Where is Italy’s Left?

The traditional party of the Italian Left is losing ground and nothing has yet taken its place. Alessio Perrone reports, on the eve of the country’s elections

As Italy heads to the polls on Sunday 4 March for general and regional elections, headlines have been plastered with the Right.

We have heard of the rising anti-immigration sentiment, of Berlusconi’s comeback (yes), of fascism. There has been talk of the top candidates – the Partito Democratico (PD), a legacy centre-left party that has moved to more centrist positions, the centre-right Forza Italia, the far-right Lega (The League, formerly known as the Lega Nord, or Northern League), and the anti-establishment the Five Stars Movement – and of the most likely outcome being a hung parliament that might result in a centre-right alliance with the far-right, or one between the PD and the centre-right.

From this picture, something is missing: nobody is talking about the Italian Left. Why?

‘The real problem is whether the left even exists,’ says Tomaso Montanari, president of Libertà e Giustizia (Liberty and Justice), a left-wing Italian think-tank that organizes workshops, training schools and other cultural events to promote progressive politics. For him and many others, Italy just doesn’t have a credible left-wing option on Sunday.

Wasn’t there a centre-left party?

Entering the 2013 election, the PD was Italy’s left-wing party. Later that year, Matteo Renzi became the party leader (remaining so today), and went on to become Italy’s youngest ever prime minister in 2014.

Over Renzi’s tenure, the party has been a mixed bag, coupling progressive civil rights measures with pro-business economic policies.

Renzi’s PD legalized civil unions for same-sex couples – absent in Italy until 2016; it fought to keep rescuing migrants at sea; and to pass a law granting citizenship to the children of foreigners born in Italy (although Parliament failed to approve this).

But on the economic side, the party has increasingly stressed the need to attract investment. The most controversial set of policies, the 2014-15 ‘Jobs Act’, took away key rights from workers, including repealing a law that protected most workers from being sacked without ‘a just cause’.

Over Renzi’s tenure, the party has been a mixed bag, coupling progressive civil rights measures with pro-business economic policies.

In December 2016, Renzi resigned after a crushing defeat in a constitutional referendum on which he had staked his tenure. He was replaced by fellow PD member Paolo Gentiloni, who is still prime minister going into this election.

While the Italian economy has started growing again (seeing an increase of 1.4 per cent in 2017), and the PD remains Italy’s an important power centre in the country – governing 15 of 20 Italian regions – measures including the Jobs Act and a reform of the education system and Renzi’s strong personality have sent its poll ratings to the doldrums.

In the 2014 European election, it had 41 per cent of the vote; today, it has about 23 per cent in the polls. By comparison, the Five Stars Movement has 28 per cent, and the right-wing coalition of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Lega, and right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia (‘Brothers of Italy’) about 37 per cent.

Poll ratings of the leading parties and coalitions in the upcoming Italian elections. The Five Stars Movement (yellow) is set to become Italy's largest party, but combined into a centre-right coalition (below), right-wing parties including Lega and Berlusconi's Forza Italia might have an edge. The survey does not account for some two million undecided, which might swing the election one way or the other. Via YouTrend

While Gentiloni has arguably been more popular than Renzi, Renzi remains party leader, which means that the PD is often closely associated with him – hindering the party’s ratings.

What’s more, critics and academics aren’t really sure the PD can be called a centre-left party any more. Academics compare him to the likes of Tony Blair and Emmanuel Macron – both pro-market – suggesting the PD is drifting to the centre in the style of New Labour.

‘One could say Renzi tried to imitate Blair’s “third way”, 20 years later,’ says Nicola Pasini, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Milan. He says since the coming of Renzi, the PD has become more of a ‘catch-all’ party than a centre-left party.

Montanari, of the Libertà e Giustizia think tank, is harsher: ‘The PD has got nothing to do with the left anymore. It’s a centrist party appealing to well-off, middle-aged voters in centre-north Italy.’

Where is the alternative?

The second biggest party on the Left is Liberi e Uguali (LEU) – ‘The Free and Equal’ – which was founded by dissident left-wing politicians who fled the PD. Relationships between the two parties are difficult, and a centre-left coalition between the two parties is not on the cards.

