Italy’s Premier Designate Letta Inherits Divided Party

Enrico Letta’s most immediate concern may be splits within his own ranks.

Italian left-wing party secretary Enrico Letta speaks to reporters in Rome, April 24
Italian left-wing party secretary Enrico Letta speaks to reporters in Rome, April 24 (Reuters/Max Rossi)

Italian president Giorgio Napolitano asked the left’s Enrico Letta on Wednesday to form a unity government that both major political parties in the country can support to enact economic and political reforms.

The former Christian Democrat and party secretary is expected to pull in members from Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing party, notably his counterpart Angelino Alfano, probably as deputy prime minister, and ask technocrats currently serving in Mario Monti’s administration to stay on — “a reshuffling of the caste,” laments Kay Wallace in La Repubblica newspaper, “that has ruled Italy since the birth of the Second Republic.”

Conservatives conditioned their support for the premier designate on the repeal of a housing tax that Monti introduced last year. Berlusconi vowed its repeal during the last election.

However, Berlusconi also repeatedly called on Letta’s predecessor Pier Luigi Bersani to form a “grand coalition” with his party. He can ill afford politically to force reelections now. Letta’s more immediate concern may be splits within his own ranks.

The left is divided between centrists like Letta and Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, a likely future prime ministerial candidate, who are generally pro-European and socially liberal, and progressives and former communists like Bersani who rejected a coalition with the conservatives even if they had no alternative.

Leftist lawmakers who sympathize with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which campaigned against austerity and the political establishment in Italy, are wary of Letta’s attempt to form a broad coalition. Giuseppe Civati, a deputy from Lombardy, complained on his blog on Wednesday, “Things are getting worse.” In a radio interview, Umbria Sandro Gozi argued that the new government should be short lived. “A maximum of six months” before Italians head to the polls again.

Bersani resigned last week after some in his own delegation, apparently including Civati, had rebelled against his presidential nominations. Dozens of his members voted for the Five Star Movement’s candidate.

When five voting rounds failed to produce a consensus candidate, the parties asked Napolitano to serve an unprecedented second term. He was backed by nearly all members but the Five Star Movement’s and the far left’s which was outraged when Bersani appeared to have made a pact with Berlusconi to nominate former Senate speaker Franco Marini instead.

Far left party leader Nicola Vendola announced his intention to “start a new path” on Sunday and “rebuild the fabric of the left.” Whether that means a split from the social democrats isn’t yet clear although Vendola previously voted down some of Monti’s liberal economic reform proposals and warned that an alliance with Berlusconi would be “suicide.”

Letta admitted on Wednesday that Italian politics had “lost all credibility” after eight weeks of partisan bickering that followed an inconclusive election in February. He pledged to push through electoral reforms, a key demand of Napolitano’s who threatened to resign two days earlier unless the voting system is changed.

Italian deputies are elected in national elections, representing districts. Whichever party or coalition wins a plurality of the seats is automatically awarded a majority. Party leaders then fill the seats, giving them enormous sway over candidates; a power they are reluctant to give up.

Senators, by contrast, who have equal lawmaking powers, are elected on a regional level, raising the chance of voters returning a divided parliament as they did in February when Letta’s Partito Democratico and its allies took control of the lower chamber while Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libert√† won a plurality of the Senate seats.