Waiting For A Miracle: Can The Italian Left Be Resurrected?

The Democrats look to remake themselves under Enrico Letta while the Five Star Movement places its future in the hands of Giuseppe Conte. Will it be enough to stem the tide of populism?

Left Enrico Letta
Enrico Letta during a conference. veDro - l'Italia al futuro, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

On March 14, former Prime Minister Enrico Letta was elected as the new head of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) with 860 votes in favor and 2 against. Letta takes over control from Nicola Zingaretti, who quit the party’s leadership in March after stating that he felt “ashamed of the power struggles” within his party. Zingaretti stepped down after enduring heavy criticism for his management of the COVID-19 pandemic, but tensions within the party had been building even before his unfortunate efforts to combat the pandemic by enjoying an aperitivo in Milan. The lack of leadership from the PD throughout 2020, as well as Italia Viva’s successful disruption of the alliance that led to the end of the Conte bis government, seemed to have been the final nail in the coffin of the political left in Italy. Does the appointment of Letta signal a rebirth, or is it more of the same?

Desperate times call for (another) pro-European politician

Before Enrico Letta officially became Party Secretary, the Italian Demopolis Institute measured PD voters’ opinions on his potential leadership of the Democratic Party. Of those interviewed, 75% responded positively to his appointment. If nothing else, his name and career are familiar to the public: Letta served as Prime Minister of Italy from April 2013 to February 2014, forming a government at the behest of President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano after weeks of political deadlock. Upon his appointment, Letta was tasked with tackling persistent economic hardship and growing unemployment in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, along with the influx of migrants arriving in Italy. While he did implement the Mare Nostrum program to confront migration, much of the reforms he pledged went unfulfilled.

Nevertheless and despite criticism, Letta enjoys a good reputation. However, Italians do not appear to view his appointment as the magic wand to pull the Democratic Party out of the troubles of 2020. In a March 18 survey for the La7 program Piazzapulita, the League remains the most popular Italian party with an approval rate of 24%. In contrast, the PD polled at 18%, in loss of more than one percentage point.

But the appointment of Letta should be welcome news to liberal center-left Italians looking for a party they can unite behind. In 2021, a strong pro-European politician such as Letta, who maintains close relations with other prominent European leaders, in particular German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is an important step against residue of anti-EU sentiment. There’s no time to lose if the pro-Europe parties want to regain ground: the two main right-wing, populist parties, Matteo Salvini’s League and Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, continue to draw large percentages of voters.

A breath of fresh air, or short-sighted politics?

That said, Letta’s first statements as PD secretary signals the potential for a resurgence of a center-left agenda that could help solidify voters. He has re-proposed the extension of the right to vote to sixteen-year-olds, a widely discussed topic across Europe. Letta is a strong advocate for extending the voting age and has discussed it since the early days of the Conte bis government in 2019. There have also been renewed talks about the reform of Italian citizenship law and the introduction of the so-called jus soli, or birthright citizenship. The right is not currently within the Italian legal framework and though attempts have been made to revise it, none have been successful. The absence of any form of jus soli in Italy has been harshly criticized as contributing to a range of economic, political, and social inequalities. The inability for more than one million Italians to be recognized as legal citizens leads to an increase in irregular employment and ultimately excludes part of the Italian population from rights like social security, public competitions and even cultural activities such as the Erasmus project for university students.

These proposals, especially regarding a possible citizenship law reform, have been received with outrage and harsh criticism by conservative parties, who blame Letta for not worrying enough about the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences but rather being ‘distracted’ by such issues. However, these are matters that Italian politics must finally address after years of ignoring them. While dealing with the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic must certainly be a priority for any political party, it is also crucial not to forget the many other important elements within the Italian political framework that must be properly addressed, in order for Italy to move forward as a country. There is an urgent need for more progressive and proactive leadership and planning, not just policies that are merely reactive. This ‘stopgap’ mindset is very dear to Italian politicians, but it does no good to either the country or its citizens.

Is a divided or united left on the horizon?

It is yet to be seen whether Enrico Letta will finally be the person to manage to get a hold of the Democratic Party, which has seen a dramatic decline in support over the years both from internal and external forces and is in desperate need of a refreshing. However, this may not be the biggest challenge that the party and its new leader faces. In the midst of this reshuffle former Premier Giuseppe Conte remains extremely popular among Italian voters for his leadership during the first wave of COVID-19 in the country. Since stepping down from the PM role, he has taken on a leadership role in the Five Star Movement. Party supporters appear divided on many issues but have united around Giuseppe Conte as a leader. After a number of years of declining support, the party is finally seeing some positive results among its voters, thanks to what has been called the ‘Conte effect’. The dynamics that had previously caused tensions within the Five Star Movement between the more institutional and governmental wing and the more critical and uncompromising one, seem to have reached a compromise through Conte, who is linked to the moderate wing but is also appreciated by the more radical wing.

With his popular consensus and high hopes from the Five Star Movement, Conte remains among Letta’s most formidable opponents, in an increasingly unstable political climate. In this context, the recent statement that both leaders have agreed on the need for more cooperation among center-left parties in the future comes as a relief. After the most recent events that put Italy in the middle of a political crisis, calls for solid work and mutual collaboration are not just encouraging, they’re critical if the left wants to survive in the country.

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