Nicola Zingaretti: looking to him for hope was hopeless

The Zingaretti aberration

Not surprisingly, the attempt to reinvent social democracy came to nothing. The rightward drift is now set to continue. Toby Abse looks at the dysfunctional parties, factions, fiefdoms and tokenistic gestures which dominate electoral politics

The sudden and dramatic resignation of Nicola Zingaretti from the position of secretary (ie, leader) of the Partito Democratico (PD) marked the end of a serious attempt to reclaim it as a vehicle for social democracy, and to undo the poisonous neoliberal, anti-trade union and anti-working class legacy of Matteo Renzi.

Whilst the crisis unleashed by Zingaretti’s resignation - via a Facebook post on March 4 - did not end in a total victory for those Renzian neoliberals who had remained within the party after Renzi’s own September 2019 exit to form the breakaway Italia Viva, the election of Enrico Letta as the new leader at PD’s online national assembly on March 14 represents a setback.

The new leader first came into active politics as a Christian Democrat (DC) councillor in Pisa in 1990 - in sharp contrast to Zingaretti’s original political development in the Rome section of the youth movement of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). I would not argue that all former PCI members within PD are to the left of all those who came from DC. Indeed, somebody like Marco Minniti, the racist interior minister in Paolo Gentiloni’s 2016-18 government, who has recently taken up a well-paid post in a think-tank financed by the arms industry, is clearly to the right of figures like former DC member, Dario Franceschini, the culture minister in both Giuseppe Conte’s second government and Mario Draghi’s National Unity administration. However, as a general rule, those who started off in the PCI are somewhat more inclined to feel the pull of social democratic ideas, even if only intermittently. Certainly this is the case with Pierluigi Bersani, Renzi’s immediate predecessor as PD leader, who ended up leaving PD for the social democratic Movimento dei Democratici e Progessisti. MDP was one of the two main constituents of the Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal - LeU) electoral cartel, which entered parliament in 2018.1

Space does not permit a detailed account of the history of PD since its formation in 2007. However, two general points need to be made, if one is to explain the recent crisis. Firstly, the attempt to fuse the heirs of the PCI’s liquidators (the PDS/DS) with the remnants of DC’s left wing (PPI/Margherita) has never really worked. The fact that the party has had nine secretaries in 13 years of existence is a pretty clear illustration of its faction-ridden nature. All too often its faction fights have not been straightforward clashes between left and right, but kaleidoscopic intrigues, in which the personal followers of various chieftains made shifting alliances without a clear ideological basis. This has often been worse at the local and regional level than at the national one, with southern regions like Campania being particularly prone to clientelistic politics, in which local leaders like Vincenzo De Luca are quite prepared to support successive national leaders of diametrically opposed political persuasions, provided their own status as local boss remains unchallenged.

Secondly, PD lacks any democratic mechanism to determine policy, as opposed to electing a new leader. Walter Veltroni, the party’s first leader, not only gave it a deliberately American name to avoid any mention of ‘socialist’, ‘social’, ‘Labour’ or ‘left’ in its title, but also lumbered it with an American structure. The so-called congresses of PD are not like those of the old PC/PCI/PDS/DS or of the British Labour Party. They are more like American presidential conventions and are preceded by ‘primaries’, in which the party’s supporters (not just members) vote for rival leadership candidates.2 This model clearly does not encourage rank-and-file involvement, and the party’s circoli (circles) are a pale shadow of the old PCI sezioni (sections), which lingered on in the PDS/DS, and are in large measure just cogs in an electoral machine.


Returning to more recent events, Zingaretti’s resignation is only comprehensible in the context of the task he had set himself, which was essentially to ‘deRenzify’ PD. He had been elected leader in March 2019, gaining a two-thirds majority in a primary involving more than one-and-a-half million voters.

Renzi had led the party to an ignominious defeat in the 2018 general election and had therefore been forced to resign. The interim leader, Maurizo Martina, who to some extent distanced himself from Renzi’s approach, stood in the 2019 primary, but - although he came second, with Renzi’s favoured candidate pushed into third place - the voters overwhelmingly favoured a complete break with Renzi’s neoliberal policies. Moreover, Renzi’s refusal to have any negotiations with the Five Star Movement (M5S), which had emerged as the largest single party in the election, had paved the way for the formation of an M5S-Lega government, leaving PD in opposition. So even more pragmatic PD members or supporters had had quite enough of Renzi, and of anybody who seemed to be acting as a front man for him3.

