Italian parliamentary elections looks set to deliver another blow to ‘centre-left’

Italy: Democratic Party left up in arms

Matteo Renzi’s purge is unlikely to halt his party’s decline, argues Toby Abse

The Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) is still the strongest single party in the opinion polls, while the centre-right coalition of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Lega, the Fratelli d’Italia(FdI) and the centrist Noi Con L’Italia is still the dominant bloc. The PD and its allies in the centre-left coalition are still some distance behind the other two major groupings. Whilst the minor changes shown in the most recent Ipsos poll reported by Corriere della Sera on January 27 are within the usual margin of error, they do show a further decline in the PD’s share of the vote to 22.7% (down by 0.4% compared to the January 13 poll), as well as in its allies’ combined share of 4% (down by 0.4% as well).1 Sadly, the social democratic Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal People - LeU) has not, so far anyway, benefited from the centre-left’s decline, and is down 0.3% to 6.1%.

Perhaps of greater interest than the minor fluctuations over the last month is the analysis of vote shares in terms of gender, age and occupation. Both the PD and Forza Italia are more popular amongst women than men (23.7%, compared with 21.9%, for the PD; and, more significantly, 19.9%, compared with 14.2%, for Forza Italia), whilst M5S is markedly more popular amongst men than women (32.4%, compared with 25.6%)2.

In marked contrast to the UK electorate, with its concentration of elderly Tory Brexiteers, Italian voters over the age of 65 are more inclined to support parties that are at least nominally on the left (36.1% for the PD, 7.2% for LeU, 2.7% for the minor centre-left parties) than any other age group. This is probably because their world-view was formed in the days when the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) and the trade unions were strong - in the 1970s - not because of any great enthusiasm for an arrogant young(ish) neoliberal like Matteo Renzi.

Contrary to much superficial journalism, particularly in the Anglophone sphere, M5S is not strongest amongst 18-24-year-olds. Indeed, its rating amongst this age group is, at 28.1%, lower than amongst any age cohort other than the over-65s, amongst whom, more predictably, the internet-obsessed populists only command 18.8% support. The greatest enthusiasm for M5S comes from 35-44-year-olds (36.5%).

Turning to occupational groups, it is revealing that the two most popular parties amongst what the pollsters call operai e affini (roughly ‘factory workers and other manual labourers’) are the right-populist ones - M5S has 40.6%, and the Lega 19.6%.3 Forza Italia comes third, on 14.1%. The PD only has 13.6% support - less than it has amongst any other occupational group, even including the unemployed, amongst whom it scores 18.3%.4 If one adds the other centre-left parties (3.8%) and LeU (3%) to the PD total, only 20.4% of the core of the traditional working class is now prepared to vote for even nominally left parties.

Although undoubtedly casualisation, the shrinkage in the number of large factories and the considerable decline in trade union membership have all played a role in this rightward shift, the gradual capitulation to neoliberalism by the post-communist successor parties of the PCI over nearly 30 years, aggravated by Renzi’s virulently anti-working-class zombie Blairism (eg, the Jobs Act), has made a massive contribution to this disastrous decline in class-consciousness.5

As I have already indicated, LeUhas, so far, not made a great deal of headway amongst the traditional core of the working class. It has gained far more support among students (10%) and is doing reasonably well amongst teachers and other white-collar employees (7.4%) - perhaps reflecting higher degrees of unionisation amongst public sector workers. It has also done better amongst pensioners (7.5%), for the reasons I explained in my general analysis of age cohorts. Somewhat surprisingly,LeU is also doing relatively well amongst ‘entrepreneurs, professionals and leaders’ (presumably a category resembling the ABs in comparable British opinion poll surveys) at 8.2%.

