The Italian left at a crossroads: the Italian Democratic Party's struggle to formulate a clear identity, ideology and political strategy.

AuthorGuigni, Lilia

Italy has often been described as a laboratory for political experimentation, an arena where national particularities co-exist and interact with common European trends (Diamanti and Lazar, 1997; Lazar, 2009). The history of the Italian left offers more than one telling example. The PCI, the largest and most popular communist organisation of the Western world, and its gradual integration into Italian democratic institutions while being constantly excluded from office, attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. Almost as much has been written on the way the fall of the Berlin Wall led the PCI to scuttle itself and give birth to the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), which refused to denote itself as socialist or social democratic and preferred the ambiguous labels of 'left' and 'democracy'. In 2007, when the former communists merged with a group of former Christian Democrats, the new-born Democratic Party represented a unicum within the European left family. It explicitly looked at the US Democrats as a seminal example, organised primary elections to select its leaders, called itself a centre-left organisation but--unlike the centrist, Third Way-inspired New Labour--did not join the Party of European Socialists (Vampa, 2011).

Nowadays, the PD is at a crossroads of its short but troubled existence (five leaders, two controversial performances at general elections, uncountable bitter internal battles in the course of only six years). On the one hand, it finds itself facing the same challenges of many other European left-wing parties. As all over the continent, the spread of dissatisfaction towards the establishment, the rise of populism and the increasing demand for mechanisms of direct democracy have weakened the legitimacy of Italian party government. Moreover, the ongoing trends of mediatisation and personalisation deeply transformed left-wing leadership culture (Manin, 1997; Poguntke and Webb, 2005).

On the other hand, however, uncertainties and open questions emerge from the PD's own nature and history. Born from a 'cold fusion' between the Catholic and the communist party elites (Damilano, 2009), the PD never developed a coherent identity and political culture. Its first leader and most enthusiastic promoter, Walter Veltroni, argued that contrasting values and policy positions could democratically and fruitfully co-exist as in the coalition party par excellence, the American Democrats. He often interpreted this universalistic ethos by replacing politics with ethics as well as content with marketing.

Under his successor Pierluigi Bersani, instead, the party split into a wide range of factions, each lobbying for its specific interests and ideas. The former communists, who--despite their internal divisions--actively supported Bersani, enjoyed an overall majority and promoted their more or less social democratic vision. Nonetheless, the party still lacked a shared public philosophy and factionalism became one of its key traits. Ethical questions, political economy and, after Silvio Berlusconi's resignation in 2011, support for Mario Monti and his EU-backed technocrats represented the main divisive issues.

New tensions rose when a young, media-friendly candidate, the Catholic mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, made a strong case for generational renewal, bringing together a varied group of modernisers and challenging Bersani at the 2012 coalition primaries. The PD establishment closed ranks behind the incumbent and brought him to victory, but Renzi boosted his popularity and strengthened his legitimacy within the party. When, at the general election of spring 2013, the alliance led by the PD failed to obtain an absolute majority and Bersani was forced to resign, Renzi naturally appeared to be the next in line.

Renzi's victory at the December 2013 primaries, together with the subsequent reshuffle of the party's dominant coalition and then of the Italian cabinet itself, will be closely investigated in the next few pages. This will hopefully shed light not only on the change in leadership, but also on the organisational, strategic and ideological transition that the Italian left is currently going through.

The 2013 primary elections: a new dominant coalition.

It is interesting to note that primary elections, not only as a leader selection mechanism, but also as a legitimising ritual of participation, constitute a key element of the PD's own narrative. They recall the American model, emphasise the image of an internally democratic, post-ideological organisation and ensure great media attention. Despite this, rules and procedures are far from being fully institutionalised and have produced a number of internal disputes.

While Italian political scientists argue that the term 'primaries' sounds quite inappropriate (in 2007, 2009 and 2013 the Italian Democrats simply elected their leader, who did not--or will not--necessarily run for public office), party elites have...

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