As international observers may easily certify, Italy is no stranger to political experiments. The country of Dante didn’t only predated Hitler by inventing fascism; it also gave birth, through Silvio Berlusconi’s simpleton hands, to populism. For almost two decades, it was our most notorious monopoly. But more recently, as we shared the populist way of doing with every major country in the Western World, we have also been exposed to foreign influence, conversely.
Right now Italian populism, embodied by the League’s policies, looks a lot more like Trumpism and Bolsonaro’s movement. That radical change (from the cult of Silvio’s personality towards right-wing reactionarism) has something to do with Berlusconi’s physical decline and with the epic ascent of the charismatic conservative leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, who’s now the most popular politician in the country. From his post of Interior Minister, he’s the actual chief in the cabinet and has built a political hegemony that has found no obstacle, so far. For the League’s government partner, the Five Star Movement, this is the first time in power, but the lack of a precise ideology and equipped personnel has frustrated its voters as political and economic achievements are slow in coming. For the Movement is losing credibility and prestige, Salvini is at the moment the dominus of Italian politics. But something might have change to the plot execution: the opposition has finally woken up.
The recent election of Nicola Zingaretti as new secretary-general of the Democratic Party (PD) represents the first moment of vitality of the Italian progressive forces, after a one-year-long period of stillness. On Sunday the 3rd of March, after months of uncertainty about the destiny of the major centre-left party in the country, the long-awaited primary election process culminated in a highly-participated popular vote. Every EU citizen of at least 16 years of age was eligible to vote, but with a mandatory 2 euros contribution to the party.
Three well-known Dem exponents registered as candidates for the highest post in the party. While the outgoing secretary Maurizio Martina, chose as interim leader after the disastrous defeat in the last general election, seeked to renovate his mandate on a prudently reformist platform and Roberto Giachetti MP bid for former liberal PM Renzi’s heritage, Nicola Zingaretti – very soon signaled by pollsters as the leading candidate – focused his campaign on the idea of rebuilding the progressive movement in the country from a social democratic perspective. In the following minutes after polls were closed, several projection confirmed the plebiscitary triumph of the left-wing candidate, as he collected approximately two thirds of the votes.
Even though critics underline that traditional internal factions sided with Zingaretti and affirm the new secretary is not going to be able to bring about the change he promised to electors, the dimension of his victory and the new political scenario seem to suggest something remarkable is going to happen to the party.
The first point we should focus on is that the centre-left sympathizers clearly indicated that Renzi’s Blairist thought is no longer majoritarian. The leader who ruled Italy for 3 years gained huge unpopularity, above all amongst the traditional left-wing classes who usually sided with PD, eventually voting it as the lesser of the evils. Opinion polls showed most of them in 2018 were intentioned not to vote or to vote the Five Stars Movement. This notable transfer of electors became evident when the still Renzi-ruled PD obtained its worst results in history, a mere 18% of votes, in the 4th-of-March general election. The dramatic outcome forced Renzi to resign, and his successor Martina was the one who triggered the primary process, while shaping a weak opposition strategy to the populist Conte government. The darkest page of the Democrats’ history has been clearly turned on Sunday. As most social democratic parties did in Europe, now even the PD is abandoning the Third Way and moving left.
Another detail to be analysed is that Zingaretti’s manifesto endorsed rebuilding a greater alliance of the Italian left. With Renzi’s abrupt turn on a liberal stance, traditional links with ecologist and socialist movements were destroyed. Given that the two left-to-the-centre lists (Free and Equal and Power to the People!) were severely defeated in 2018 election, both their leaders and their electors are now more confident in speaking openly about recreating the wider progressive platform that have been existing for twenty years. At that time, the enemy was Berlusconi’s conservatives. Now, they are opposing the League-Five Stars coalition government, the ultimate stage of Italian populism.
Finally, whilst the European Parliament election day is approaching, Zingaretti will do his best to get back the disenchanted left-wing voters and to reconstruct a broad alliance for progress, the approval rating agony for the Five Stars Movement is likely to continue. Their participation in a cabinet led de facto by the dynamic Minister Salvini has deluded a vast group of electors that cast their ballot for Luigi Di Maio’s list. It is possible to witness another overtaking in a few weeks: the PD, or its successor – his secretary has already said the party’s name and symbol are going to be revised – may be already able to surpass the grillini, benefitting of a new momentum the Italian society is helping create. This upheaval could recreate the traditional two-party polarised political scenario Italy is used to knowing, and it could seal the fate of the Five Stars Movement, a political force that is desperately craving for a radical rethink of the self.
* Article by Giacomo Comincini (Collegio Ghislieri, activist)