Zingaretti managed to obtain an improved percentage for PD in the June 2019 European elections, after a period in which it had looked as though the party was in terminal decline. One might question his judgement in terms of candidates - for example, Carlo Calenda, a man very much on the right of PD, was given a position very high up on the party list, and subsequently abused his position as an MEP to break with PD and set up a rabidly neoliberal ‘centrist’ party called Azione - but the result represented a popular endorsement of Zingaretti’s leadership.

However, the problem Zingaretti faced throughout his two years as PD leader was not with the membership or the voters, but with the PD parliamentary groups in both chambers, particularly in the Senate. The parliamentarians were the product of the 2018 general election, in which Renzi had been determined to pack the party lists with his own followers and to minimise the vestigial presence of any factional opponents. Obviously there were some opportunists who decided it was in their own interests to transfer their allegiance to the new leader, but the bulk of the parliamentarians remained hostile to him, regardless of his popularity with the majority of PD members.

Whilst I would not claim that Zingaretti was any more leftwing than somebody like Ed Miliband, he was willing to reach out to the trade unions and was unsympathetic to the more extreme demands of Confindustria (the Italian equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry) - in sharp contrast to Renzi, who had totally alienated the CGIL trade union confederation, which was traditionally associated with the PCI/PDS/DS/PD, and was only too willing to respond to Confindustria’s every whim. For these reasons, Zingaretti was hated by the parliamentarians, the mainstream press (including from April 2020 onwards the ‘centre-left’ Repubblica after its takeover by Fiat boss John Elkann) and the establishment in general.

Zingaretti did see a way out of his difficulties: namely an early general election. Whether he would have had the courage to completely purge the Renzians from any PD parliamentary candidate list is debatable, but he certainly had it in mind to seriously reduce their weight within the parliamentary party. And they knew this - and, of course, it increased their hatred. Hence the PD parliamentarians’ rejection of Zingaretti’s proposal for an early general election in the wake of the collapse of the first Conte government (the M5S-Lega coalition) in August 2019, and their sabotage of his efforts in January 2021 to promote the idea that if the second Conte government fell the only alternative was a general election.

During Zingaretti’s period as leader, there were a number of important regional elections. The impact of deindustrialisation, austerity and both PD’s complicity with Mario Monti’s anti-working class measures and its own subsequent neoliberal attacks on workers’ rights (eg, Renzi’s Jobs Act) meant that the ‘Red Regions’ of central Italy were now in contention. In my view, there were only three real ‘Red Regions’ - Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria. The smaller and least populous Umbria was lost in the autumn of 2019, but Emilia-Romagna was held in January 2020 and Tuscany was held in September 2020. Some claim that Le Marche was a ‘Red Region’, and it was indeed lost in September 2020 after two decades of centre-left control. But in the 20th century, although Le Marche was sometimes controlled by PCI coalitions, it was more often run by DC-led coalitions.

These successes in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany would have been impossible without Zingaretti, particularly the Tuscan result. Arguably, the Emilian result owed more to the short-lived, but impressive and largely youthful, mobilisation of the ‘Sardines’, who filled the squares to show their desire to stop Salvini’s Lega taking the region. However, even here the participation in the PD-led coalition of the more leftwing list led by former MEP Elly Schlein (who had deserted PD for Pippo Civati’s Possibile during the Renzi era), would not have occurred without PD’s turn to the left under Zingaretti.

In the Tuscan election campaign, which I witnessed at first hand, Zingaretti’s decision to address public meetings in six different cities on the penultimate day of campaigning was clearly of enormous importance, given that the PD candidate for Tuscan regional president, Eugenio Giani, was a very poor choice for two reasons. Firstly, Giani is on the right of the party, albeit from a Partito Socialista Italiano background, rather than a straightforward Renzian. Secondly, he is so identified with Florence, as against the coastal cities, that PD felt it best not to use him on the platform in Livorno - particularly since he had a few weeks earlier made a very stupid remark about imposing a new incinerator on the site of the Stagno oil refinery near Livorno by using ‘armoured cars’ if necessary.4 Moreover, the full-page advertisements in the local paper Il Tirreno - in which the CGIL did not quite say ‘vote PD’, but urged people to vote for the candidate who supported democracy, anti-fascism and workers’ interests - would not have been placed during Renzi’s years as leader.

Had the outcome of the September 2020 regional elections been more adverse for PD, the same forces that already wanted to oust Conte would also have gone for Zingaretti’s throat. However, the overall outcome was a 3-3 draw, in which PD only lost one region (Le Marche) that it had previously held. So Conte and Zingaretti survived until after Christmas.


