Purists Hurt Left’s Chances in France, Could Do Same in Italy

Disunity on the French left is handing the election to the right. Italy’s Democrats must not make the same mistake.

It doesn’t look like the two left-wing contenders for the French presidency will be able to do a deal.

I wrote here a few days ago that Benoît Hamon, the mainstream Socialist Party candidate, and the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon could have bested the French center. A left-wing unity ticket would qualify for the second voting round in May, according to the latest polls. Marine Le Pen of the National Front is expected to qualify as well. Forced to choose between a leftist and a nativist, a majority of French voters would likely opt for the former.

But neither Hamon nor Mélenchon is willing to play second fiddle, as a result of which the left won’t stand a chance.

Same mistake

Now Italy’s left could make the same mistake.

A left-wing cabal has threatened to split from the ruling Democratic Party if Matteo Renzi insists on calling an election this year.

Renzi stepped down as party leader on Sunday, triggering a leadership contest that he is expected to win. A recent Euromedia Research poll puts Renzi’s support at 58 percent.

With a fresh mandate, Renzi could defeat the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in the next election — but only just. Most polls give the Democrats an advantage of 3 to 5 percentage points.

If the dissidents were to break away, they could trim between 4 and 6 percent from the Democrats’ support, an Ipsos survey published in Corriere della Sera suggests. That would make the Five Stars the largest party.

Fighting yesterday’s war

The opposition to Renzi is led by Michele Emiliano, the governor of Puglia, Enrico Rossi, the governor of Tuscany, and Roberto Speranza, an influential lawmaker. They are supported by former prime minister Massimo D’Alema and former party leader Pier Luigi Bersani.

The group accuses Renzi of scaring away blue-collar and public-sector voters with liberal economic reforms.

Which isn’t wrong per se, but — as I argued here last week — they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Low-income voters, especially in the south, are lost to the political right.

Renzi understands that the Five Star Movement, with its appeal to young, middle-class and urban voters, is the bigger threat to the Democrats. Its voters don’t pine for a restoration of the welfare state; they want Italy to finally catch up, in economic and social terms, with the rest of Western Europe.