The separation between Renzi and the Democratic Party needs not to be an unhappy one
Matteo Renzi surprised few when he proclaimed that he would be splitting from the party he led for 4 years to form his own political outfit. While to some the idea that he would secede from the Democratic Party (PD) might have been curious, given that he still wielded significant influence, was instrumental in putting the Democratic party back in power and controlled a vast swath of the PD’s parliamentary contingency.
However, the tell-tale signs of problems brewing were all there. Matteo Renzi had been increasingly marginalized since the party elected a more left-wing leader in Nicola Zingaretti started to take the party in a new direction. The PD’s assembly, the main organism responsible in crafting party policy, had seen its pro-Renzi members significantly reduced. This came in the general backdrop of a PD which was looking back to the Left, making possible the return of left-wing figures that had deserted the party during Renzi’s tenure such as Gianluigi Bersani and Roberto Speranza.
At the same time the party was experiencing a backlash against the increased personalization of the leadership of the party that was being undertaken while Renzi with at the helm and which had alienated even some early supporters. It had become clear that the PD in its new direction could not accommodate a looming personality such as Renzi’s, which clearly still had ambitions of his own. This brings us to try to discern what the effects of this split will be for the both political formations, on one hand the PD and on the other the fledgling Italia Viva.
While Renzi remains very unpopular across vast sections of the country, long gone are they days in which he commanded 40% of the vote. However, there remains a not insignificant number of hard-core supporters of his brand of politics, Renzismo, and for the types of policies he promotes. His politics can broadly be paint with the broad brush of the third way type of politics that have been discredited in most geographies around the western world. His politics combines a mix of optimistic liberal socialism and economic liberalism, placing him at odds with the current populist anti-establishment mood of the times, the traditional left which has more statist and welfarist tendencies, and against the socially conservative right of Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni. This puts Italia Viva clearly within the realms of “radical centrism”, and the narrative that left and right cleavages are a thing of the past and that the new division of today’s politics are between globalists and citizens of somewhere.
Italia Viva’s policies will likely reflect some of the policies that the PD itself brought forward when Renzi was at the helm, such as increased flexibility in the job market, public administration and judicial reforms. It is unlikely, however, that he will push for a more majoritarian and executive type of government, given that in the new political reality he would be unlikely to succeed. Renzi will also pitch himself as Mr. Europe in Italy, being the standard-bearer for increased European integration and cooperation and as a bulwark against the nativism and euroscepticism of Salvini, which will win him friends in Brussels. Renzi thus will try to mimic a similar role to the one played by president Macron in France and seek the integration of Italia Viva in the Renaissance Europe political grouping.
This will probably enthuse some of Renzi’s greatest fans, who will now start desert the Democratic Party in droves. Few of them were actually left-wing voters to begin with, but Renzi had managed to coalesce people with a pro-business outlook and moderate views to deadly effect during the short time he was actually popular. This type of voter, who traditionally would have been slightly repelled by the Italian Left and would likely have been more natural supporters of centrist Christian democratic or more classically liberal outfits, started to flock to the PD and to enthusiastically back Renzi at the party’s primaries. These tend to be relatively well-heeled members of the bourgeoisie of the main urban agglomerations, which are not devoid of any social conscience. These are the same people who seem to have done well during the recession, in deep contrast to the rest of the country, and who have less to lose in the new economy.
This group of voters came to the fore during Renzi’s ill-fated constitutional referendum in 2016, where they were most vocal in supporting the changes being brought forward. This is why it is not implausible that Italia Viva will be able to secure a good chunk of their votes, possibly a little bit more than the 10% secured by Monti who campaigned on a similar platform. As Forza Italia implodes or becomes ever more dependent of the new right-wing block composed by Giorgia Meloni and Salvini, it is not impossible that Italia Viva might attract some of the very few centre-right voters remaining. The party will thus do particularly well in the affluent areas of let’s say Milan, Florence, Turin and Rome, but not so in the more deprived sections of society.
The PD must not fear too much from this, as it would not be much of bloodletting but rather a reorientation. As the PD purges itself of any remaining sign of Renzismo, it will be again able to pitch for sections of the electorate that have been attracted by the policies of the Five Star Movement. This will allow the party to re-orient itself towards much more progressive policies in the economy and in the fight against climate change, while bringing back people that have been disillusioned by politics or stopped voting all-together. A PD devoid of Renzi’s influence will thus be able to form a new political block together with the political forces on the left that distanced themselves from the PD during Renzi’s tenure, such as Possibile, Sinistra Italiana and Articolo 1. The move to the PD by the former speaker of the chamber of deputies, Laura Boldrini, is a sign of a move in that direction. This will enable Italy to have a political force that champions the new progressive policies of the 21st century, such as the green new deal, a higher minimum way and an effective minimum basic income.
Moreover, the separation between Renzi and the PD needs not to be an unhappy one, given that they are ultimately after different electorates. Rather, this represents an opportunity for them and will allow them to play on their strengths in a much more fragmented political environment and thus expand their political bases. And while the right will most likely win the next elections, salvo unforeseen events, it is not impossible that one day both forces will be together again in a coalition government.