Good riddance to Renzi
The former leader of the PD has left to form a new party, writes Toby Abse. What a pity that the current leader is doing his best to placate the rightwingers who did not follow him.
The formation of Giuseppe Conte’s new government has not resolved Italy’s political turbulence to the extent that many - both inside the country and in the rest of the European Union - had hoped it would. There are always bound to be tensions within a coalition in which the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) and the right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) are the major partners, given the previous hostility between the two. However, the recent actions of the very man who could be seen as the prime architect of the coalition, Matteo Renzi, have increased its fragility.
On September 17, Renzi, who as both prime minister and party leader had dominated the PD between 2013 and 2018, broke with the PD a matter of hours after all the ministers and under-secretaries of Conte’s government had been sworn in. Although Renzi did inform Conte of his move shortly before going public with an interview in La Repubblica (September 17), the prime minister was rather irritated about the timing. However, whatever Conte may have thought at the time, it is very unlikely that Renzi could have been bought off with a few more ministerial posts for his followers. For Conte, managing a coalition of four parties, rather than the three he thought he was dealing with, was not a welcome development. Moreover, it has weakened his position in relation to foreign minister and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, who has proved only too eager to conspire with Renzi to undermine the initial budget proposals that Conte had agreed with the PD.
Whilst such a split between Renzi and the PD had been forecast for months - ever since Nicola Zingaretti won the PD primary in March, gaining 66% of the vote in the contest for the party leadership, and pushing Renzi’s favoured candidate into third place - some observers have wondered whether Renzi’s return to prominence as the main advocate of the new coalition meant he had abandoned his project of founding a Macron-type, neoliberal party in Italy. After all, he had pushed the PD into a coalition project, for which Zingaretti originally had little enthusiasm, thus undermining the new PD leader and regaining some of his old hold over the PD as a whole.
There was no really convincing reason for a split at this particular moment: Renzi’s differences with Zingaretti were long-standing ones - the former had always been a fanatical neoliberal, whilst the latter is a ‘moderate’ social democrat. Even Renzi did not make as much out of the two possible immediate precipitants as his more fanatical followers did. Neither the singing of the old communist anthem Bandiera Rossa by PD members after Zingaretti’s closing speech at this year’s National Festa de l’Unità at Ravenna, nor Conte’s failure to include any Tuscan ministers in the new government1 offered serious justifications for a split.
Renzi’s new party is called Italia Viva (Living Italy). The name is as meaningless as Emanuel Macron’s En Marche and, of course, it is vaguely reminiscent of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia - no accident, since Renzi has always admired Berlusconi in the way that his hero, Tony Blair, admired Margaret Thatcher. In the first day or two after Italia Viva’s foundation, only about 30 parliamentarians backed it and even by September 20, after Italia Viva parliamentary groups had been set up in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, Renzi had only recruited 27 deputies and 15 senators (two of who were not from the PD anyway). This is a smaller number than he might have hoped for, and in early October Renzi was still claiming that he would soon have 50. Whilst the most extreme Renzians, whose de facto leader is Maria Elena Boschi, have now left the PD, many of his long-standing supporters, including Luca Lotti, have remained. Whilst Boschi’s exit can only help the PD, given her unpopularity with the electorate - both because of her leading role in Renzi’s disastrous constitutional referendum in December 2016 (in which the premier’s authoritarian plans only got about 40% of the vote) and because of her association with the Banca Etruria scandal in her Tuscan hometown of Arezzo - Lotti’s failure to follow his old friend and fellow-Tuscan into Italia Viva means that the PD remains vulnerable to very plausible M5S allegations of corruption.
It has been inferred in a carefully worded pseudonymous article in Il Manifesto (October 4) that Lotti’s statement of September 17 (the day of the split) - “I’m staying in the PD. You will discover the reason why later on” - may have been an indication that he knew that he would soon be charged in relation to allegations of corruption (the Consip scandal), and did not want Italia Viva to pay the political price for it. Lotti is currently ‘self-suspended’ from the party - his rather absurd response to widespread and justified demands for his resignation - is the official co-leader (and in reality principal leader) of a faction of around 50 PD parliamentarians previously associated with Renzi, who have remained associated with the party rather than joining Italia Viva.
All this should serve as an indication that, even if Lotti has not committed any criminal offence, any party leader with more backbone would have expelled him for bringing the PD into disrepute. Instead, the shameless Lotti has - up till now at any rate - been able to blackmail the hapless Zingaretti into conciliating the rump of the PD’s parliamentary right wing. This has meant that Zingaretti has abandoned any serious effort to de-Renzify the party - the essential precondition for winning back at least some of the working class votes lost to M5S and Matteo Salvini’s Lega as a result of Renzi’s neoliberal, anti-working class measures. It is far from clear whether the remaining Renzian or ex-Renzian PD parliamentarians made a considered decision that it is more sensible to become a permanent rightwing current inside a large party (the PD) rather than joining a breakaway with little apparent support outside parliament - Italia Viva is currently scoring less than five percent in opinion polls.