Although Forza Italia’s lowest scores are amongst students (10%) and ‘white collar employees and teachers’, it would be wrong to be too smug about the positive effects of higher education as a preventative against rightwing demagogues, since the Lega is doing rather better amongst students (13.2%) and amongst the group that includes teachers (14.6%). Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, students are slightly below average in their degree of support for M5S (28.3%), but the group including teachers shows slightly above-average support, at 33%. Conversely, amongst those with the lowest level of education (only the primary school certificate), who account for about one in four voters, the PD is the first party on 30% - but it should be stressed that many of these are older voters, who are more inclined to vote for the PD anyway, especially if they are retired manual workers who received little or no secondary education in the immediate post-war decade. It is worth pointing out that amongst practising Catholics (ie, those who go to mass every Sunday) the PD is the leading party, whilst theLega has below-average support.


Although the PD is a fusion of former communists and former left Christian Democrats, I would be wary of ascribing the current situation to a merger that took place back in 2007-08. It seems more plausible that recent statements by pope Francis and the leadership of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, particularly cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti - attacking racism and xenophobia in general, and the Lega in particular - have had some effect. Their statements came in response to shocking remarks by Attilio Fontana, the Lega and centre-right coalition candidate for the Lombard regional presidency - about “defending the white race”.

Fontana is pretty unrepentant, and has - quite possibly correctly - suggested such a stance increased his support. The neo-fascist FdI leader, Giorgia Meloni, hypocritically criticised him, since in public utterances she, like shrewder far-rightists everywhere, talks in terms of cultural and religious identity - not ‘race’, with its Nazi associations. Fontana - an elderly lawyer and former mayor of the small town of Varese, with no national reputation - was misleadingly presented as a relative moderate by Legastandards, when his patron, Matteo Salvini, was faced with an attempt by Berlusconi and Forza Italia to claim the centre-right Lombard candidacy for their party in the wake of Roberto Maroni’s unexpected decision not to stand for a second term as Lombard regional president. Fontana is regarded by the PD as a weaker candidate than Maroni would have been, but, as current projections (La Repubblica February 1) for the Lombard single-member first-past-the-post constituencies give the centre-right’ a massive majority of seats, it seems very unlikely that they will lose a regional contest to be held on the same day as the general election (March 4).6

It is unlikely to be coincidental that the recent anti-racist comments from Catholic church leaders have occurred more or less at the same time as president Sergio Mattarella’s decision to fill the first vacancy for a life senator that has arisen during his term of office with Liliana Segre, an Auschwitz survivor. Segre’s recollection of being excluded from school at the age of eight by Benito Mussolini’s racial laws had obvious parallels with the experience of migrant children in present-day Italy, as did her descriptions of her traumatic journey back to Italy at the end of the war.7

The inflammatory rhetoric of Attilio Fontana about “the defence of the white race” may well have helped to push Luca Traini - a 28-year-old unsuccessful Lega candidate in the June 2017 municipal elections - towards his murderous shooting spree in the city of Macerata on February 3, in which six Africans, of a variety of nationalities, were wounded. Traini claimed to be avenging the death of 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro, whose dismembered body was found at Pollenza, near Macerata, on January 31 (a Nigerian has been arrested and charged with her murder). Although Traini’s family own a house in Pollenza, Traini does not seem to have ever met Pamela, so any claim that his actions were a personally motivated vendetta, is absurd.8 Three of the victims were not even Nigerian, but from Gambia, Ghana or Mali, and none of them had any link with the Nigerian drug-dealing murder suspect.

It is quite clear that Traini was going around Macerata shooting at anybody with a black skin; in short, he was a politically motivated neo-fascist terrorist - a skinhead who wore a Celtic cross, had the Wolf emblem of the ‘Third Position’ tattooed on his face, and seems to have had links with both Casa Pound and ForzaNuova.9 Lega leader Matteo Salvini responded to the shootings by claiming that “the moral responsibility of any violent episode that occurs in Italy” should be shouldered by “those who have filled it with illegal immigrants”.10 M5S leaders Luigi Di Maio and Alessandro Di Battista appealed to all politicians to “stay silent” - in effect once again refusing to condemn racism and fascism. Whilst the now marginalised long-standing M5S activist, Roberto Fico, disagreed with his leaders, the duo represent the official position of M5S.

