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The suicide of Italy’s Democrats

In the wake of this weekend’s Presidential election fiasco, the Italy’s Democratic Party is in complete turmoil. But the causes of the decline of Italy’s ‘centre left’ – which in a series of incarnations since the dissolution of the once mighty Italian Communist Party in 1989-91, now also incorporates the communists’ historic rivals, the christian democrats – goes back a long way. Tonino Bucci discusses the past and the future of Italy’s Left.

The Democratic Party has committed suicide. It has been written many times, now it seems to have really happened. Within a few days leader Pier Luigi Bersani & Co have sparked an uproar among the party base. The party’s headquarters are in revolt. In what is said to be happening in large parties of the country, there are
assemblies, occupations and protests, shouting “Occupy the Democratic Party.”

Despite the fact that the voters of the Democratic Party have been forced to swallow a lot of indigestible choices, especially for a year now, they believe that a government including Silvio Berlusconi is an unacceptable proposition. Napolitano’s re-election as President this weekend has done nothing but exacerbate their souls. The self-organized revolt, those occupying party premises, want the zeroing of the entire leadership – national and local – and a full debate with assemblies open to all.

Meanwhile, the lack of support for the candidacy of [the relatively left-wing] Stefano Rodotà for President , the divisions in the parliamentary group, the struggle between opposing factions and vetoes have literally shattered the leadership of Bersani. It ended with the resignation of the secretary, who fell in a very short time from being a sure winner – so said the polls on the eve of the election – to that of cloven winner. He didn’t even have time to complete his “virtual” role to form a government and present it to the House – as required by the Constitution. Giorgio Napolitano – still him – stopped him short.

End of social democratic illusions

With Bersani also ends the illusion of a social democratic Democratic Party, more like classical European forces such as the French Socialists or the German SPD. Emerging around him we even saw a new leadership infused with anti-blairite and anti-neoliberal “young Turks”.

The Bersani era had shyly brushed up references to “work”, the “Constitution”and the “party”, unthinkable at the time of of the formation of the Democratic Party in 2006 under Veltroni’s leadership, with its fluid, light, post-ideological, liberal-neo-liberal thinking. But Bersani’s party was aborted even before birth. The conditions of defeat were created from the moment in which it was decided not to go for elections in autumn 2011, when Berlusconi was politically finished. The dreadful choice to support the ‘technocrat’ government Mario Monti – supporting in parliament all the former European Comissioner’s anti-popular measures – dug a trench between the Democratic Party and its people. What’s more, between the left – between what is commonly understood as “the” left – and the reality of the country on the ground.

What will follow Bersani, we’ll have to see. It’s not certain that there will be a Democratic Party. What is clear is that the fall of his leadership could pave the way for Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, or at least revive the “party of la Repubblica”, Italy’s liberal newspaper. Beyond his errors and limitations, Bersani blocked the hegemonic ambitions of the financial and media apparatus of the newspaper edited by Ezio Mauro. Much of the Democratic electorate, including those who are occupying the party offices in these days, consider ‘La Repubblica” their daily reference.

Leadership defeat

The storm going on in the Democratic Party is the political defeat of an leadership team divided into factions, linked to local governments and special interests, without a common strategy and a common identity. Not even able – as we have seen in recent days – to ensure discipline in its own parliamentary group. But the Democratic Party crisis is also one of a “connection”, for better or worse, that has maintained the loyalty of the majority of the “people of the left” with the Democratic Party.

Despite the choice of an leadership that often did the opposite of what was expected of it, the electorate of the Democratic Party has continued to represent itself as a left-wing electorate, perhaps holding it’s nose or feeling that it was choosing the least worst in the given situation. Now, however, the symbolic link or, if you will, the position of annuity that still drove many voters to look, after all, to the Democratic Party, “the” party of the Italian left, has shattered. Run out of road. This defeat reflects the wider crushing of political representation and the division between parties and the country.

A problem for the whole of the Left

For all these reasons, the crisis of the Democratic Party is a matter which concerns not only his leadership, the limited circle of its members, but all the people of the left and the general way we have so far related to

The reactions of the people of the left are sacrosanct, but at the same time surprising. In the end, the voters of the Democratic Party – and before them, those of its predecessor, the PDS, have accepted choices at least as devastating as those made this weekend with the re-election of Napolitano.

That includes the labour and pension counter-reforms ( Article 18, Fornero), the constitutionally binding balanced budget (EU Fiscal Compact), and going back in time, the war in Kosovo, and constitutional reforms (bicamerale), which gave so much legitimacy to Berlusconi.

How was it possible that the outrage never exploded before? On the basis of what act of faith on the left part of the electorate did it vote so assiduously for the centre-left, believing that it represented continuity with the Communist Party and the only choice for the Italian left? It may also be that, as the Democratic Party is a party of local councillors, it built a consensus in the territories it has governed.

But alone this does not explain the near-monopoly of the political consensus around the Democratic Party among the left electorate. We have seen – if you include the history of the first post-communist incarnation, the PDS – Occhetto and D’Alema, Veltroni and the Bersani, and the governments of Prodi and Amato. All the choices of the leadership team have been, perhaps grudgingly, accepted and digested. Everything has been accepted in the belief that it was a question of “tactics” leading to temporary concessions to guarantee a joyous dawn in the future.

Even the existence of other forces on the left of the Democratic Party has never really shaken the loyalty of the voters of the Democratic Party. Indeed, the “radical” left has often been regarded with undisguised annoyance, with a mixture of snobbery, arrogance, or even, commiseration.

That’s not said to dodge the responsibility for the defeat of the Italian left, which must be shared between all its actors, in proportion to the weight and the role exercised in national politics. Nor is it to shy away from the limitations that the alternative left, and Communist Refoundation in failing to build a credible pole of attraction for left voters ‘without a party’.

But this does not exempt voters of the Democratic Party from reflecting on their own responsibilities. An ancient habit of the left is to want to look to their enemies, starting with those that are politically the closest. How can we forget the Democrats under Veltroni, the temptations to create a post-ideological party of the ‘majority’, a not-very-well disguised attempt to isolate the radical left? Even in the last election campaign it seemed at times that the opponent of the Democrats was the radical Civic Revolution, which it accused of taking away the votes needed to beat Berlusconi. At the same time they made calls for Monti for an deal on a future government.

Targeting the wrong enemy

The facts have shown that the leadership of the Democratic Party how they used the ‘voto utile’, the votes of people on the left persuaded that voting for others would be wasted, and undermine the Left overall. It preferred to conjure up the figure of an opponent in the image of Civic Revolution leader Antonio Ingroia, an anti-mafia magistrate, rather than worry about the growing mountain of consensus around Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement. The leadership of the Democratic Party – and its post communist predecessor parties – never wanted a serious engagement with the political positions of the alternative left. Today, for a sort of nemesis of fate, it is competing with a force like the Five Star Movement that concedes no legitimacy to political parties and expresses an incompatibility with respect to the entire political system.

How will it end, it is impossible to predict. The storm could bring more grist to the mill of telegenic Renzi and accelerate the transition to a ‘plastic’ party, light years away from the themes of work, but very close to financial power. But it could also be different. If the Democratic Party as we have known it up to now were to
split and give rise to a new big bang in Italian politics, then it could open up a viable space for a new force on the left. In any case, it is imperative that everyone makes a serious examination of conscience for the choices that have brought us to this point.

Communist Refoundation website April 24, 2013

Tonino Bucci is a journalist of the Italian communist newspaper Liberazione

Translation/edit by Revolting Europe

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Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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