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Italy’s Largest Left-Wing Party Is Waging War on the Poor

The Democratic Party cares more about fighting populists than ending inequality. Its new brand of Reaganomics will lead to yet another electoral defeat.

By , a freelance writer in Milan.
Stefano Bonaccini, the president of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna and a member of Italy’s Democratic Party, addresses a press conference in Bologna on Jan. 27, 2020.
Stefano Bonaccini, the president of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna and a member of Italy’s Democratic Party, addresses a press conference in Bologna on Jan. 27, 2020. MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

When Matteo Orfini, a senior lawmaker with Italy’s Democratic Party (PD), proposed a property tax for the very wealthy, his own party burst into panic. The tax he proposed would have affected only those earning more than 500,000 euros ($587,000) per year, a small fraction of Italy’s population, but PD leaders rushed to distance themselves from Orfini, stating that he was speaking in a personal capacity and that the party line was that taxes should be cut, period.

Just when progressive parties in Europe and the Democrats in the United States are moving left on economic issues, vocally questioning the idea of a self-regulating free market and supporting public spending to reduce inequalities, Italy’s major left-of-center party appears to have taken an entirely different path.

Now a senior partner in Mario Draghi’s grand coalition, the PD has long positioned itself as an “institutional party,” a political force basing its identity on the preservation of stability, maintaining good relations with the European Union, and, most of all, being a “bulwark against populism,” as its leaders have often repeated.

When Matteo Orfini, a senior lawmaker with Italy’s Democratic Party (PD), proposed a property tax for the very wealthy, his own party burst into panic. The tax he proposed would have affected only those earning more than 500,000 euros ($587,000) per year, a small fraction of Italy’s population, but PD leaders rushed to distance themselves from Orfini, stating that he was speaking in a personal capacity and that the party line was that taxes should be cut, period.

Just when progressive parties in Europe and the Democrats in the United States are moving left on economic issues, vocally questioning the idea of a self-regulating free market and supporting public spending to reduce inequalities, Italy’s major left-of-center party appears to have taken an entirely different path.

Now a senior partner in Mario Draghi’s grand coalition, the PD has long positioned itself as an “institutional party,” a political force basing its identity on the preservation of stability, maintaining good relations with the European Union, and, most of all, being a “bulwark against populism,” as its leaders have often repeated.

But to do so, the PD chose to abandon entirely the fight against inequality. A cause until recently strongly associated with the left, many economic grievances have now been appropriated by populist parties—to the point that the PD has developed a rhetoric stigmatizing economic grievances.


In the past decade, Italian populists have been on the rise, and as a response the PD has increasingly come to center its identity on the concept of being anti-populist, rather than being progressive. This shift has alienated much of the working class but allowed the PD to maintain a base among two main categories that are less affected by Italy’s economic stagnation: college-educated voters in large urban centers, who tend to be affluent and appreciate anti-populist stances, and older citizens, whose status as retired workers receiving a state pension has sheltered them to an extent from economic difficulties, regardless of their education or class status. In other words, the party’s anti-populist identity takes precedence over the party’s center-left identity, and this means it must oppose any measure that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as populist.

Italy’s main two populist formations—Matteo Salvini’s staunchly anti-immigration League and the Five Star Movement, which styles itself as an anti-establishment force championing the outrage of ordinary citizens—owe much of their success to the two recent economic crises that struck the country, first in 2008 and then in 2011, from which the country has never fully recovered. Italy’s GDP has still not rebounded to pre-2008 levels.

Italy’s main two populist formations owe much of their success to the two recent economic crises that struck the country.

When, for a brief period between the summer of 2018 and the summer of 2019, these two parties ruled together in a League-Five Star coalition, they increased social spending, introducing two new policies: on the one hand, a reform of the pension system that made it easier for many workers to retire before they reached the standard pension age of 67, and on the other, the so-called Citizenship Income, a monthly cash subsidy for the unemployed and the working poor, which 4.3 million Italians are now receiving. (The measure was wrongly framed as a universal basic income, which is allocated to all citizens as an extra source of income; the Italian variant is allocated to only the very poor, the vast majority of whom are unemployed.)

The PD has firmly opposed both policies because it primarily saw them as a tool that would further increase Italy’s high public debt and, therefore, the country’s financial stability. The PD vehemently criticized the Citizenship Income in particular, even after the party became an unlikely bedfellow with populists, first when it formed a PD-Five Star coalition in 2019 and now with Draghi’s grand coalition, in which both the League and Five Star are partners to the PD.

Stefano Bonaccini, a prominent PD leader and regional president of Emilia-Romagna, a wealthy, progressive region in the country’s north, criticized the subsidies, saying that they incentivize people to sit at home and watch TV, rather than find a job. In doing so, Bonaccini, who started his political career in Italy’s Communist Party, echoed an oft-repeated mantra of the anti-welfare right. Today, he’s considered the rising star of the PD. Maria Elena Boschi, another senior PD leader who later defected to the centrist Italia Viva, likened the Citizenship Income to a whole life spent on vacation.

