Europe's Center-Left, Sidelined
PALMA CAMPANIA, Italy - If the leaders of the European Central Bank or the European Commission had their way in Italy’s March 4 election, the center-left Partito Democratico’s fortunes would be assured. Certainly the party’s chairman, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, believes the reforms his party launched under the sobriquet Jobs Act have put Italy’s economy on the long track to modernization.
Few European politicians project self-assurance with quite the same flair as Matteo Renzi. Brusque and grating in an idiosyncratically Tuscan style, the man who introduced himself to the Italian political scene as a political wrecking ball, rottamatore in his now-famous terminology, likes to give press conferences in blazer but no tie, shrugs off political opponents with harmlessly bizarre caricatures (owls or vampires), and had the gumption to put a packet of profound constitutional reforms to a referendum in late 2016, and to stake his continued leadership to the results of that vote. (It did not end well, and Renzi resigned as prime minister.)
Yet, for all his brash talk about taking down the system, the wreckage has been mostly internal to his political party itself, and to the Italian left, which arrives at the polls demoralized and divided. In a broad sense, that’s what makes the upcoming election interesting, and relevant beyond Italy’s borders. Will the Partito Democratico’s fate continue the long slow slide toward the political sidelines of Europe’s traditional center-left? Barring an electoral result that cuts deep against the grain of the polls and the gloomy mood that pervades left-leaning Italian voters, it seems likely.
Starting with Labour’s unexpected drubbing in Britain’s 2015 election, parties in the social-democratic tradition have been routed across Europe in two ways: First, they have been cannibalized from within. Second, they have simply failed to win elections. The PD since 2013 has already done the first, and their electoral performance remains to be seen.
The danger of playing it safe
The debate surrounding the government’s economic program is a proxy for the European center-left experience. The PD presents modest growth numbers as the first buds of a healthier economy oriented toward the future. Left-leaning critics dismiss the growth as rooted in short-term incentives bound to leave the economy weaker once they expire. The PD talks about 1 million-odd jobs gained. Critics from the left say any jobs gained are of lower quality and fewer hours. On it goes, and the terms of that debate seem stifling and small — hardly worth the disgust they engender in some traditionally social democratic constituencies. A typical case, then, of the Italian left eating its own, clearing the decks for their adversaries as they are wont to do.
But the cut runs deeper. “Italy is a democratic Republic founded on labor” is the first sentence of the first article of Italy’s post-war constitution, and defense of that tradition is the very identity of Italian social democracy. The left maintains a constant vigilance against precarietà, precariousness, an ominous term, but one whose application could be said to cover much of the 21st-century workplace. Now one of their own has come in and introduced a raft of reforms that challenge the nature of the Italian workplace and alter seminal labor laws.
Psychologically, the impact is greater than an intramural spat. In attempting economic reforms to bring Italy in line with European standards, the party has shorn many adherents of a standard identity. A similar line of analysis can be applied to policies on immigration and education.
Renzi has further turned off much of the Partito Democratico’s base by surrounding himself with a largely Tuscan cast of political favorites, thus replicating the same political games he had promised to disrupt. He has also fallen short of his promise to leave politics if the constitutional referendum failed - he has instead continued to lead the PD as party secretary and is seen as guiding the government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni from behind the scenes.
Setting aside questions of style, it is hard to argue that the reforms the Democrats have tried to enact are not needed, or that any other leader of any other party would have not felt pressure to act the same. The Renzi parabola from 2013 until now illustrates perfectly the way Europe’s multiple levels of governance complicate the search for effective national leaders. It is impossible to forget that EU pressure helped ease Silvio Berlusconi out of Palazzo Chigi in 2011 when Italy’s economy was nearing the brink, ushering in the brief technocratic administration of Mario Monti. Renzi rose to power through palace politics after an election in 2013 left what was essentially a hung parliament and a prime minister, Enrico Letta, who lacked a broad mandate. He inherited an economy hard hit by recession and a banking sector flirting with a crisis that could have broken the eurozone.
Renzi’s reform plans were meant in part to make Italy a player to be taken seriously at the European level, and to see them through he formed governing alliances that echoed the era of the Democrazia Cristiana, the catch-all party that dominated Italian politics throughout the Cold War. The PD during the Renzi-Gentiloni years has therefore shifted from a stolid left-wing alternative to Berlusconismo into a slippery centrist vehicle for economically liberal and socially cosmopolitan policies.
