Torn between centre-left respectability and anti-establishment protest, the Italian radical left struggles to devise a coherent and appealing political project
The electoral campaign of the forthcoming Italian election on 4 March 2018 is being dominated by three main poles: a centre-right coalition led by Forza Italia (FI) and Lega Nord (Lega); the anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), running alone; and a centre-left coalition led by the Partito Democratico (PD). Most radical left and left-wing organisations are running for office outside of these three poles. Some have converged in the list of Liberi e Uguali (LeU), others have given birth to the competing list of Potere al Popolo (PaP), and three smaller groups are fielding candidates in parts of the country. Despite a relatively favourable social and political environment, characterised by an economy still working below the levels of 2007, widespread dissatisfaction with all established parties, a good salience of traditional left-wing issues over the past few years, and major left-wing splits from the PD, these lists are not expected to have a major impact on the election.
Voting intentions in the week from 10 to 16 February, the last available before the pre-election ban on opinion polls, estimate the support of LeU to be around 5.6 per cent of valid votes, the support of PaP around 1.5 per cent (but this is quite volatile, with polls ranging from below 0.5 to 2.7 per cent), and the smaller lists are ignored completely. Unlike their counterparts in the Southern European radical left (e.g. SYRIZA, Podemos, and the France Insoumise) or in mainstream Labour parties (e.g. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters), they have so far failed to attract a surge of public interest, mobilisation, and support. Why?
From 2007 to 2017: the missed opportunity of the Great Recession
The catastrophic defeat of the 2008 general election still looms large on the state of the Italian radical left. In that year, its total vote shrunk from 7.9 to 4.4 per cent and, for the first time since 1945, no radical left MP was elected. Deprived of national parliamentary representation, weakened electorally and organisationally, and divided in a multiplicity of rival organisations, the radical left completely missed the window of opportunity opened by the Great Recession and watched helplessly the emergence of a new party representing widespread protest against austerity and the political establishment: the Five Star Movement.
In 2013, the more conciliatory wing of the radical left (Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, SEL) managed to return to Parliament thanks to an alliance with Bersani’s PD, but with little electoral weight (3.2 per cent of valid votes) and overall influence (solitary opposition). The more intransigent wing built a short-lived list (Rivoluzione Civile, RC) which gathered 2.2 per cent of valid votes and no seats; anti-capitalist lists stopped at 0.3 per cent.
In the following years, this fragmented landscape of more or less radical left-wing organisations sought to benefit from the explosive socio-economic legacy left by the Monti government (2011–13) and the subsequent ‘grand coalition’ or centrist governments led by the Democratic Party (Letta, Renzi, and Gentiloni): GDP and wage stagnation, high unemployment and poverty, drastic austerity measures, and major reforms of the pension system and of labour law.
Moreover, several attempts were made to reunite the radical left in a common party or coalition and to integrate the dissidents which started to leave the PD in droves as Matteo Renzi’s hold over the party consolidated. However, efforts on both fronts achieved little success. Programmatically, the radical left remained divided on all key issues: first, the relationship with the PD, where intransigent advocates of a clean break faced conciliatory advocates for a ‘new centre-left (coalition)’, with or without Renzi; secondly, the attitude toward the M5S, where supporters and opponents of forms of collaboration clashed with each other; and, finally, the attitude toward the European Union, where far-fetched ideas of a progressive ‘other Europe’ coexisted with minority opinions advocating ‘disobedience’ against many EU treaties and even an exit from the Eurozone. Electorally, this oscillation between centre-left respectability and anti-establishment protest reduced the appeal of the radical left, whose potential voters drifted toward abstention or preferred to chose the more clear-cut options of either the Democratic Party or the Five Star Movement.
The run-up of the 2018 election: Liberi e Uguali and its discontents
In 2017–18, the official split from the Democratic Party of an important section of its former post-communist and social democratic leadership, including party secretaries Massimo D’Alema, Pierluigi Bersani, and Guglielmo Epifani, upset the delicate balance between radical left organisations. The resulting splinter party, Articolo 1 – Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP), rapidly gained a hegemonic position in this field, attracted the former SEL (now Sinistra Italiana, SI) and Civati’s Possibile as its junior allies, and ultimately formed the backbone of the new electoral list Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal). The list chose the President of the Chamber of Deputies Pietro Grasso (PD- but a near independent) as its leader, drafted a traditional social democratic programme centred on public investment, redistribution, and expansion of the welfare state, and adopted a Corbyn-like rhetoric (‘for the many, not the few’).
The dominance of people who had been part of centrist governmental majorities until a few months before the election and who did not identify with traditional European radical left networks (e.g. GUE/NGL and PEL), however, did not satisfy everyone. These discontents, which included two neo-communist parties (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, PRC, and the recently rechristened Partito Comunista Italiano, PCI) and further sections of the extra-parliamentary radical left (centri sociali, radical trade unions, ‘LULU’ movements, anti-capitalist political organisations, and so on), initially took part in the discussions geared at establishing a common electoral list with its more moderate partners, but coalesced at the last minute around a separate list launched by the Neapolitan squat Je so’ Pazzo and called Potere al Popolo! (Power to the People!). The list chose the unknown university researcher Viola Carofalo as its leader, drafted a pugnacious programme of anti-neoliberal opposition, and drew some rhetorical inspiration from contemporary left populism.
Three other radical left lists are also running in 2018, but are present in less than 60 per cent of the constituencies: Rizzo’s Partito Comunista (PC), Ferrando’s and Bellotti’s Per una Sinistra Rivoluzionaria (SR), and Ingroia’s Lista del Popolo per la Costituzione (LPC).
During the electoral campaign, the two main radical left actors have gained some media exposure through Grasso’s proposal of scrapping the tuition fees and with the anti-fascist demonstrations of 18 February, but their core socio-economic message has been inaudible. Anti-austerity and anti-establishment protest remains solidly appropriated by the Five Star Movement, despite its moderate turn under Luigi Di Maio, and by Salvini’s Lega, which combines xenophobic (‘Italians first!’) and pro-business (a 15 per cent flat tax on income) policy planks with an economic programme focused on Keynesian stimulus, state intervention, and social protection. Moreover, the campaign of LeU has been marred by ominous strategic disagreements on its future course: independent party or potential ally of a ‘new centre-left’ without Renzi? Opposition or governmental participation? In the latter case, together with the PD, the M5S, or within an all-party ‘President’s government’?
If the final election results reflect the latest voting intentions, the outcome will be deeply unsatisfactory for the Italian radical left: only LeU will gain seats, and a modest increase in vote shares compared to 2013 will have been purchased at the price of a complete subordination to the moderate leadership of former PD officials. Moreover, the strategic ambiguity of the LeU coalition makes it liable to a sudden explosion after the election, should its seats become necessary to form a viable governmental majority. PaP, in turn, may still end up being the last episode in a long series of short-lived and unsuccessful electoral coalitions forged by the PRC to recover some of its former power and parliamentary representation.
More importantly, the Italian radical left has yet to develop a coherent and credible response to the crisis of the neo-liberal and Europeanised developmental model pursued by the country since the early 1990s. Vague appeals against stagnation, inequality, and austerity are not enough, if concrete plans (no matter if at a national or at an EU-wide level) vis-à-vis public ownership, deficit spending, state intervention, monetary and economic sovereignty, regulation of trade and capital flows, and similar matters remain sorely absent.
To sum up, and barring unexpected surprises, the 2018 general election does not seem likely to revive the fortunes of the Italian radical left, nor to deliver it from its current state of fragmentation, programmatic weakness, and strategic confusion.