Old-School Leftists Break with Democratic Party in Italy

Disputes over a new electoral law and the governor of the Bank of Italy reveal a left-wing split.

Pietro Grasso, the president of the Italian Senate, attends an international conference in Rome, October 5, 2015
Pietro Grasso, the president of the Italian Senate, attends an international conference in Rome, October 5, 2015 (Camera dei deputati)

The likelihood of elections being called soon is escalating tensions in Italy’s ruling center-left Democratic Party.

  • Senate speaker Pietro Grasso has left the party after criticizing the way it enacted electoral reforms. (By tying them to confidence votes, the government ensured they would pass without amendments.)
  • The Democrats and Progressives — left-wing critics of former prime minister and Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi — applauded Grasso’s move.
  • Former prime minister Massimo D’Alema, now a member of the Democrats and Progressives, said Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni “has become like Renzi.”
  • Four Renzi loyalists — Transportation Minister Graziano Delrio, Sports Minister Luca Lotti, Agricultural Minister Maurizio Martina and Cabinet Secretary Maria Elena Boschi — did not attend a cabinet meeting this week where Ignazio Visco was confirmed to serve another term as governor of the Bank of Italy. Renzi wanted him out.

Renzi’s centrism

The issue really isn’t the new electoral law or Visco’s governorship.

What old-school leftists like D’Alema, Grasso and Pier Luigi Bersani, the former party leader, object to is Renzi’s centrism.

As prime minister, the self-styled Blairite cut taxes, liberalized labor laws and legalized civil unions for gay couples. This won him support from middle-class voters but did little to rehabilitate the left with workers.

Calculation

Renzi calculated that low-income voters were unlikely to come back.

Surveys suggest he’s right. The Democrats and Progressives are polling at a measly 2 to 5 percent support. The Five Star Movement and the Northern League, who are both populist and Euroskeptic, are up. Their anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric resonates with voters who feel left behind.

Renzi’s strategy is to wean middle-income voters, especially young and urban ones, away from the left-leaning Five Star Movement.

These aren’t voters who pine for a restoration of labor laws that divided Italians into insiders on permanent contracts and outsiders with precarious flex jobs. That’s the sort of thing that turned them away from the Democrats — or politics in general.

Whether or not Renzi can lure them back remains to be seen. His party is currently polling neck and neck with the Five Stars. But we can be sure the statism of his left-wing critics isn’t the way forward.