As a result, much of the PD’s base is looking elsewhere, breaking off into a handful of new parties. One possible outcome, reflected in polls that see PD possibly slouching toward a 20 percent finish, is that a large portion of the party’s natural voting base will sit out this election. Voters in 2018 want a party that reflects their own ideas and curates a solid identity. Bland, pragmatic centrism struggles to turn out voters. So does Euro-centrism, unless it is of the radical, unapologetic cut of French President Emmanuel Macron. There is a distinct possibility that Matteo Renzi’s future resembles that of Tony Blair: Capable of bringing the center-left into power, and despised for it by his own side.
If the polls are right, the Partito Democratico is set to take the same kind of hit that has disempowered traditional center-left parties in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The electoral impact might not be as immediately obvious in Rome. The expected result is a general fragmentation that might result in Gentiloni being tapped to assemble a coalition government. Further, electoral rules allow parties to ensure that leading members retain their seats in Parliament and the Senate even if a party underperforms. But the numbers are not expected to be friendly, and the flowering of unaligned, left-of-center parties such as Liberi e Uguali or Potere al Popolo bodes poorly for the PD.
Since 2015, we have seen the following: In Britain, Labour led by Ed Miliband lost 26 seats that year, while the Liberal Democrats collapsed, losing 49 seats after being the minority partner to David Cameron’s Tory government. That was followed by a referendum on European membership wherein the key demographic was voters in Labour strongholds.
In France, the 2017 election that swept Emmanuel Macron’s radical centrism into power saw the Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon fall below 7 percent in the vote, a stunning result presaged by five years of poor governance by President Francois Hollande. In elections for parliament, the Socialist vote fell to 1.7 million, from more than 7 million in the previous election.
In the Netherlands, the wipeout was similar for the PvdA, the Dutch Labour party. Being the junior partner for the centre-right VVD didn’t turn out well: The party went from holding 38 seats in the Tweede Kamer to nine, and the left-wing vote dispersed to parties such as Groenlinks, Denk, and D66, much as in France the leftist vote went to Macron or to the emerging far-left populism of Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise.
In Germany, junior partnership in Angela Merkel’s grand coalition wrought similar results for the SPD, which barely cleared 20 percent, a dismal and unsettling result for a party with a solid record and no hint of scandal.
The center-right in Europe is struggling in its own right as the Continent’s political crisis continues to burn, but it has not yet felt the same electoral impact. For Europe’s center-left, the period of uncertainty is already leading to experimentation and revision. Talks with RealClearWorld analysts of Dutch and French politics underscored that in each of these countries, left-leaning voters are shopping for new expressions of political identity: In the Netherlands, a merger between Groenlinks and PvdA has been mooted, while identity politics are fomenting hyper-specific movements such as the door-to-door activism of the immigrant-friendly Denk party in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West neighbourhood. In France, the Socialists gather for a convention in April. The leading candidate to emerge as party secretary, Olivier Faure, has changed the name of the Socialist group in parliament to Nouvelle Gauche, leaving the very term socialism behind for the first time since 1958. Faure proposes a fundamental decentralization of the party and an emphasis on local and regional leadership.
The emerging reality for the center-left is that its voter base is ready to move, well, left. Jeremy Corbyn provided the first spark: The shock selection of a hard-left gadfly always considered a fringe figure as Labour Party leader in 2015 was initially greeted with glee and derision on the other side of the benches. But Corbyn’s ascent to greater power in the party, Labour’s surprising overperformance in last year’s snap election, and the sweeping intraparty change wrought by an activist group like Momentum have leftists in Italy dreaming of seeing the same here. Melenchon’s strong showing in France brought an energy similar to Corbyn’s across the channel, and it is with those two names that the leaders of new parties to Renzi’s left want to be seen very visibly associating.
The PD might take comfort from emerging as the biggest left-wing party in this year’s election — perhaps even staying in government. (There are no guarantees of anything, though, especially with the dramatic events at campaign’s end that have brought immigration in focus as a key, and volatile, issue.) But what is stirring in Italy, as in France, Britain, and Germany before it, is evidence that the space for a politics of compromise is continuing to shrink.