The Italian Center-Left Didn’t Collapse. It Never Existed.

A party with no sense of what it stood for was doomed from the start.

Italian PM Matteo Renzi waved as he received UK Prime Minister, Theresa May at Villa Pamphili, on July 27, 2016 in Rome.
Italian PM Matteo Renzi waved as he received UK Prime Minister, Theresa May at Villa Pamphili, on July 27, 2016 in Rome. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

When Italy went to the polls on March 4, most observers predicted that the ruling Democratic Party (PD) would perform poorly. In fact, the center-left party, which is headed by Matteo Renzi and includes Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, suffered a blow that exceeded expectations. It garnered a mere 19 percent of the vote for both the lower house of parliament and the Senate — down from 25 and 27 percent, respectively, in 2013. At the peak of its popularity, four years ago, the PD was winning as much as 40 percent of the votes for the European Parliament.

Many analysts were quick to view the PD’s defeat as the latest episode in a series of mainstream progressive parties collapsing all across Europe. And yet the PD was never a typical European party. Unlike its counterparts in France, Germany, and Spain, it doesn’t come from a long social-democratic tradition — in fact, it doesn’t come from a long tradition at all. Founded a decade ago, from a merger of ex-communists and centrist Catholics, Italy’s PD has been a unique experiment in European politics — and a fragile one, since its very beginning.

The mainstream center-left is in free fall across Europe, so the argument goes, because after World War II, leftist parties in Western Europe renounced communism and focused on fighting for the workers by advocating a welfare state and labor rights within a capitalist system. They became social democrats in the mold of Olof Palme, Bruno Kreisky, and Willy Brandt, leaders who helped Sweden, Austria, and Germany become three of the most successful welfare states in Europe and demonstrated how policies friendly to the working class could be combined with capitalism.

But then, between the 1990s and the 2000s, the European left embraced a Tony Blair-style Third Way. They supported privatization of state assets and flexible labor markets. While they moved further to the center on economic issues, they began focusing more issues such as marriage equality and equal opportunities for women. In other words, they became more social liberal than social democratic.

This shift, coupled with deindustrialization, created a fracture between left-leaning parties and the working-class voters whom they were established to represent. According to Jan Rovny, Europe’s left-leaning parties ceased being the representatives of the working class and became the parties of choice for upwardly mobile urban professionals.

This analysis makes sense if applied to countries like Germany and Spain, where the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party have suffered major defeats, or France and Greece, where the mainstream left has been reduced to irrelevance. But it hardly applies to Italy.

Unlike Germans, Italians never had a Willy Brandt — or a social democratic tradition, for that matter. After World War II, Italy was uninterruptedly ruled for four decades by one party, the socially conservative and economically centrist Christian Democrats. The historian Paolo Pombeni, a co-editor of the political science journal Il Mulino, describes the Christian Democrats as a “catch-all party” with many currents: “They routinely formed coalitions with minor parties, including the socialists and the social democrats, but despite their names those were centrist parties,” Pombeni says in a telephone conversation with Foreign Policy. When Italy had its only socialist prime minister, Bettino Craxi, in the 1980s, he was still leading a coalition in which socialists were a minority partner with the Christian Democrats. For those four decades, the only opposition party — and the country’s second-largest political force — was the Communist Party: “Italy had the largest Communist Party in Western Europe. It had, as its major leftist force, a party that, officially at least, wanted to have a revolution, not to build the welfare state,” Pombeni says.

In the early 1990s, a massive corruption scandal called mani pulite shattered Italy’s political system. Investigators found that political parties were systematically taking bribes from businessmen in order to finance their activities. The small but influential socialist party was completely wiped out, most of the Christian Democrats were gone, and only the Communist Party was left standing. But it faced its own identity crisis after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Filling the void, Silvio Berlusconi took the country by storm, with his newly founded Forza Italia. During the early Berlusconi era, former Communists and some of the former Christian Democrats joined forces, constantly allied against Forza Italia. Then they decided to merge in 2007. And so the PD was born. Although former Communists outnumbered moderates, it was Christian Democrats who shaped the party’s economic view. The idea was to “let capitalism’s winners thrive freely, but also help a bit those left behind,” Giorgio Arfaras, an economist at the Centro Einaudi think tank, tells FP.

Unlike other progressive parties that shifted toward the center, the PD was born as a Blairite Third Way party, with religious roots. “They wanted to be something completely new, a native Democratic party, but in retrospect it was wishful thinking. What we had was two separate nomenclatures joining forces,” notes Jacopo Tondelli, a political commentator and chief editor of the blog Stati Generali. Speaking with FP, he describes the PD as a party with an “intrinsic fragility” due to its lack of ideological cohesion.

The PD may have been doomed from the start. One of the party’s main problems, from its earliest days, was that it wasn’t entirely clear what it stood for. Was it for social democracy or against it? Was it for old Catholic values or for modern liberalism? During the Berlusconi era, at least, the party was very clear about what it was against. But eventually Berlusconi’s hegemony faded, and with it the appeal of anti-Berlusconi politics.

When Matteo Renzi took over in 2013, he tried to blaze a new trail, taking his party away from their anti-Berlusconi focus and severing the last ties to labor unions. Under his leadership, the party embraced socially liberal causes such as civil unions for gay couples (something unthinkable only a few years ago for a party with Catholic origins). But it also became a party focused on its leader.

Initially, Renzi’s energetic approach and charisma resonated with Italians. But that enthusiasm faded quickly. Renzi epically lost a constitutional referendum in 2016: In theory the vote was about a complex constitutional reform aimed at simplifying Italy’s notoriously sluggish political system, but it ended up becoming a referendum on Renzi as prime minister.

On Tuesday, Renzi announced he would resign as party leader after his disastrous result on March 4. Now, without Renzi as a leader nor Berlusconi as an enemy, and with no clear political agenda, the PD has, Tondelli argues, “become an empty vessel.” The Italian left will now have to rebuild — but in order to do so, it needs to find a clear message and identity.

Anna Momigliano is a journalist based in Milan.

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