The formation of Draghi’s government of national unity in February 2021 led to a crisis within PD. However, it should be stressed that, while there have been anti-Draghi splits from both M5S and the left social democratic LeU, no faction within PD has opposed participation in this government - even if it seems likely that there is some truth in the rumour that Zingaretti’s initial reaction to Draghi’s willingness to include the Lega in the government was to suggest PD limit itself to giving him external support.

Indeed, Andrea Orlando, leader of PD’s left faction - and the deputy leader during Zingaretti’s secretaryship - has been given the post of minister of labour. No doubt he genuinely believes that in this role he can defend workers against the demands of Confindustria to end both the block on sackings and the state-financed Covid-related layoff pay (Cassa Integrazione), but somebody with a greater historical awareness would have realised this post is a classic trap for social democratic ministers in a right-dominated ‘national unity’ government.

Insofar as the recent arguments within PD in the period after Conte’s fall had a political as opposed to a personal basis, they concern the nature of the electoral alliances the PD should pursue in the next general election, scheduled for early 2023, rather than its stance in relation to Draghi. Zingaretti wanted to continue with the tripartite alliance between PD, M5S and LeU, which had been the core of Giuseppe Conte’s second government (September 2019-January 2021).

Zingaretti later made it obvious that he still believed in the tripartite line, even after his resignation as PD leader, by inviting two M5S members to join the regional cabinet in Lazio, where he still remains regional president.5 Zingaretti’s most vociferous opponents within PD wanted to end the alliance with M5S as soon as Conte had been replaced by Draghi as prime minister and the alliance no longer paid immediate dividends in terms of cabinet office, as it had done during an M5S-dominated government. Despite their absurd rhetoric about PD’s ‘majoritarian vocation’, these opponents of any deal with M5S did not really believe that PD - a party that averaged around 20% in the opinion polls - could win an election on its own, and what they really hankered after was an alliance with groups clearly to the right of PD (Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva, Carlo Calenda’s Azione, Emma Bonino’s +Europa and, in all probability, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia - if they could detach it from its two main allies: namely Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia).

Of course, as I have already indicated, the recent argument about alliance strategy had longer-term roots. The majority of PD’s parliamentarians - and many of its mayors, such as Giorgio Gori in Bergamo - remained unrepentant Renzians, even if very few of them were willing to follow Renzi when he split from PD in September 2019 and founded Italia Viva. (Contrary to Renzi’s boast that he would destroy PD just as Emanuel Macron had destroyed the French Socialists, Italia Viva has proved an electoral disaster, averaging 2% in the opinion polls). Even if some of them, although retaining their neoliberal, pro-business and anti-trade union views, may have grown weary of Renzi’s antics - eg, standing spoiler candidates against PD-led regional coalitions in Liguria and Puglia, and praising the murderous Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman - it is quite clear that there is still a sizeable fifth column of Renzians within PD, who probably take their orders from the man who sabotaged Conte’s government via WhatsApp, Telegram or some sneaky electronic device.

This may well explain the course of events in the last weeks of Conte’s government (January 13-29). At this point, Zingaretti was very serious about the need to assist Conte in recruiting enough of the flotsam and jetsam to be found in the centre of Italian politics6 to compensate for the loss of Italia Viva parliamentary votes - particularly in the Senate, where the coalition had lost its absolute majority. Zingaretti’s position was to proclaim that if Conte fell, PD would advocate an early general election. Faced with the serious possibility of rapidly losing their prestigious parliamentary seats and the huge salaries and expenses that went with them, it is obvious that the small group of defectors - the so-called Responsabili, whom Conte had already recruited in mid-January - would have expanded remarkably quickly.

Renzi himself was worried by this. In the one Senate vote of confidence held between Italia Viva’s exit from the coalition on January 13 and Conte’s eventual resignation on January 29, Renzi instructed Italia Viva’s delegation to abstain, having no certainty that if he instructed them to vote Conte out they would do so. Many were more likely to return home to PD and save Conte - not from conviction, but to save their own parliamentary careers.

The usual uncertainties, produced by shifts in the opinion poll ratings of all the parties over a period of nearly three years, or by fears that party leaders might prefer younger or more dynamic replacements next time around, were greatly exacerbated by the impact of the September 2020 referendum, which had overwhelmingly endorsed M5S’s demagogic and undemocratic scheme to reduce the number of parliamentarians by about a third. This would greatly increase future competition for seats within most parties other than the far right (Lega and FDI, which now have around twice their combined 2018 general election score, according to all recent opinions polls). However, it soon became obvious that an early general election was an empty threat, because most PD parliamentarians made it clear, overtly or covertly, that they were not behind Zingaretti’s plan.