These are not the only occasions when the PD has antagonized social policies supported by populists. Indeed, a proposed minimum wage bill in 2019 initially supported both by the PD and Five Star eventually sank when the PD pulled its support because it thought the proposed threshold of 9 euros ($10.50) per hour was too high. More recently, this summer, the PD successfully pushed an amendment that loosened the regulations on short-term contracts.

In 2018, the League-Five Star government introduced a bill—nicknamed the “dignity decree”—that limited temporary contracts to 24 months, after which employers had to either permanently hire their employees or lay them off. This measure was meant to curb the widespread practice of hiring workers with serial short-term contracts, which some employers use to hire senior, experienced staff while paying them as newbies.

The new government sought to amend the dignity decree, making it easier for employers to avoid switching to the permanent hire; the modified law now encourages negotiation with unions, which are mostly powerless in the small firms that make up a significant part of Italy’s economy.

In other words, the PD is not just stuck in a 1990s Blairite mood but has embraced some talking points that in the United States would be associated with the Republican Party: Welfare is making people lazy, employment should be unregulated, and taxes should be cut.

Mario Ricciardi, a philosophy professor at the University of Milan and editor of the political magazine Il Mulino, said the Italian center-left is failing to tackle inequalities because “it is frozen in time,” as if it were still living in the 1990s. While in much of the rest of the world the left has realized that the disparity between the rich and the poor is growing, he said, this hasn’t happened in Italy. “Despite the fact that many economists are now questioning old dogmas, like labor flexibility, the [PD] is holding on to old ideas,” Ricciardi said. “For the past 10 years, they have kept their heads in the sand.”

Of course, Italy is not the only European country where a left-of-center party has endorsed neoliberal policies and clashed with populists about it. In 2016, France, under the Socialist government of François Hollande, passed labor reforms that introduced more flexibility in the workforce. By contrast, the far-right National Front party (now National Rally) protested against such reforms, albeit mildly.

What sets Italy apart, however, is that its major left-leaning party is now fighting to dismantle the social policies introduced by populists a few years ago to benefit vulnerable workers and the unemployed. In other words, the PD is waging a pro-inequality war and is doing so in the name of responsibility. If populists, the most irresponsible of political tribes, want to help the poor, so goes their reasoning, then the responsible thing to do is not to help at all.

Since its birth, the PD has been all about responsibility or, rather, has had a mindset equating responsibility with moderation and continuity with the ideas that were dominant in the early 2000s. The PD was founded in 2007 as a fusion between former communists and progressive Catholics in an attempt to produce a counterweight to the conservative camp then unified under Silvio Berlusconi. The idea was to create a pro-Europe, moderate big tent and a “partito di governo,” or a party capable of governing the country almost by itself.

Italy’s major left-leaning party is fighting to dismantle the social policies that populists introduced to benefit vulnerable workers and the unemployed.

But within a few years, Italy’s political landscape changed dramatically, as Berlusconi’s decline produced a Balkanization of the right and the economic crisis sparked the rise of populists. “The PD is now surrounded by parties that are its opposite,” said Vincenzo Emanuele, a political scientist at the LUISS Guido Carli university in Rome.

In this context, the PD’s goal shifted from being able to govern by itself to taking part in (almost) any coalition government, not out of a lust of power but out of a sense of responsibility, as if they had to play the role of the adult in the room. “When there’s the need to form a coalition, the [PD] is always available. They have proven to be a safe bet for each Italian president,” said Emanuele, referring to the fact that in Italy the head of state is responsible for facilitating the formation of a stable governing coalition.

Today, the PD is trapped in this role. It has built its identity around being a “bulwark against populism,” as the only party capable of bringing competent people to the government, to the point that a slogan of the party’s 2018 election campaign was “Vote science, vote PD.” The party is so immersed in this anti-populist role that it cannot endorse any policies supported by populists, even when those policies advance traditionally progressive causes.

This political strategy has made the PD viable as a constant coalition partner, but it has also proved ineffective to win elections. “In its 13 years of life, the PD has been part of some kind of governing coalition for 10 years,” Emanuele said. But it has never won an election. Today, the PD is stuck around 20 percent in polls, which does not make it as politically irrelevant as France’s Socialists but nor does it put the party in the position of leading any future coalition.

In 2018, Italy became the first European country where most voters chose populist parties. Since then, some things have changed—for instance, Five Star has lost significant support after infighting, and the League is losing votes to another far-right party, the post-fascist Brothers of Italy—but populists as a whole are still strong.

The PD is not just stuck in a 1990s Blairite mood but has embraced talking points that in the United States would be associated with the Republican Party.

Italy is now governed by a grand coalition led by Draghi, a former European Central Bank president, encompassing all major political parties except the Brothers of Italy. But while the League and Five Star are supporting Draghi reluctantly, the PD is enthusiastically pro-Draghi. This situation is further crystallizing the perception of the PD as a dull political force with no other ideology than supporting stability as an end in itself.

“In the PD, there are no new ideas, no big ideas, and the few original ideas have been silenced,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna. He said the PD has now been reduced to a “party just waiting for something to happen.”

But if the PD keeps waiting, that something might be yet another even more humiliating electoral defeat.

Giorgio Ghiglione is a freelance writer in Milan. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Internazionale. Twitter: @giorgioghiglion

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