Italy’s main centre-left force, the Democratic Party, has a new leader this week. Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, comfortably won a nationwide ballot of party supporters at the weekend, winning a little over two-thirds of the vote against two rivals.
Although his party is in government, becoming its leader does not make Renzi prime minister. Enrico Letta, who was the party’s deputy leader when then-leader Pier Luigi Bersani threw in the towel in the aftermath of last February’s election, will remain at the head of a grand coalition government. But Renzi’s claims on the job cannot be ignored forever.
At the age of 38, Renzi is seen as a modernising force, aiming to take the Democratic Party to the centre. He is often compared to Britain’s Tony Blair. That might seem inauspicious on a number of levels, but it must be remembered that before the Iraq war destroyed his reputation, Blair successfully revived the Labour Party and led it to two landslide victories.
And Italy’s centre-left certainly needs to try something new. Its recent history reflects underlying electoral strength that is repeatedly wasted or mismanaged by its leaders. No centre-left government has managed to last as long as two and a half years.
For several decades after the Second World War, Italy was effectively a one-party state. The Christian Democrats were always in government, with a range of smaller allies, because the main left-wing force was the Italian Communist Party – and in the Cold War era, the Communists could never be a serious contender for office.
But in the early 1990s the old system fell apart: the Christian Democrats disappeared from the scene after a series of corruption scandals, and the Communists fragmented in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Neither of the old parties was able to survive without the other.
The centre-left won office in 1996 under Romano Prodi, with a loose coalition consisting of both former Communists and former left-wing Christian Democrats (Prodi’s own background), as well as miscellaneous liberal and centrist groups. But the coalition broke up under the strain of government, as did successive attempts over the next ten years, including another (very narrow) election win by Prodi in 2006.
In 2007 the Democratic Party was created as a more permanent union of the centre-left forces, but the following year, after the fall of the second Prodi government, it was heavily defeated by Silvio Berlusconi. This year, Bersani scored a narrow victory at the polls but was unable to form a government after failing to win a Senate majority and falling foul of the populist 5-Star Movement.
Renzi’s task is to overcome the recent trauma and somehow get his party to transcend its diverse origins. Its last two prime ministerial candidates, Bersani and Walter Veltroni, have both been ex-Communists, as was Gianni Cuperlo, who was runner-up to Renzi in the weekend’s ballot. The new leader will need to conciliate the party’s left while pitching his appeal to voters in the centre.
That might not be easy, but with continued disarray on the centre-right, split between realists and Berlusconi loyalists, the conditions are there for a centre-left revival. It will be interesting to see what Renzi makes of his opportunity.