Given Renzi’s prominence in PD candidate selections in recent years, it is more than a little surprising that very few local or regional councillors have defected from the PD to Italia Viva. Therefore, just as there is some suspicion of at least some of the remaining Renzian or ex-Renzian parliamentarians of acting as ‘sleepers’ and still taking instructions from their old patron, so Zingaretti loyalists fear that some Renzian councillors will seek re-election as PD candidates in the forthcoming regional elections, before coming out in their true Italia Viva colours if they keep their seats. Renzi’s repeated statements that Italia Viva will not fight any local or regional elections, but instead wait for the next general election, have fuelled such suspicions.
Renzi’s split has also had a negative effect on the PD’s stance on electoral reform. The issue has come to the surface again because of M5S’s insistence on a radical cut in the number of both deputies and senators, from a total of 945 to 600. This is a vestige of their demagogic ranting against la casta (the political class), which back in 2013 took a more explicitly anti-parliamentary form, based on the purported superiority of internet plebiscites over representative assemblies. The notion that getting rid of a few hundred parliamentarians would make a massive difference to the national budget relies on such a cynical exploitation of popular economic illiteracy that it is not even worthy of serious discussion.2
Before the formation of the new coalition, the PD had voted against earlier readings of this M5S-inspired bill; during the period of the right-populist coalition, Salvini’s Lega had supported it, albeit without any particular enthusiasm. The PD has now accepted this drastic cull of parliamentarians in principle, but it has pointed out that it needs to be combined with a change to the electoral system to avoid underrepresentation of certain regions and/or political minorities. Initially the PD supported a return to a more proportional system as the best way of stopping the Lega gaining an outright majority - doubtless the fact that the PD is polling around 20% and is unlikely to form a government without major coalition partners has also influenced its thinking. Salvini has now come out in favour of ‘first past the post’, and has got eight regions run by the so-called ‘centre-right’ alliance (Lega, Forza Italia, Fratelli d’Italia) to submit a proposal calling for a referendum that will abolish the proportional quotient that exists under the current law3.
It remains to be seen whether the constitutional court will allow Salvini’s abrogative referendum, but this Lega initiative should have made it clear that any shift to a Westminster-style model would play into Salvini’s hands. Instead, the PD, worried about Italia Viva, seems to be moving away from advocating a proportional system that might favour Renzi. Amongst some PD parliamentarians, this attitude merely manifests itself as an insistence on a high threshold to exclude smaller parties, but there has also been a resurgence of enthusiasm for a purely majoritarian system, advocated by some founding members of the PD, such as Romani Prodi. Sadly, on October 4 Zingaretti himself said: “We in the PD would prefer a majoritarian system.”
In broad terms, this fetishisation of the fundamentally undemocratic Anglo-American model is related to the total loss of confidence in any of the values that overtook all those on the Italian left who chose to ditch the ‘communist’ label in 1991. The actual history of the last quarter of a century does not suggest that such a model actually increases the chances of a nominally left government winning a parliamentary majority in Italy. Insofar as any electoral system could serve as a safeguard against a rightwing, authoritarian, populist government of the Hungarian/Polish type, it would obviously be a return to the old and purely proportional system of the so-called First Republic - a system which was swept away by the April 1993 referendum, in which both the forces that eventually fused to become the PD played such a despicable role.4 It is worth noting that Luigi Pandolfi and Massimo Torelli of L’Altra Europa con Tsipris - the Italian radical left alliance, which had representatives in the European parliament from 2014 until 2019 - still see “the reproduction of a purely proportional system without a threshold as the only form of protection for a democratic framework”.5
To conclude, Renzi’s split has not just made Conte’s coalition much more fragile: it has also had a negative impact on the PD. The most negative consequence of all is not the loss of a small proportion of its electorate, but the fact that Renzi did not take all of his parliamentary followers with him. Whether or not Lotti’s disciples have remained in the PD as a conscious fifth column of ‘sleepers’ waiting for a signal from their erstwhile hero is irrelevant. Zingaretti, by seeking to placate them, is making it much more unlikely that the party will ditch Renzi’s neoliberal legacy in favour of a return to a social democratic politics that might offer at least a limited and partial defence of working class interests, and thus undermine the whole of rightwing populism over what used to be the Italian Communist Party’s core constituency.
Renzi is a former mayor of Florence and many of his closest associates are Tuscan.↩︎
Obviously, there is a case to be made against the inflated salaries of the parliamentarians, as well as against the ease with which unwarranted expenses claims can be made. However, M5S has been less vocal on these issues since its own entry into the parliamentary arena. It is worth noting that it has reduced parliamentary pensions for its predecessors, but retrospective pension cuts have set a worrying precedent for other, less privileged sections.↩︎
The current law was devised by the PD under Renzi’s leadership. Hence it has provisions favouring coalitions over single parties - something which was designed to operate against M5S, which at the time espoused an intransigent opposition to electoral pacts.↩︎
For more details, see the polemical account I wrote in 1993 in New Left Review: https://newleftreview.org/issues/I199/articles/tobias-abse-the-triumph-of-the-leopard.↩︎
Il Manifesto October 4.↩︎