Italy’s Partito Democratico: Three Million Votes and Three Questions Lorenzo Marsili Italy has always been

an important laboratory for new political organisations. Without disturbing the sleeping ghosts of fascism, it is worth remembering that the country boasted Western Europe’s largest Communist party, lending initial credence to many hopes for an “Italian road to socialism”, a democratic Communist government ready to accept the parliamentary game of compromise. Today there comes again from Italy something new in the European political panorama of the left. The Democratici di Sinistra, “heirs” to the Communist Party and Italy’s largest leftist party, have merged with the “popolari” (read: centre-left Christian democrats) of the Margherita (the “daisy”). The result is the new and much touted Partito Democratico, which can reasonably aim to reach around 35% of electoral preferences, positioning itself as Italy’s leading political force. What is more, the union of centrist and leftist elements in the new party stands as a potential example for many sectors of the European left faced with increased fragmentation and reduced electoral appeal. It is not surprising that Segolene Royal is a constant guest in the new party’s political rallies, and that the attempted Italian “salvage” of socialist principles by anchoring them to centrist prerogatives be a much followed experiment. In the period leading to the formation of the new party there have been repeated accusations of fusione fredda, or what Eric Jozsef, correspondent of Liberation, interpreted as the merger of two groupings afraid of the competition but without any serious plan to offer. And indeed, at a first glance the reasons for the alliance seem to be tactical above all; the leftist Democratici di Sinistra are increasingly worried at the prospect of a re-creation of centrist unity and the reappearance of a strong centrist party. If Bayrou’s exploit at the recent French elections comes to mind, we should not forget that the years between 1948 and 1992 saw the uncompromised hegemony of the centrist Democrazia Cristiana in Italian political life. Together with its name, the new party imported from American political life the system of “primary elections”. Elections took place on October 16th, witnessing an unhoped-for public interest and participation. Over three million voters queued and contributed one euro to decide the party’s new leadership. As amply predicted, Walter Veltroni, charismatic current mayor of Rome, was elected with 75% of the preferences. Supported by such a popular plebiscite many see in Veltroni the “new man” of stiff Italian political life; Veltroni’s exploits include the revitalisation of cultural life in Italy’s capital, which as I write is celebrating the second edition of its new Film Festival devised by the mayor himself, an economic performance of the city well above average, and, most important of all, the capacity to surpass party apparatuses and ideological divisions rallying transversal support. But there are at the very least three major questions around the success of this new project. The Italian political system is in complete decay, but seems unable to reform itself. The current government led by Romano Prodi is marked by internal instability and incapacity to approve significant legislation, plummeting well below 40% in recent popularity ratings. Internal fragmentation (the governing coalition is composed of eleven parties) is accentuated by an absurd electoral law – defined by its own creator, Roberto Calderoli, as a “porcata”, an obscenity – resulting in a near parity in the Senate. However, the Parliament is unable to work towards a redrafting of the law as many of its twenty parties oppose a simplification of representation that would negatively affect them. The Prodi government is widely predicted to fall anytime within the next months. It is however unclear what options lay open. An “institutional” government, with a

participation of elements from both left and right, is vehemently opposed by Silvio Berlusconi, who instead presses for a return to the ballot box from which he would most likely emerge victorious. In the event of general elections, after its present failure the left-wing coalition would be unable to present itself in the same composition; it is however extremely unlikely that any simplified version of the alliance would gain a majority in Parliament. Many commentators are beginning to foresee a Partito Democratico running alone – and hence condemned to losing – in the next elections, in the hope of consolidating its hegemony on the left during a second Berlusconi government. If a return to power of Silvio Berlusconi appears a rather grotesque eventuality, there seems to be not much space for manoeuvre for the new leader of the Partito Democratico. The second question addresses the political position of the party. Veltroni seems to have followed the widespread European trend of appropriating keywords from the opposition; it is so that “security” and “legality”, “tax breaks” and “privatisation” have began making repeated appearances in Veltroni’s speeches, whereas traditional themes such as solidarity toward migrants, fight against precarious work, social equality, rights for homosexual couples, have all suddenly been discarded. This seems to be leaving an empty space to the left of the Partito Democratico, which might be seized by a re-organised union of the four “radical” left-wing parties of which there is recently much talk but few concrete steps. Be this as it may, it is doubtful whether the new Partito will be able to offer anything more than a watered down version of Blairism, a new centrism, or a return to a slightly more left-leaning Christian Democracy. Lastly, the international standing of the party has been all but ignored. Veltroni is well known for his frequent “African expeditions” and his mostly mediatic attention to the problems of the third world. This, however, seems to have been left out of the political dialectic thus far, and there seems little hope that the new party may embody those principles of transnationalism that are discussed on the pages of this journal. Lastly, the Partito is surely pro-European, as most Italian political forces are bound to be. It has not however presented any truly innovative proposal for the future of the Union, lying content with a distracted and inertial support towards the integration process. The doubt that the new Partito Democratico be merely an abortive and late-coming child of 1990s European illusions for a “third way” is hard to dislodge. But it will be worth keeping an eye on its evolution. Italy is always a land of surprises.