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Looking back at Italy 1992: a country stuck in the centre in 2016

Matteo Renzi selfie. Wikipedia, CC BY-NC

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This essay is the fifth of a five-part series dedicated to Italy’s recent political history and how much the country has changed since the corruption scandals in 1992.

Inspired by the SBS Network’s premiere of the political drama Italy 1992, this series of articles has been an attempt to rethink Italy’s recent history through the prism of that pivotal year. This fifth and last part comes intentionally hours before the country votes on a series of important constitutional reforms. Depending on the referendum outcome, 2016 might turn out to be a year as crucial as 1992.

I will dedicate tomorrow’s column to Sunday’s referendum. Today’s article, however, focuses on the status of the country’s left, how it has changed in the last two decades and why its long-term demise matters, especially at a time when Italy is on the verge of a long and disruptive economic crisis.

As I argued in part one, 1992 was an annus horribilis. The Mafia’s strategy of terror and the country-wide corruption scandal known as Tangentopoli (Bribesville) rocked Italy’s democratic foundations. The scandals brought down the so-called First Republic, and set in motion a series of events that had several unintended consequences.

Silvio Berlusconi’s ascent to power was probably the most obvious and to some extent paradoxical effect of the scandal. As I discussed in part 2, the media tycoon was a remedy far worse than the disease.

The events of 1992, however, also had a much more unexpected impact on the country’s political sphere: they triggered a long and at times tortured weakening of the Italian left — the main representative of which (the Communist Party) had been, ironically, the only major parliamentary force to survive the Bribesville earthquake unscathed.

Though, unlike Berlusconi’s ascendance to power, the transformation of the Italian left was slow and rather subtle, it was by no means less detrimental to the quality of the country’s democratic system.

The death of the left

If the sudden spring of civil society in 2002 and the electoral victories of the Five Star Movement (first in 2013 and then earlier this year) are, to a certain extent, welcome by-products of Berlusconi’s legacy, the chronic decline of the Italian left came about after a long period of self-inflicted political martyrdom.

From PCI to PD. Wikipedia

It began in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fearing a backlash from its association with the tainted ideology of communism, the Italian Communist Party changed its name to the Democratic Party of the Left. It was the first of many subsequent iterations.

In 1994, the shocking electoral defeat by Berlusconi’s coalition convinced the party to join forces with the political centre at the next general election and support Romano Prodi (a respected politician, yet a former member of the disgraced Christian Democracy party). The move produced two electoral victories (in 1996 and 2006) but pushed the party further away from the leftist political soul that had defined it for decades.

Nanni: Say something vaguely left-wing.

The core of the electorate that had identified itself for years with the party’s left-wing ideology was both excited by the chance of finally governing the country (a goal the old Communist Party had never achieved), but also increasingly puzzled by this series of ideological makeovers, compromises with former rivals and the marked inability (some would call it wilful reluctance) of its representatives to deal effectively with the political anomaly called Silvio Berlusconi.

The electorate’s growing frustration was perfectly captured by the 1998 film April. One of the most iconic scenes depicts the party secretary, Massimo D’Alema (a former member of the old Communist Party), remaining awkwardly silent during an election debate on a TV talk-show while Berlusconi attacks the judiciary. Exasperated, Nanni, the main character in the film, screams: D’Alema di’ qualcosa di sinistra! - I beg you, say something, anything, vaguely left-wing!

The final stage of the Italian left’s journey towards the centre was marked by the birth of the Democratic Party in 2007. The party is mishmash of former communists, but also Christian Democrats and socialists, all of whom are now in government, together with former members of Berlusconi’s coalition.

Berlusconi’s electoral decline has made the Democratic Party the natural port of call for many of those centrist forces that would once have gravitated towards Berlusconi’s centre-right. The party’s appeal for these forces has been strengthened further by the election of a new leader. Elected party secretary in 2013, Matteo Renzi, the young politician who came to be known as Il Rottamatore (The Scrapper) for his willingness to scrap the old political machine for a new one (his own), is at the same time the party’s most valuable asset, because of his alleged appeal to both the younger generations and the centre, but also the living evidence of how far the Italian left has shifted its axis since 1992.

The new kid on the block

Renzi’s rise to power was swift and had more than a touch of Machiavellianism. After a decade spent in Florence, first as president of the county and then mayor of the city, he won the leadership contest for his party at the end of 2013 with 68% of the preferences (nearly 2 million votes). Only a few months later, not yet 40, exactly 20 years after Berlusconi’s first electoral success, Renzi became Italy’s youngest prime minister after what many called an internal “coup”.

In February 2014, despite continuing reassurances that he was not after Enrico Letta’s job, Renzi outmanoeuvred the then prime minister and forced him to resign. Letta had been in the job for less than a year, but his leadership had been harshly contested from the beginning.

In the post-election stalemate caused by the failure to form a government by the then Democratic Party leader, Pier-Luigi Bersani (a moderate member of the old Communist Party), Letta succeeded in the task only with the support of a much-criticised large multi-party coalition in the parliament. This included the Democratic Party but also members of Berlusconi’s former alliance – the same ones the party had vigorously campaigned against prior to the election.