Of course, Conte was not helped by the lack of loyalty shown by some leading figures in M5S’s parliamentary ranks. Luigi di Maio’s intense jealously of Conte’s popularity was barely concealed. Di Maio, foreign minister in the second Conte government, has retained that post in Mario Draghi’s government, despite his manifest lack of any competence in foreign affairs.7 One does not have to be particularly cynical to draw the conclusion that the erstwhile enthusiast for the extreme right wing of the Gilets Jaunes - whose idiotic behaviour during the first Conte government caused a major diplomatic row between Italy and France - is now being rewarded for services rendered.


Whilst it is impossible to be sure precisely who within PD (and/or M5S) assisted Renzi in bringing Conte down, what is very clear is that the change of prime minister led to a rapid intensification of attacks on Zingaretti from within PD.

The campaign against him was in many ways reminiscent of the similar attacks on Conte, and the mainstream press, particularly La Repubblica, eagerly quoted every PD parliamentarian or mayor who criticised Zingaretti, as well as carrying hostile editorials or opinion pieces by their own staff. The point, of course, was that it was intolerable that PD should be led by someone with social democratic views, particularly somebody who remained popular with PD’s members, as distinct from its parliamentarians, regional presidents, mayors and regional or municipal councillors.8

One particularly venomous article in La Repubblica by Concita De Gregorio - who many years ago edited the now defunct ‘official communist’ L’Unità - provoked an exasperated Zingaretti into retaliating by talking about “radical chic”, which in turn led De Gregorio’s fellow Repubblica journalists to accuse him of using phraseology reminiscent of Salvini. Of course, when Stefano Bonaccini, the regional president of Emilia Romagna (the man whom the Renzians, or ex-Renzians, in PD saw as the best candidate to replace Zingaretti in late 2021/early 2022), expressed his total agreement with Salvini over the alleged merits of reopening bars and restaurants in the evening, no such barrage of insults filled the mainstream press, although the Salvini/Bonaccini proposal was clearly insane at a time when the third wave of Covid infections and deaths was mounting in Emilia-Romagna.

During February, the Renzians claimed that a clarification of PD’s own politics and identity should precede any commitment to long-term strategic alliances with M5S, but, when Zingaretti took their criticism at face value and proposed a “thematic” PD congress to discuss issues (and presumably vote on rival policy resolutions), they responded by saying they wanted a “proper congress” (ie, including leadership elections) as soon as the Covid epidemic permitted.

Zingaretti was blamed for the fact that the three PD ministers in Draghi’s cabinet (picked by Draghi, not Zingaretti) were all male, and when he insisted that five out of six PD under-secretaries in the Draghi government must be women, the Renzians then turned on him for not fairly representing the various male-led factions and sub-factions within the list. Of course, the attack on Andrea Orlando - Zingaretti’s leftwing deputy - for not resigning in favour of a woman the moment he was made minister of labour, was a totally instrumental use of gender issues, since in the few days after Zingaretti’s resignation, before Enrico Letta was chosen as leader, the names of two women, who had been ministers in earlier governments - Anna Finicchiaro and Roberta Pinotti - were floated as potential PD leaders, the Renzians denounced them both as too leftwing and divisive (although Pinotti is actually a centrist in PD terms, aligned with Dario Franceschini rather than Zingaretti, let alone Orlando).

Zingaretti also found it increasingly intolerable that the Renzians would unanimously endorse all his proposals at every meeting of PD leading bodies, but then go and viciously attack them in the press a few hours later. In the end, he had just had enough. He had already been dissuaded from resigning in mid-February, so on March 4, giving most of his colleagues, even the friendly ones, no warning, he posted a statement on Facebook, saying he was “ashamed” of his party for spending days discussing “primaries” and “ministerial armchairs” (poltroni) when the people of Italy were facing the third wave of an epidemic and growing economic hardship.

The response to this was interesting, to say the least. Many of his colleagues pleaded with him to withdraw his resignation, with varying degrees of sincerity - with Renzians, unsurprisingly, taking much longer to make the request. Only Matteo Orfini, leader of the small rightwing faction which tastelessly styles itself the ‘Young Turks’,9 made it obvious he was glad to see the back of Zingaretti. The bulk of Italy’s journalists spent days assuming that Zingaretti was only playing a game, that he would appeal to the PD national assembly scheduled for March 14, get a 70%-80% vote for his reinstatement and crush his internal enemies as a result.

