Launching a process virtually unheard of in Europe, almost 3.5 million Italians turned out on Sunday 14 October to pay a euro each to vote in the "primaries" for a new Democratic Party. Walter Veltroni, Rome's popular, left-wing but very pragmatic mayor, was given an overwhelming mandate to lead a new, centre-left party into the next general election.
Born out of long-held ambitions of former communists like Veltroni to merge democrats of the left with progressive elements among one-time rivals from the defunct Christian Democrats, the new party becomes the largest in parliament with about a third of seats. And, given the precarious composition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's broad coalition government, supported for now by Veltroni, the next election could happen at any time.
After 15 years of steadily fragmenting factions, left and right, the new Democratic Party believes it can steer Italy towards a two-party system.
One old communist told Radio Popolare of his sense of amazement that he was voting for the same party as a friend who had been a Christian Democrat until its collapse amid the Tangentopoli bribery scandals of the early 1990s that destroyed the established parties.
Yet, despite Veltroni's aim to be all-embracing, a sizeable section of Italy's left feels he is betraying their legacy. The Rome mayor has been accused of abandoning the workers and caving in to Confindustria, Italy's main employers' organisation, particularly over a package of labour and pension reforms that Prodi will soon present to parliament.
Liberazione, the daily newspaper of the Communist Refoundation Party, paid tribute to the high turnout but accused Veltroni of using the language of the left while competing with the right on its own territory - for example, by backing mayors who want to expel illegal immigrants. The editorial went on to express the fear that Italy's once-powerful trade unions were becoming "spectators"; the "real" left had to push ahead with its own alliances, it said.
The first challenge to the Veltroni-Prodi leadership comes a week after the primaries when communists and trade unions take to the streets to defend labour rights. Prodi's government draws comfort from a nationwide referendum this month that showed 78 per cent support for the proposed labour-pension reforms. Nonetheless, the 22 per cent against form a militant core that can undermine his weak coalition.
In contrast to Liberazione, the communist daily Manifesto has backed Veltroni in a front-page commentary, saying the dream had become reality and now the new party has to produce results. After a summer of anti-Establishment rallies, led by the acerbic comic Beppe Grillo, who has given new life to Italy's periodic movement of anti-politics, Manifesto expressed relief that so many Italians have shown that they remain engaged.
"Italy is a country with a passion for politics. . . But for a long time this passion has been manifested in little things that did not change the course," it warned Veltroni.
Guy Dinmore is the Financial Times correspondent in Rome