PD rebellion

Whatever assistance the pope and president might have been attempting to give the centre-left, Renzi seems bent on political suicide. The PD secretary has shown absolutely no mercy in his choice of PD candidates, making a complete mockery of any claims to be committed to a broad, pluralist centre-left.11

The final decisions on the PD lists were taken during a marathon meeting in the party’s headquarters on the night of January 26-27. This ended in extreme acrimony at 4am, when the representatives of the more social democratic minority factions, led by Andrea Orlando and Michele Emiliano, refused to participate in the vote to ratify the definitive lists. Even the report by Filippo Ceccarelli in La Repubblica (January 28) - a paper broadly sympathetic to the PD - referred to Renzi’s “crocodile tears” when the PD secretary claimed that what many journalists have described as his ‘Night of the Long Knives’ was “a devastating experience from the personal point of view”.

Andrea Orlando is alleged to have told “his friends” that “Renzi is carrying his ultra-loyalists into parliament and then transforming the PD into a ‘bad company’”.12 Ugo Sposetti, the former treasurer of the Democratici di Sinistra (DS) - the ex-communist component of the PD - was even more brusque in his reaction: “Renzi is a serial delinquent. Right now we are mounting an election campaign for the PD. After March 4, however, we will concern ourselves with the delinquency.”

According to La Repubblica, Renzi has sought to insure himself against any serious rebellion amongst the PD parliamentarians in the event of the PD’s electoral defeat, and has done his utmost to pick a team that would have no hesitation in following him into a coalition with Forza Italia if the parliamentary numbers for such a two-party majority stack up after March 4. Renzi has calculated, on the basis of current opinion polls, that around 200 PD parliamentarians will be elected, of whom 155 will be his ultra-loyalists, 15 will be supporters of currents led by figures like Dario Franceschini (who have generally voted with him against the PD’s residual left minorities, but sometimes have serious reservations about his rash decisions) and 20 will be supporters of the broadly social democratic minorities associated with Orlando and Emiliano. Press reports estimate that amongst the full lists of candidates - some with little or no hope of being elected - 18 are Orlando supporters, four back Gianni Cuperlo, who stood against Renzi in the 2013 PD leadership election,13 and just three are followers of Michele Emiliano.14

Renzi’s purge was not confined to the obvious rebels linked to the left minority faction. Ermete Realacci, a long-standing friend of prime minister Paolo Gentiloni and a leading environmentalist, has been judged unsuitable.15 The internationally respected sociologist, Luigi Manconi, has also been dropped, presumably because his last-ditch, principled defence of the Ius Soli (‘right to the soil’ - a law giving Italian-born children of immigrants citizenship on certain conditions) was regarded as a liability when there were racist votes to be courted. Senator Sergio Lo Giudice, who played a prominent role in the parliamentary struggle for civil partnerships, of which Renzi claimed to be so proud, has been deselected, perhaps to appease homophobic allies like Pierluigi Casini.16 Giusi Nicolini, former mayor of Lampedusa and winner of the Unesco Peace Prize for her tireless work with refugees, was also regarded as unworthy of a parliamentary candidacy, presumably because Renzi suspected she could not be trusted to keep quiet about the appalling fate of black refugees in the Libyan camps, which the PD leadership regard as such a convenient way of keeping Africans out of Italy.

Whilst some of Renzi’s exclusions may pass unnoticed amongst the wider electorate, even if they may demoralise some PD activists - not a good idea in closely fought single-member constituencies - one of his positive choices is bound to further erode the PD’s vote share. This is the arrogant and reckless decision to place Maria Elena Boschi at the top of no less than five lists (the legal maximum) in multi-member constituencies in the proportional section,17 even though she had already been given a ‘safe’ single-member constituency in Bolzano.

