For much of the past decade, Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party has served as the dependable linchpin of wobbly crisis cabinets, delivering responsible – if uninspiring – government. As the country heads to the polls on September 25, the party’s inability to capture the imagination of Italian voters is hobbling its efforts to prevent a right-wing landslide.
The chronic disappointments of the Italian left were famously captured a quarter of a century ago in a scene from Nanni Moretti’s movie “Aprile”, in which the enraged director shouted at his television screen while watching a popular chat show featuring Silvio Berlusconi.
Addressing the left’s then-leader Massimo D’Alema, who failed to challenge the tycoon politician’s fabrications, Moretti jumped up and shouted: “React! Say something! React! (…) Say something left-wing! Say something even not left-wing, something civilised!”
Six general elections and almost a dozen governments later, Berlusconi is somehow still in the picture, a geriatric “junior” partner in a right-wing coalition that is tipped to win a sweeping majority when voters head back to the polls on September 25.
The country’s despondent centre-left voters, meanwhile, are still waiting to hear “something left-wing”.
At the annual Festa dell’Unità in Bologna, a late-summer gathering of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) mixing politics, culture, food and revelry, the crowd made no secret of their apprehension regarding the upcoming vote.
“We’re resigned to defeat, there’s no hope,” said local writer Gianluca Marozzi, seated at the Bella Ciao eatery with his friends Silvia and Caterina, both of them trade unionists who declined to give their full name. Referring to the rise of far-right candidate Giorgia Meloni, the hot favourite to become Italy’s next prime minister, the trio bemoaned a “drift towards extremist positions” in the country.
“The right is playing on people’s instincts and fears, they know how to speak alla pancia (to the gut) of Italians,” said Silvia. “As for the left, we’ve failed to get our message across,” she added, her words drowned out by the familiar tune of “Bella Ciao”, the anti-fascist resistance chant, rising above the humdrum.
A “red” bastion, Bologna traditionally hosts the country’s largest Festa dell’Unità, a legacy of Italy’s once mighty Communist Party, located on a road named after the battle of Stalingrad. It is expected to weather the right-wing tide forecast to sweep across the country.
“Bologna resists, for now,” said Marozzi. “But the party chose the wrong candidate here – one who many people will find hard to support.”
A convert from the Christian Democrats
The “wrong” candidate is Italy’s longest-serving parliamentarian Pier Ferdinando Casini, who will represent the Democratic Party in the race for Bologna’s Senate seat. A former Christian Democrat, he has become an unlikely PD candidate after spending most of his political career on the centre-right, in close alliance with Berlusconi.
To Casini’s critics, the conversion smacks of political opportunism, cementing the perception of a lack of substance. As the Oscar-winning filmmaker Roberto Benigni once quipped in a scathing comedy sketch years ago: “A car drove up to parliament, the door opened, nobody got out – it was Casini.”
The decision to field the former Christian Democrat in the Bologna race is especially unpopular among students in this bastion of the left, an intellectual hub that is home to the world’s oldest university. At the Dubcek garden, a green haven in the faculty of political science, graduate student Ardalan Baghaei said Casini’s candidacy was symptomatic of the PD’s drift to the centre.
“Conservatives are racing to be more right-wing, whereas the left is racing to be more moderate. As a result, the whole spectrum is drifting to the right,” he said.
Many students said they would not be voting on September 25 – some in protest at the lack of suitable candidates, others because of the prohibitive cost of travelling back home in a country with neither postal votes nor electronic ballots.
“I can’t afford to vote,” said Baghaei, who is registered in his native Sardinia. “It’s a limitation on my voting rights, and just goes to show how little politicians care about young people.”
Asia, a law student in her third year who did not wish to give her full name, said she would boycott the vote over what she perceived as a lack of attention to such issues as women’s rights, immigration and the divide between Italy’s richer north and poorer south. “The left is scared to talk about immigration when it should embrace it, fix it,” she explained.
After a summer of climate catastrophes, including a crippling drought and record wildfires, Asia and other students expressed dismay at the left’s failure to push climate change to the top of the agenda.
“We’re at a historic moment and the PD is failing to rise to the occasion, with no vision of how we can transition to a greener economy,” said Baghaei. “It’s costing them many young voters.”
Decent is not enough
It’s been a difficult campaign for Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, a former prime minister who tried hard to prevent a collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government, then struggled to build a coalition that could rival Meloni’s.
Letta refused to ally with the populist 5-Star Movement, whose yanking of support in parliament precipitated Draghi’s fall. His plan to join forces with centrists backfired after the latter refused to campaign with the tiny Greens and far-left forces that are allied with the PD. Since then, he has struggled to shift the focus to his party’s programme for government.
According to polls, the PD’s alliance trails the right-wing coalition of Meloni, Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini by more than 15 points. Italy’s convoluted electoral system means the right could command a parliamentary majority large enough to change Italy’s constitution.
“The PD is clearly a responsible party, it remained loyal to Draghi, but it has failed to come up with a narrative for this campaign,” said Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena.
