista’, linked to the centre-right coalition - presumably to win the votes of politically naive cat-lovers who are not already enthused by Berlusconi’s poodle.

6. It was significant that it was described as an ‘assembly’ and not as a ‘congress’ - a word more reminiscent of the old PCI.

7. See my article, ‘Pisapia’s soap opera’ (Weekly Worker October 19).

8. For example, there is a considerable gap between the PRC demand for a pension age of 60 across the EU and the MDP/SI last-ditch attempt in the current Italian parliament to persuade the PD to postpone raising the Italian pension age to 67.

9. This was repeatedly asserted in the speeches made and documents drawn up at the Marseille European Forum on November10-11, which I attended - a number of delegates from the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party were given speaking rights at this gathering.

10. There are a handful of such characters who seem to be attracted to the project, just as there are a handful of former Craxi socialists who, for personal or political reasons, have fallen out with their PSI colleagues and are eager to join Renzi’s ‘centre-left’ coalition. But LeU is essentially the ‘cosa rossa’ (red thing) that the mainstream press repeatedly label it as, even if its own timid leaders are so anxious to deny it.

11. An influential former PD regional president of Emilia Romagna.

12. A former CGIL union secretary and - briefly - former acting leader of the PD between Bersani’s resignation and Renzi’s first election as party leader in the 2013 primary.

13. The former leader of the now defunct SEL, whose left wing joined him in becoming the main component of SI.

14. The other main union confederations, the CISL and UIL, were ultimately satisfied by Gentiloni’s limited concessions - exemptions from the increase in the pensionable age for certain categories of worker with particularly onerous jobs.

15. LeU candidates are likely to deprive the PD of 10 FPTP seats, but LeU’s intervention is not the prime reason why the PD and its minor allies are nowhere near an overall majority, if the opinion polls are to be believed.