Is working across parties the left’s only hope for power in Italy?

By Mattia Guidi
26 July 2017
Italy Italy
With an increasingly fractured left, coalitions may need to be negotiated before the general election for the best chance of getting into government
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There has been a lot of movement in the Italian centre left in recent weeks, though it is hard to say if this is good or bad news. After February’s split in Italy’s main leftwing force, the Democratic Party (PD), tensions between the PD and a new leftwing group led by former PD leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, and others – named Articolo 1 (Article 1) after the first article of the Italian constitution, which states that “Italy is a democratic republic founded on labour” – have constantly increased. The two parties support the government, they ran in the same coalition in most cities in June’s local elections, and they do not rule out working together at the national level in the future. But their agendas are increasingly divergent, as show by their different proposals on taxation, regulation of the labour market, immigration and citizenship.

Why has this happened? According to many commentators, Renzi (especially after his strong victory in the recent leadership election) has pursued a more moderate policy agenda. In his recently published book, he advocates a less inclusive approach to immigration and tax cuts that some have labelled non-progressive, and closer to moderate centre-right proposals than to traditional social-democratic ones. This apparent ‘Macron-isation’ of Renzi and the PD is causing growing embarrassment in the leftwing component of the PD (led by minister of justice, Andrea Orlando) which, despite political disagreements with Renzi, chose to remain in the party. Renzi’s proposals have not only been criticised for their content, but also because they were set down in a book rather than discussed and deliberated among party members. These concerns have coincided with other criticism towards the communication strategy of the party, which was accused of taking a populist turn, perhaps in an attempt to regain support from Five Star Movement voters.

On these matters, Renzi appears to have retreated somewhat in recent weeks, heeding warning calls from many in the party and probably convinced by declining support for himself and the PD. Regarding the party’s programme, he has announced that a convention will be held in October to draft proposals to be included in the party’s general election manifesto. This has been interpreted as an attempt to appease the minority, which had long been asking for such a democratic gathering. In addition, Renzi has replaced the party member in charge of communication: the incoming Matteo Richetti has stressed that he wants to “share before communicating”, while the PD has announced a collaboration with the communication agency that directed Renzi’s famed 2013 party leadership takeover.

In this context, Article 1 and other forces to the left of the PD have naturally tended to claim that they are the authentic voice of the left, while the PD is becoming a centrist party. This tendency has been reinforced by the current state of Italy’s electoral legislation, a proportional representation system with a low 3% threshold for entry to the lower chamber. PR systems incentivise each party to appeal to its core constituencies, distancing and differentiating themselves from others. The parliamentary debate on the electoral law is expected to resume in September, and all the main parties assert their desire to modify the law. But how? There is clearly no majority for shifting away from proportional representation, so that will remain a central building block of any future settlement, if indeed any passes. There might be some support (both among the centre left and centre right, but certainly not from the Five Star Movement) for a law that incentivises pre-electoral coalitions, but given the potential coalitions have big internal, structural disagreements, such arrangements would be difficult to reach too.

From the centre left, there are voices that advocate for a coalition system: these include PD members like ministers Dario Franceschini and Andrea Orlando, former prime minister and president of the European Commission Romano Prodi, and former mayor of Milan Giuliano Pisapia. From different positions, they all agree that an electoral race in which each party of the centre left goes alone will make it more difficult to reach a majority, and to build a stable government afterwards. If coalitions after the election are inevitable – with no party enjoying the support of more than 30% of the voters – why, the reasoning goes, not make them explicit and clear to the electorate beforehand?

As shown above, this would require deep changes both to the rules of the game and in the parties’ strategies. At present, centre-left voters are more united than their leaders, who are paralysed by reciprocal vetoes and lack of trust. Article 1 and other leftwing parties reject any coalition in which Renzi is the leader; Renzi considers this unacceptable and is not willing to give up leadership, be it of the party or of the coalition. The risk is that, in this deadlock, parties will have an incentive to use elections to measure their electoral support, with every discussion on alliances postponed to the day after the election. Unfortunately, this scenario does not seem to make the likelihood of a progressive agenda prevailing in Italy any stronger.

Image credit: Davide Calabresi/