While Bersani’s victory at the 2012 national primaries for prime minister was seen as confirmation that the old leftist heritage was still alive within the party, Renzi’s ascendance was hailed as a radical change of direction. The press anointed him as the new hope for a country that many still consider to be the sick man of Europe.

Renzi was young, driven but, overall, despite his attacks against the old caste, a moderate at heart. He was neither as tainted as Berlusconi, nor was he as revolutionary (some would say crazy) as Beppe Grillo, the populist leader of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement.

Finally, Italy had a clean, respectable and likeable leader with enough stamina and vision to stir the country out of the last decade’s swamp. All Renzi needed to do was to shift further the axis of Democratic Party politics from the left to the centre in order to appease the European Union’s request for austerity, the banks and the global market, hence guaranteeing some breathing space for the country.

More Berlusconi, than Berlinguer

Renzi’s new political direction should not come as a surprise. Despite nominally being the leader of the country’s left, he is a centrist who grew up in the ranks of The Daisy (La Margherita), a party whose political roots are the same as the old Christian Democracy party.

Renzi, after all, is not (and does not aspire to be) a new Enrico Berlinguer, the historic leader of the Communist Party who inspired a generation. His funeral in Rome on June 13 1984 was, in the words of the historian Paul Ginsborg, “the greatest spontaneous civic demonstration in the history of the post-war Italian Republic”.

Berlinguer’s funeral, 1984.

As a leader, Berlinguer was the opposite of what Renzi is now: he disliked the cult of personality, the use of rhetoric, and any excess. He was shy and modest. And yet he was known as the great compromiser, the kind of leader who wasn’t afraid of negotiating with his opponents or making dramatic choices.

During the terrorism crisis in the 1970s, the so-called Years of Lead, he cooperated with the Christian Democrats; and when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan he did what his predecessors could have not imagined: he firmly broke away from the Russians, denouncing the USSR as “a system that does not permit real democratic participation in the sphere of production or of politics”.

Berlinguer’s leadership was instrumental in bringing the Communist Party out of the dark shadows of Stalinism without destroying it. In fact, without betraying the party’s core ideology, he succeeded in strengthening its political credentials and transformed it into a viable candidate for governing the country.

Renzi’s leadership, his politics and public demeanour are, on the other hand, closer to that of Berlusconi than a leader of the left. Berlusconi himself, half in jest, half in earnest, has called him his natural political heir.

Very much like Berlusconi, Renzi is a charismatic leader, ruthless with his foes, and wise enough to surround himself with a large cohort of faithful lackeys who would never betray him.

He understands the importance of media and knows how to deal with them. TV networks love him. But, unlike Berlusconi, Renzi is also a social media enthusiast with a large personal following online. He uses Twitter and Facebook to reach out directly to the people, to answer their questions and defend himself from their criticism (see #matteorisponde on Twitter).

Renzi Twitter. Twitter

Renzi is also a skilful salesman of captivating ideas. He has a winning smile that can turn what some would consider insignificant statistics into dazzling feats of statecraft. Half-a-percent growth in GDP can easily become a clear sign of the rebirth of Italy’s economy and, in the process, evidence of the government’s policy successes

Alienating the left

Overall, as prime minister, the 41-year-old former mayor of Florence has certainly been successful in rekindling the hopes of the political centre, but has alienated much of the core left. His policies and reforms have attracted criticism because, as some critics have pointed out, these are either a populist nod to the electorate or share very little with left-wing politics.

The government’s controversial 80-euro bonus for those who earn less than 1,500 euros per month was attacked as electoral bribery, rather than a true, significant help for families in need.

Renzi’s main reforms have attracted no less criticism.

Take, for instance, Article 18 of the Workers Statute (the protection of which was once a proud domain of the left). Renzi’s “Jobs Act” (the name is a nod to President Obama’s 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act), which passed in 2015, was praised by the European Central Bank, the IMF and many other international bodies. But it was highly criticised by the workers’ unions, by the parliamentary opposition and even by some of Renzi’s party members as an attack on worker rights.

Though the act makes it easier for companies to hire people, it has a neoliberal soul that greatly simplifies dismissal procedures without providing much of a safety net for the newly unemployed. As such, despite Renzi’s defence, many have pointed out that the Jobs Act is not a left-wing policy. It defends the rights of the wealthy, but does little to solve the growing unemployment crisis among young people. In fact, it condemns them only to an eternity of precarious work.

Stuck in the centre

Renzi and his Democratic Party are the symbol of a country stuck in the centre.

While the right, following Berlsuconi’s decline, is undergoing an identity crisis, and the anti-establishment Five Stars Movement is yet to pick a side (happily pillaging votes across the spectrum), the left (and its politics against social inequality) has all but disappeared. It has been mainly cannibalised by a renewed centre that has, rather alarmingly, increasingly come to resemble the infamous Christian Democracy party of old, which ruled Italy for four decades before the 1992 scandal erased it from the electoral map.

During the past two decades, while the communists appeared to be a dying breed, the Italian Christian Democrats, like the mythical Phoenix, have gradually re-emerged from the Bribesville bonfire stronger than ever.

Though the resurgence of the centre is not bad news per se, the prolonged decline of the left deprives the country of a strong, socially conscious political voice, which, especially in time of crisis, is much needed to safeguard the rights of the many against the invasive power of the wealthy few.

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