Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Enrico Letta’s Lonely Campaign

The Italian center-left leader says he can stop the far right’s march to victory. His chances are slim.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
Enrico Letta, leader of the Italian Democratic Party (PD), delivers a speech in Rome's downtown square on September 6 ahead of the upcoming general political elections in Milan.
Enrico Letta, leader of the Italian Democratic Party (PD), delivers a speech in Rome's downtown square on September 6 ahead of the upcoming general political elections in Milan.
Enrico Letta, leader of the Italian Democratic Party (PD), delivers a speech in Rome's downtown square on September 6 ahead of the upcoming general political elections in Milan. VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

PINEROLO, Italy–On a warm, mid-September afternoon, with less than 10 days to go before Italians head to the polls in a high-stakes general election, a few dozen people gathered at a community center in Pinerolo, a town of 35,000 in the country’s northwest.

The local branch of the Democratic Party (PD), the main center-left alternative to the hard-right coalition widely expected to win big on Sept. 25, was holding its annual fair, featuring political debates, concerts, and traditional cuisine. The local party officials on stage sought to strike an upbeat tone, as they spoke about workers’ rights and the energy transition to an audience of mostly elderly sympathizers somewhat distracted by the food to come. After all, according to the last polls published before an electoral blackout went into force, the PD is Italy’s second most popular party, closely trailing Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Yet a sense of impending doom overshadowed the fair. In this district, the right came out on top in the last general election five years ago, which resulted in a hung Parliament. Now, the right-wing alliance led by the Brothers of Italy, which also includes Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia, is expected to win around 45 percent of the national vote, some 15 points more than the center-left coalition made up of the PD and a few smaller parties. Due to Italy’s complex electoral system, this could translate into an overwhelming two-thirds majority in parliament.

PINEROLO, Italy–On a warm, mid-September afternoon, with less than 10 days to go before Italians head to the polls in a high-stakes general election, a few dozen people gathered at a community center in Pinerolo, a town of 35,000 in the country’s northwest.

The local branch of the Democratic Party (PD), the main center-left alternative to the hard-right coalition widely expected to win big on Sept. 25, was holding its annual fair, featuring political debates, concerts, and traditional cuisine. The local party officials on stage sought to strike an upbeat tone, as they spoke about workers’ rights and the energy transition to an audience of mostly elderly sympathizers somewhat distracted by the food to come. After all, according to the last polls published before an electoral blackout went into force, the PD is Italy’s second most popular party, closely trailing Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Yet a sense of impending doom overshadowed the fair. In this district, the right came out on top in the last general election five years ago, which resulted in a hung Parliament. Now, the right-wing alliance led by the Brothers of Italy, which also includes Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia, is expected to win around 45 percent of the national vote, some 15 points more than the center-left coalition made up of the PD and a few smaller parties. Due to Italy’s complex electoral system, this could translate into an overwhelming two-thirds majority in parliament.

“There is a right-wing wind sweeping Europe,” PD leader Enrico Letta told Foreign Policy. “The prevailing feeling among people is fear, and the right is traditionally very skillful in exploiting fears. It’s a tough, tough campaign,” he said.

A Meloni-led government would be one of the most far-right seen in a Western democracy since World War II. Despite her recent efforts to strike a more moderate image, her party never fully shed its fascist roots. Meloni’s conservatism on reproductive rights has stoked fears that she will take steps to make abortions more difficult to get, as the right is already accused of doing in the regions under its control. Both Brothers of Italy and the League hold anti-immigration, eurosceptic views, and have regularly sided with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in his clash with EU authorities over democratic backsliding in his country.

Much of the PD’s woes come from its failure to build a wider, more popular front. Letta has refused to seek a deal with the Five Star Movement, a left-leaning party that’s polling at more than 10 percent, over its role in the collapse of former Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s national unity government this summer. Former PD members Matteo Renzi and Carlo Calenda have also created a separate, centrist alliance that’s running alone.

The PD claims that its narrow coalition is the left’s only hope to thwart the far right’s bid to seize power. Letta, 56, stands by his measured communication style, a far cry from the angry tones and down to earth language used by Meloni or the frivolous videos often posted by Salvini on social media. In a country that elected Berlusconi more than once, Letta said he trusts Italian voters.

“My bet is that Italians will appreciate serious behavior, as opposed to populism,” he said.

Letta’s bet hasn’t yet paid off. “He definitely has a charisma problem,” said Marco Tarchi, a professor of political science at the University of Florence. “When he tries to look tough, it is hard to take him seriously.”

“Letta has the style of an intellectual, of someone who likes to reason, to convince, who uses moderate tones and refrains from quarrels,” said Piero Ignazi, a political scientist at the University of Bologna. “That’s great for debates in university classrooms, but it may be little effective in an electoral campaign.”

The PD has also been worn out by its almost uninterrupted presence in government over the last decade, during which it has participated in six different ruling coalitions. Letta himself served as a prime minister for almost a whole year between 2013 and 2014.