Of course, Zingaretti, unlike most politicians, meant what he had said, did not withdraw his resignation, had no scheme for a comeback at the national assembly and was not, as some other mainstream journalists claimed, plotting to become mayor of Rome. One might argue that he should have fought to the end against the PD backstabbers, just as he had fought to the end to save Conte’s premiership, but two years in a nest of vipers that makes up PD’s leading bodies was as much as he could take, and he obviously felt that he was far better employed dealing with the Covid and economic crises at the regional level, as president of Lazio, as well as demonstrating that the tripartite alliance with M5S and LeU was viable in practice in his own region.


Zingaretti’s successor as PD leader, Enrico Letta, is hardly the Renzians’ first choice, since he is the former prime minister whom Renzi deposed via a vote of no confidence at a meeting of PD’s leadership body in February 2014. Within months of Renzi’s coup, Letta had not only resigned from parliament and left PD in disgust, but also taken the decision to embark on an academic career in France as director of the School of International Affairs of the prestigious Parisian university SciencesPo, seemingly leaving Italian politics behind for ever.

Letta entitled his most recent book Ho imparato (‘I have learnt’), but how much he has learnt in his seven-year Parisian exile remains to be seen. He certainly seems to have abandoned his earlier intense hostility towards M5S, which had led him to be the first PD prime minister to form a coalition government that included Silvio Berlusconi in 2013-14, in the wake of the inconclusive general election result and Pierluigi Bersani’s unsuccessful attempt to negotiate with Grillo’s followers.

However, he now seems to look back to the kind of alliance formed by Romano Prodi in both 1996 and 2006 as the basis for PD strategy - in other words to form a ‘broad centre-left’, which would only subsequently make an electoral alliance with M5S. The ‘broad centre-left’ he envisages would stretch from Azione, +Europa and Italia Viva on the right to the LeU and SI on the left. Even if such a bizarre amalgam of rabid neoliberals and leftwing social democrats managed to hold together until a general election, it is extremely likely to disintegrate in the event of victory.

Letta has appointed two deputy leaders - one male and one female - a PD secretariat consisting of eight men and eight women and forced the PD parliamentary groups to remove their existing male leaders in favour of two women, one in each chamber. However, such gestures towards gender equality - along with Letta’s proclaimed desire to bring in voting rights for 16-year-olds and to give citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy - whilst laudable in themselves, do not address the issue of how to win back the working class constituency that used to vote for the PCI.

That is something which would require the abandonment of the neoliberal economic and social policies of which Mario Draghi is the most shameless embodiment that Italy has ever seen.

  1. Bersani himself was not elected in 2018, but is still regarded as a very important figure in the MDP. Arguably, Bersani’s earlier willingness, as PD leader, to back Mario Monti’s technocratic government of 2011-13 is just an illustration of the way most social democrats are vulnerable to appeals for national unity, even if they go against the most basic interests of the working class.↩︎

  2. This American notion of primaries had already made an appearance in Italy before the foundation of the PD, in the way multi-party centre-left electoral coalitions chose their prime ministerial candidates, but at least individual parties like the DS retained their own policy-making congresses.↩︎

  3. It is worth pointing out that Renzi has persistently come bottom in opinion poll ratings of the major Italian politicians from 2018 to the present. Even the elderly and now rather discredited Berlusconi is always ahead of him. In short, the man is detested by the bulk of the Italian electorate, left, right and centre.↩︎

  4. Of course, Giani claimed to have been joking, but the damage was done.↩︎

  5. Zingaretti is now well into his second term as Regional President of Lazio, as he was re-elected in 2018 on the very same day that Renzi led the PD to a national defeat in the simultaneous general election. The voting figures for the two contests clearly indicated that some of those who had voted for Zingaretti in the regional contest had been unwilling to vote for a Renzi-led PD in the national one.↩︎

  6. By January 2021, dozens of deputies and senators elected in 2018 were no longer in the party for which they had been election candidates, and generally gravitated to the Gruppo Misto (Mixed Group), rather than immediately defecting to another major party.↩︎

  7. Di Maio notoriously described Augusto Pinochet as “the Venezuelan dictator”, either confusing him with Hugo Chávez (or Nicholas Maduro) or showing total ignorance of Latin American geography.↩︎

  8. It did strike me in passing that, while the campaigns of the Italian press against both Conte and Zingaretti were quite similar to the British one against Jeremy Corbyn in terms of method, they differed to some extent in outcome, in that, although they succeeded at the elite level of power politics, they failed to demonise either Conte or Zingaretti in the popular imagination.↩︎

  9. Anybody with historical sense would be aware of the genocidal proclivities of the original Young Turks.↩︎