“It doesn’t have an awful lot to say other than warn people against voting for Meloni – which comes across as a weak and negative message,” Cotta added.
At the Bologna branch of Johns Hopkins University, Professor Gianfranco Pasquino used a football metaphor to describe the party’s predicament.
“The PD is wrong to play counter-attack while Meloni is on the offensive,” he said. “In order to play counter-attack you need good counter-attacking players. You need [Kylian] Mbappé. And the left doesn’t have a Mbappé.”
Instead it has Letta, the archetype of the Italian centre-left leader: thoroughly decent but distinctly uncharismatic, a respectable figure who leads a party of reasonably good administrators that make for poor salesmen.
“Letta is intelligent, able and trustworthy. But he’s neither a fighter nor particularly original,” said Pasquino, a professor emeritus at the University of Bologna who has written extensively about the Italian left.
“The PD has failed to come up with a strong pitch that could captivate an otherwise distracted electorate,” he said. “The party has one great merit: it is sincerely pro-European, Letta particularly so. But they don’t highlight this enough. They should have built their entire campaign on the theme of Europe.”
Italy’s reluctant party of government
According to France’s leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Italy’s Communist-led left was “long Europe’s most intelligent and creative” – until it “vanished” in the 1990s. It’s a subject Mélenchon repeatedly addressed during this year’s French elections, saying he quit France’s Socialist Party years ago, fearing it would go the way of the Italian left.
Earlier this month, he stopped in Rome to throw his support behind a new outfit named Unione Popolare, a direct reference to his own Union Populaire, and one of several tiny parties hoping to breathe new life into Italy’s fractured left.
Mélenchon is in many ways Letta’s polar opposite. While one fires up youthful crowds of several thousand, the other addresses sleepy audiences of a few hundred. Unlike Letta and the PD, however, Mélenchon’s radical left has never made it to power. Neither did Italy’s “creative” Communist Party for that matter.
“Italy’s social, cultural and economic fabric tends to lean towards conservatism. The Church is still a very significant presence, unlike in France,” said Pasquino. “There can be no radical rupture in Italy, no Mélenchon. The PD knows very well it has to reach out to the moderate vote.”
The Democratic Party’s presence in awkward coalition governments has been beneficial to Italy, Pasquino added, not least in guaranteeing a constructive partnership with EU partners. Without the party’s consistent support there would have been no Draghi government and the equally respected Sergio Mattarella would not be in the president’s seat.
“The trouble with the PD is that they don’t know how to exploit this,” he said. “It’s as if they were too embarrassed to say they are a party of government.”
The same caution has prevented this party of responsible administrators from evolving into a transformational force, Pasquino added, pointing to recent failed bids to pass legislation protecting LGBT rights or granting citizenship to the children of immigrants who are born on Italian soil.
“They could have put the bills to a vote in parliament, but they feared defeat,” he explained. “They should have gone ahead anyway and used it as an electoral argument, stating clearly to the public: ‘If you want a law against homophobia, then you have to give us more votes.’”
The battle for rights
The timidity of the Democratic Party was a recurrent theme back at the Festa dell’Unità, where many bemoaned the lack of progress on civil rights. The prospect of a first female PM coming from a party they regard as reactionary, rather than the progressive camp, added insult to injury.
“Look at Spain, there’s a minority [Socialist] government and yet they’ve cracked down on violence against women. Why can’t we do the same?” said Silvia at the Bella Ciao restaurant, adding that the far right’s Meloni has always opposed such measures in Italy.
“We have to admit the PD has been a little weak on rights. They’re scared they’ll lose the moderate vote by being bolder,” added Vittorio Gaetano, a gay rights activist manning the Festa’s Red Square bar, where a large crowd gathered in anticipation of a drag queen show.
Gaetano, who runs an LGBTQ+ sports club in Bologna, said several of his friends would refuse to vote for the PD with Casini on the ballot, despite widespread concern over the “retrograde” views of Meloni and her party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy). He fears a government dominated by the far right will encourage homophobic slurs and attacks, emboldening “the minority of people who already feel that way”.
Meloni denies any prejudice but she recently railed against the “LGBT lobby” and her party is fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage and parenting. A senior party official sparked controversy last week after he appealed to Italy’s state broadcaster RAI not to broadcast an episode of the children’s cartoon Pepa Pig featuring a same-sex couple in the cast of characters.
While the prospect of a Meloni government was a “scary” thought for Gaetano, he also played down risks of a major rollback in civil rights. “As the old saying goes, you cannot stop the wind with your hands,” he added. “They cannot reverse the way society is heading.”
Professor Pasquino sounded a more cautionary note, pointing to steps taken by right-wing regional governments to curtail certain rights, such as abortion.
“If conservative parties win elections, it is also because they represent certain opinions that are widespread in Italy – and are shared by the Church,” he said. “The progressive camp is in a position of relative weakness. If the majority of the country chooses otherwise, it can only accept defeat and carry on with the struggle.”
He added: “Hence the need for the left to be bolder when in government.”