Although Boschi’s leading public role as minister for reforms meant that her political reputation suffered as a result of Renzi’s humiliating defeat in the December 2016 referendum on constitutional reform, the main reason for popular hostility to her is far more personal - her connection with the Banca Etruriascandal in her home town of Arezzo. Her father was vice-president of the bank at the time of its collapse, in which thousands of local small investors lost their entire life savings. He has already been subjected to massive fines by the regulatory authorities and is apparently still under criminal investigation.

Faced with an M5S motion of no confidence, Maria Elena claimed in a famous and tearful parliamentary speech to have had no involvement with the bank during her period as a leading minister in Renzi’s government, alleging she was being persecuted as her father’s daughter. However, the parliamentary commission of enquiry into Italian banks - set up in the last months of the outgoing legislature, largely because of Renzi’s obsessive and ill-advised desire to pursue his vendetta against the Bank of Italy - demonstrated that she had been, to put it politely, somewhat economical with the truth. Various leading officials from other banks, as well as the outgoing head of the Consob (roughly equivalent to the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK) all claim to have had conversations with her during her period in office about matters directly or indirectly related to her father’s failing bank. Unsurprisingly, her threats of a defamation action against a former Corrieredella Sera journalist, who had already made some reference to one of these meetings in a book published some months before the commission hearings, have not been followed through.

Her attempts to defend herself have sometimes been both ruthless and ludicrous. She unearthed an old email from the Head of Consob sent around midnight, asking to see her at his house at 8am on the following day, implicitly trying to get journalists to depict him as some kind of Harvey Weinstein character. In reality, it seems far more likely that this strange episode was some kind of clandestine attempt to pass on private financial information before the stock market opened for the day - insider trading, not sexual harassment.

In any event, the PD’s falling opinion poll ratings in December were directly correlated with the claims about Boschi at the commission hearings. It became apparent that if she ran as PD candidate in her family’s home town of Arezzo, where the Banca Etruria was based, the enraged savers and their families would vote for whichever opposition candidate was most likely to boot her out of parliament. Subsequently, Renzi imagined it might be possible to put her up as a candidate elsewhere in her native Tuscany, but local PD activists refused to touch her with a bargepole. PD members in various other regions showed an equal lack of enthusiasm for running her as a candidate in a single-member constituency in their local areas.

Ultimately, she was found a seat in Bolzano as a result of a deal between the PD and the regional party, based on the German-speaking population in Sud Tirol/Alto Adige. It will be extremely interesting to see if she makes good on her very recent promise to learn German. Since Forza Italia’s Micaela Biancofiore is regarded as a strong candidate, who might, despite the odds, win in Bolzano, Renzi clearly felt he had to ensure his favoured minister had five other parachutes elsewhere in Italy.


1. It seems reasonable to assume that ‘+ Europa’ is the strongest of the three minor allies, given the much greater media visibility and popularity of its leader, former foreign minister and European commissioner Emma Bonino. According to a poll reported in La Repubblica (January 27), Bonino is the second most popular Italian politician after prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, with a 42% approval rating, compared with Renzi’s 31% (joint fourth with Berlusconi).

2. For what it is worth, LeU has 6.3% male support and 5.9% female. Its presentation to the foreign press in Rome on January 30, which had three male platform speakers, provoked a female Canadian television journalist to walk out. That was somewhat unfortunate, as was the attempt by Chiara Geloni, an LeU candidate in the Massa constituency who was present at the event, to laugh it off by saying, “What should D’Alema have done? Go to Casablanca to become a woman? We have many women at the head of our lists’. That was the sort of remark guaranteed to offend the canons of North American political correctness. Laura Boldrini has indeed been placed at the top of four Lombard lists, while Rossella Muroni, LeU’s main election organiser, also heads four lists.

3. The FdI, coming from a more classically neo-fascist tradition, only scores 3.2% amongst this group.

4. Whilst some of the Italian unemployed may be graduates, this reversal of the traditional correlation between a class-conscious employed proletariat and an atomised and demoralised lumpenproletariat is worth pondering.

