At the end of a Saturday-morning town hall meeting in the northern Italian municipality of Cavriago, residents linger by the central piazza gesturing, clamouring and soothing their pain with cigarettes and wine. The topic is politics, and their affliction is the implosion of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party. “It’s hard to understand what happened,” Vincenzo Delmonte says, with a bewildered stare. “One day everything is going fine, and the following morning the left’s big guys walk out of the party, calling for a split. Why? This is madness.”
The Democratic Party is a 2007 experiment that merged Christian Democrats and post-communists under one leadership. It worked locally but the two factions grew increasingly wary of each other on the national stage. Distrust brought compromise; compromise led to quarrels. Then Matteo Renzi, the former party secretary and Italian prime minister until December 2016, exacerbated the tensions by triggering a leadership election.
The post-communist faction, under its former leaders Massimo D’Alema and Pier Luigi Bersani, had announced the break-up at the beginning of February after a year of veiled criticism of Renzi.
Cavriago, the most communist of Italy’s cities, is now split and supporters here are confused. The town has had communist mayors since 1948, and in one of the central squares is Europe’s only bust of Lenin. Here “Christian Democrat” is considered to be a slur, and until recently the city had no patron saint – unheard of in Catholic Italy.
Yet few residents would now follow D’Alema and Bersani in taking down the party from within. “Mainly because we don’t understand what they’re doing,” the Democratic Party constituency secretary, Francesca Bedogni, told me. Although she is from a nearby town, Bedogni knows most Cavriago residents by name. She routinely stops to greet supporters, teenagers approach her to ask if she can drop by their art exhibition, and mums call her to check next week’s school pick-up rota.
“You see, this is real life, this is what happens to people,” Bedogni says. “We worry about our jobs. We help the community to grow stronger and more educated. We solve problems, or at least we try to, and then – boom – you have these people in Rome who wake up and decide it’s a fine morning for secession. Now, how do I explain it to my people over here?”
As she walks around the square in the spring sunshine, she is soon surrounded by residents asking for clues to what is happening inside the party. They gather in a circle, like a support therapy group. Most of them look gloomy and discouraged.
“We learned everything from the newspapers. No MP had the guts to show up to explain what has happened in Rome. Probably because they didn’t know it either,” Matteo Franzoni says. He is 25 years old and he grew up in the party, “but in the past few days, like other supporters, I thought of cancelling my membership”. Bedogni gives him a death stare and he tries to reassure her. “I won’t do it, but I understand people who will.”
The reason for this frustration is easily explained. “First off, you have Trump and Putin, who enjoy watching the world burning down,” the deputy mayor, Stefano Corradi, says as we walk past the Piazza Lenin. “Then you have Brexit, and scary people like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France. Add the xenophobic Northern League and the anti-Euro Five Star Movement in Italy.
“It’s hard to sleep at night. The only positive thing was that the party was strong: we have a prime minister, we govern 15 out of 20 Italian regions. We had a vision for once. But we forgot that the centre left tends to indulge in a self-sabotaging behaviour.”
In the days before February’s schism, the Democrats were ahead in the polls despite Renzi’s defeat in December’s constitutional referendum. The constant scandals around Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, have diminished the popularity of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement; and without Silvio Berlusconi, centre-right parties were polling in single digits. Yet it all changed in two days.
Even over a glass of wine, the deputy mayor looks disheartened. “There’s no clash of ideals, no alternative view of the party or back-up plan for the country,” Corradi says. “There’s only political opportunism: with a proportional system, defectors now have more possibilities to get re-elected in parliament. But what about us? What about the party? What are we supposed to say to comrades in town?”
Bedogni has only one suggestion: “We have to brace [ourselves] for impact and hope for the best.” Yet the chances of the Democratic Party surviving the split are small, especially after the recent announcement of a corruption investigation into Matteo Renzi’s father, Tiziano, and Italy’s sports minister, Luca Lotti. Whether Renzi can overcome the allegations to make a comeback in the forthcoming leadership election remains to be seen.
For now, the government is limping on with a weakened cabinet and a reduced majority, but will probably be forced to call an early election by the end of the year. Italy’s proportional representation system and a highly fragmented political environment will indeed be an obstacle to the next prime minister forming a stable coalition. And the chances are that the instability will push the country deeper into a spiral of economic stagnation and political instability.
When Silvio Berlusconi governed Italy, prime-time TV shows often portrayed the centre-left opposition as the sketch comedy character “Mr Tafazzi”, a confused mime artist who would beat his own privates with a wooden club. The parody outraged the post-communist intelligentsia, who dismissed the idea that they were self-referential and masochistic, but voters and viewers laughed at the farce and Silvio Berlusconi’s ratings soared.
Twenty years on, the Italian political landscape has changed “but [for] one tiny detail”, the deputy mayor confesses. “We are probably Mr Tafazzi after all.”
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain