Sweat And Tears Await Italy’s Democrats

Giorgio Cacciaguerra, Italy and EU politics expert, analyzes the existential crisis of Italy’s democrats.

Last Saturday, the faltering Democratic Party of Italy held its national assembly. The day was meant to decide the course of action following the destructive election results of March 4, where the party secured less than a fifth of the votes. Among the possible scenarios that were to be decided, there was the decision on who would be retaining the interim leadership of the party ahead of a possible party congress next year.

The long way to the party congress

The main contender for the interim presidency was the current secretary Maurizio Martina, who would have extended his own regency until the party congress next year, whence a new secretary for the party would have been confirmed. What the assembly beheld instead was an unsurprising show of the bitter disunity that is now plaguing the largest opposition party in Italy, and the party who should be leading the fight against an upcoming euro-sceptic populist government.

Indeed, the different party factions could not agree to confirm the regent and kicked the problem further down the line to a future assembly, as no other motion could have been approved with a majority at this point. This ‘make-time’ motion was the result of a complex negotiation between factions that can no longer secure an internal majority.

Personal factions within the party

An indirect beneficiary of Saturday’s vote has been former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who has had his full resignation postponed until the next party assembly. However, the fact that he has lost the support of key former allies, such as former culture minister Franceschini, means that he is no longer effectively in control of the Democratic Party’s absolute majority and that the balance of power is slowly slipping away from his hands. What is surprising now, beyond the characteristic rivalries affecting Italy’s democratic party, such as the traditional former communists – social christians or centrists – leftists cleavages, is the fact that a social christian ally such as Franceschini has abandoned Renzi, which signifies that the rivalries are no longer primarily ideological within the party but are becoming increasingly personal.

This does not bode well for the internal cohesion of the party, as parts of it will become ever more opposed to the influence of Matteo Renzi in the party, whom they blame for the loss of support in the recent elections. What is certain is that, if blood was not shed at Saturday’s assembly, the floors will be covered by it at the next assembly, when the party will have to discuss the elephant in the room, which remains Renzi and his continuing influence in the party. Should there happen to be an anti-Renzi majority by then, we can be sure that he will not go down in silence and will keep fighting within or without the party.

The end of the story?

Saturday’s passive-aggressive confrontation was only the incipit of a wider battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, one that could determine the end of the party as we know it. What was born as a heterodox social experiment involving former ideological rivals, could unravel into an unhappy divorce between personalities and related factions.

This internal fight in the opposition could influence the emerging new government being formed by the Northern League and the 5 Star Movement, who will more likely face opposition from the right in the shape of Forza Italia and, perhaps, the far-right Brothers of Italy. This in turn will induce the future government to pursue more right-wing policies and set the tune for the first years of the government, if the agreement between the northern league and the 5 star movement holds.

Clear field to the right

What Italy might end-up missing, however, will be an opposition to the future government’s policies from the left, which, mired by internal squabbling, might be unable to influence political discourses and reign-in the populist Eurosceptic forces. It will be up to the delegates of the Democratic Party therefore to decide which would be a more effective way to be an official opposition, either remaining a house divided or choosing secession. Neither of these seems an attractive option, but what is certain is that a long trail of blood, toil, sweat and tears awaits Italy’s democrats.