5. I acknowledge that similar trends can be found elsewhere in continental western Europe - with racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic right-populist forces making headway amongst the traditional proletariat (and not just in their more traditional petty bourgeois constituency). But in other countries stronger remnants of ‘official communism’ (the PCP in Portugal, PCF in France and KKE in Greece) or new left-populist forces (Podemos, Syriza, Mélenchon) have put more of a brake on this phenomenon. Obviously, workers in the UK - or more specifically in England and Wales - can be seen as showing some signs of moving in the same direction, but this article does not seem the most appropriate place to discuss either the very negative developments seen in the June 2016 referendum or the slightly more positive outcome of the June 2017 general election, with Labour’s greatly increased share of the vote, even if by no means all of this increase came from traditional working class supporters.

6. The Lazio regional election is also taking place on March 4, but I have seen no explanation as to why similar elections in a few smaller regions due this year have not been incorporated in the so-called ‘election day’, given the widespread preoccupation with turnout in recent contests, such as that in Sicily last November.

7. The centre-right remains as shameless as ever: Forza Italia is running Alessandra Mussolini as parliamentary candidate, while Giorgia Meloni’s FdI - not to be outdone in the use of the Mussolini surname - are running another of Il Duce’s granddaughters in a different Lazio constituency.

8. This claim was implied by Berlusconi’s reference to “the action of a madman” without “a lucid political connotation”.

9. Forza Nuova’s leader, Roberto Fiore, announced in the aftermath of Traini’s arrest: “We shall side with him and pay his legal expenses, so he does not feel alone.”

10. Maroni clearly distanced himself from the Lega’s new leader by saying of Traini: “This man is a fascist criminal, and does not have anything to do with the glorious history of the great Lega.”

11. Renzi’s use of minor allies is purely instrumental. Provided they each get more than 1%, but less than the 3% threshold for parliamentary representation, all their votes get added to the PD’s total - just one of the undemocratic features of the Rosatellum (new electoral law).

12. This is a fairly obvious reference to Renzi’s dream of emulating Emmanuel Macron and creating a new centrist formation devoid of any ex-communist from the DS.

13. Cuperlo himself discovered at 3am on the Saturday morning that he had been assigned a ‘safe seat’ at Sassuolo, an area with which he had no previous links, without any discussion with local party activists. He chose to reject Renzi’s offer and abandon his parliamentary career out of respect for the rank-and-file members. One suspects that Cuperlo now wishes he had been more loyal to his old patron, Massimo D’Alema, and followed him on the path to LeU, instead of attempting a partial reconciliation with Renzi.

14. Naturally all three have been assigned constituencies in Puglia, the area where Emiliano is regional president, to avoid any danger of nationwide oppositional coordination.

. Renzi has always been irritated by environmentalists complaining about oil drilling in the Adriatic, or poor safety standards at the Taranto steel works.

16. This Christian Democrat was always eager to rant against homosexuality and abortion at so-called Family Day gatherings of Catholic fundamentalists promoted by popes John Paul II and Benedict XV. On March 4 he will be standing in the ‘safe’ constituency of Bologna for Civica Popolare with PD support. (One of his opponents will be the former regional president of Emilia Romagna with a PCI/PDS/DS/PD history, Vasco Errani, who is standing for LeU. It will be interesting to see if any vestigial trace of ‘Red Bologna’ will be found in the polling booths on March 4.)

17. Whilst two other PD women are also on five such lists, they have been given second or even third place on some of them. Given Boschi’s lack of any previous connection with Sicily, where she is top of three lists and where allegations have already been made about other PD candidates in this election, the PD’s enemies - particularly in the Lega and M5S - will doubtless make further insinuations along the lines of the ‘fake news’ that was widely circulated on the internet, falsely claiming she had been present at the funeral of Mafia chief Totò Riina, who in reality was secretly buried.