“The party has always sacrificed itself for the country’s stability and governability,” said Letta. “Today we are paying a price,” he said.

Brothers of Italy, on the other hand, spent the last few years in the cheap seats. Without taking any responsibility for governance, the party has seen its poll numbers soar from 4 percent to 25 percent since 2018. According to Marc Lazar, a French expert on Italian politics and a former colleague of Letta’s during the leftist leader’s recent stint at Sciences Po in Paris, “the PD appears as the party of the establishment, the party that’s always been in power. Given how widespread anti-political sentiments are in Italy, this takes a toll on its credibility.”

A recent survey showed that the PD’s popularity is directly related to the respondents’ paychecks: The Democrats are by far the most popular party among the wealthy, but they poll at barely 9 percent among factory workers, a whopping 49 percent of whom back far-right parties like Brothers of Italy or the League. Letta’s own background may not be the best party poster. In stark contrast to Meloni—who grew up in a working class neighborhood in the Italian capital, portrays herself as a child of the suburbs, and never went beyond a high school diploma—Letta is the son of a university professor and was an academic himself, directing the School of International Affairs at Sciences Po for almost six years. He is the nephew of Gianni Letta, a close advisor to Berlusconi who, as a prominent Italian journalist put it, “knows and is on excellent terms with everyone that matters in Rome.”

In a way, Letta represents the more conservative soul of the PD. A Catholic, he cut his teeth in the Democrazia Cristiana, the old Christian Democratic party that dominated Italian politics for half a century, some of which merged into what is today the Democratic Party. Yet, under Letta, the PD is campaigning on a strongly progressive platform, in a bid to reverse the trend that is seeing the mainstream left hemorrhaging working class voters across Europe.

 “We must, by all means, revive our connection with the workforce,” Letta said. He promises to raise salaries, foster long-term job contracts, and put an end to the widespread unpaid internships that plague the Italian labor market. He also proposes a €10,000 “dowry” for low-income 18-year-olds to help them get started in life, which he would pay for by hiking the inheritance tax on millionaires. He wants to defend women’s reproductive rights, and to introduce gay marriage.

While a staunch europhile, he also believes the EU’s strict fiscal rules, suspended in response to the coronavirus crisis, should be reformed and relaxed once and for all—a nod to the strong anti-austerity feelings still lingering in a country that had to endure painful budget-consolidation programs in the 2010s, in order to avoid the risk of a default triggered by its sky-high public debt. However, many Italian left-wingers remain wary. A few years ago, under the leadership of Matteo Renzi, the PD veered towards a pro-business stance, pushing a controversial labor reform that critics say eroded workers’ rights and caused widespread job insecurity.

“The PD doesn’t fully convince me, I find it very much rooted in neoliberalism,” said Fabrizio, a 38-year-old psychologist who lives in Rome and will likely vote for one of the smaller parties to the left of the Democrats, speaking on the condition that his full name not to be used. What’s happening to Italy’s center left isn’t much different than what happened to America’s Democrats: a fling with globalization leads to a nasty fight with—or worse, flight from—the base. “Workers saw the measures approved by Renzi’s PD as a stab in the back,” said Andrea Ferrato, a representative of the Italian General Confederation trade union. Today, the Democrats “are still paying dearly.”

Despite the uphill campaign, Letta seems to believe that he still has a path to victory, or at least a way to limit the damage. He points to the high number of undecided voters, and argues that while the right has a large lead in national polls, in many first-past-the-post districts the race is actually down to just a handful of votes.

On many issues, the PD may be more in line with public opinion than Brothers of Italy’s strong polling numbers suggest. According to a survey published this month, the vast majority of Italians are in favor of progressive taxation, a higher inheritance tax for the wealthy, and abortion rights. While most respondents want less immigration, the majority also wish there were an easier path to Italian citizenship for immigrants’ children.

And the right-wing coalition has problems of its own. Cracks appeared in recent weeks over how to tackle the energy crisis, with League leader Salvini calling for a costly state intervention and publicly taunting Meloni over her fiscal restraint. On foreign policy, the allies hardly agree on anything. The Brothers and the League are at odds over Russia, with Meloni going to great pains to affirm her transatlanticism and Salvini voicing doubts on Western sanctions against Moscow.

At the same time, the two parties’ ties to Orban ruffle the feathers of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. After the Brothers and the League voted against an EU Parliament motion branding Hungary as “no longer a democracy” last week, Berlusconi threatened not to take part in any future government that will fail to live by the principles of Europeanism.

“Nationalist, populist parties have the road paved out for them. It’s easy. They don’t have to deal with the complexity of the issues,” said Matteo Giorgis, a PD councilor attending the fair in Pinerolo.

The right may be about to cruise to victory in Italy’s upcoming election. Holding onto the reins could prove much harder.

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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