After longstanding speculation, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi confirmed rumours that he would split from the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) to launch a new liberal political party. The new grouping, Italia Viva (Italy Alive), will seek to claim the centre ground in Italian politics as Renzi hopes to emulate France’s Emmanuel Macron to stage his own political comeback.
The split comes just two weeks after the PD entered a coalition government with the 5-Star Movement, side-lining the far-right Northern League and avoiding a snap election. While Renzi has pledged to support the coalition, PD leader Nicola Zingaretti said that “breaking up the PD is a mistake”, while Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was “puzzled” by the decision.
Renzi resigned as PM in 2016 following a resounding defeat in a constitution reform referendum that he had staked his political future on. His new political party is a gamble to return to centre stage in Italian politics. 25 MPs regarded as personally loyal to Renzi have joined the new party, along with as many as fifteen senators. Two members of the cabinet of ministers have also jumped ship.
While most followed Renzi out of the PD, Italia Viva also gained defectors from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Italian Socialist Party, and the Popular Civic List. Aside from a declaration of liberal centrist values, they have yet to release a detailed policy platform –something that will perhaps be forthcoming after the party’s first meeting in Florence on October 18th to the 20th.
History, Ideology, or Personality?
The split reflects the mixed ideological heritage of the Italian centre-left. Italy is the only Western European country where communists rather than social democrats dominated the left of the political spectrum during the Cold War. While the Italian Communist Party never entered government, it served as the main opposition party to the Christian Democrats, who ruled the country either alone or in coalition from 1947 to 1994. When both parties collapsed almost simultaneously – the Communists in 1991 as the Soviet Union fell and the Christian Democrats in 1994 after a massive corruption scandal – the ex-communists and the left wing of the Christian Democrats united to form a new centre-left party. Since then, there have been frequent disagreements over the party’s ideological direction.
The PD’s new leader as of March 2019, Nicola Zingaretti, comes from the ex-communist wing of the party and, while not a Jeremy Corbyn-style left-wing firebrand, he has moved the party back towards social democracy. Renzi, with roots in the PD’s former Christian Democratic wing, invigorated liberals and centrists during his term as prime minister but alienated his party’s left wing.
The split, however, is as personal as it is ideological. Renzi, who long criticised a pact between the PD and the 5-Star Movement, was instrumental in bringing it about once it became clear that the alternative was a snap election. The composition of the PD’s parliamentary faction at the time was heavily pro-Renzi, while an election would have given Zingaretti the chance to shake up the party list and replace Renzi’s loyalists with his own partisans. Having successfully avoided an election that would have side-lined his faction, Renzi’s new party provides him with a solid parliamentary base from which to attempt a comeback.
What Comes Next?
Renzi has pledged to support the ruling coalition, saying that “for me this government can go on until 2023”, referring to the next regularly scheduled Italian parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, key figures in the PD and 5-Stars have slammed his move, arguing that it destabilises the already fractious government. Renzi’s party now holds the balance of power in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, affording him substantial leverage but also increasing pressure on the coalition, which will now have to take into account the opinion of yet another political force.
Even if Italia Viva successfully works together with its coalition partners, it will face significant challenges to become a major force. On the one hand, Renzi has successfully gained defectors not only from the PD, but from the centre-right. His role as kingmaker in parliament will allow him to put his stamp on government policy.
Polls taken after the split, however, show his party with only 5 percent of popular support. He faces competition from the PD, newly invigorated after joining the government, as well as from the More Europe and Green Europe parties, who all play for a similar pool of progressive and pro-European voters.
The last time Renzi faced the voters as head of the PD, the centre-left saw its worst result since the collapse of the Italian Communist Party. There is no guarantee that Renzi’s gamble will pay off this time.