However, Italians are critical of professional politicians, and some of LEU’s most prominent figures have been in Parliament for as long as 30 years, embodying a brand of old politics that many see as part of an establishment which has failed to modernize.

A recent press conference with the foreign press sparked a little controversy: only men sat at the table, so a female Canadian journalist walked out in protest. LEU is polling at about 5 per cent, and its chances of being in government are very slim.

The rest of the Italian left is a fragmented set of tiny parties. Some of these are in a coalition with the PD – eg +Europa, a party led by former Radical leader Emma Bonino that is in favour of greater citizenship rights for migrants and of a greater role for the EU.

Other parties reject the coalition with the PD, but are interesting experiments. Potere al Popolo – ‘Power to the People’ – is trying to build a radical ‘anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist, socialist, environmentalist, feminist and southernist’ left-wing alternative. It might grow in the future, but under Italian electoral law, a party needs at least 3 per cent of the vote to be elected to Parliament, making it tough for small parties.

What about the voters?

At least 12 per cent of Italians were still undecided on who to vote at the time of the last survey. Experts say the majority of these are women, and many are former PD voters, suggesting that the policies of Renzi’s PD has left a gap in the Italian party system.

‘Looking at public opinion surveys, there seems to be a wide margin for many votes to the left of the PD,’ says Nicolò Conti, Professor of Political Science at the Sapienza University of Rome. ‘There’s a lot of insecurity. There’s a big demand for economic security and for mitigating the effects of globalization.’

Montanari too talks of ‘a huge pool of voters’ who are not being represented.

On Sunday, many Italians who would have voted for the Left will end up voting for the PD anyway. Many others won’t vote at all – joining the around 34 per cent of the electorate who polls suggest will not be voting.

Others again are turning to the mixed bag of the Five Stars Movement’s populism; the party claims to defy the right-left divide. Alessandro Comerio, a 25 year old student, is one of them.

He used to identify with the centre-left, but is now voting for the Five Stars Movement. ‘I don’t think I or other voters have given up on the left,’ he says. ‘Rather, left-wing parties have moved on from their voter base.’

Alessandro says he is ‘not blindly sure’ of the Five Stars Movement: he is concerned about their ambiguous stance on immigration and anti-fascism. He might return to the left if a new, credible option appears, but for now, he believes voting the Five Stars is ‘necessary’ to prevent the rise of the right.

Andrea Mania, a 30 year old man who holds a masters in history, thinks similarly: he considers himself to be a radical leftist, but he votes and campaigns for the Five Stars Movement, who he thinks are the only option for reforming Italy.

Where have I seen this before?

The crisis of Italy’s centre-left follows a Europe-wide trend.

While academics and experts are sceptical of a left-wing revival, the many undecided and some voters’ dissatisfaction with the PD seems to indicate there is still an appetite for left-wing politics

In the 2017 German federal election, the social democrats (SPD) obtained 20.5 per cent of the vote, the lowest result since the end of World War Two. From 2005 - 2009 and again after 2013, they had formed a ‘Grosse Koalition’ (Grand Coalition) in government with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. In France, Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS) was the largest party in 2012 (27 per cent), but it obtained less than seven per cent of votes in the last parliamentary election, in 2017. Similar trends have been seen in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Greece.

‘Most major centre-left parties in Europe are declining; in France, in Spain, in Germany,’ says Nicolò Conti, Professor of Political Science at the Sapienza University of Rome. ‘It has something to do with what they can offer in times of crisis.’

And while academics and experts are sceptical of a left-wing revival, the many undecided and some voters’ dissatisfaction with the PD seems to indicate there is still an appetite for left-wing politics.

Montanari believes that to tap into this, Italy’s left needs a bottom-up movement that can break with the ‘third way’ brand of politics that embraced neo-liberalism: something new in the style of Jeremy Corbyn and the movement he has enthused.

But how to do that remains the billion-dollar question, and meanwhile, as the country heads to the polls this Sunday, the Left does not seem a possibility for government.