By Edoardo Lanfranchi
Last Sunday, Italians have awarded the country’s ruling centre-left coalition with the lowest electoral result since its existence. To the horror of many Brussels bureaucrats, they have chosen to crush both Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia! (‘Go Italy!’), and instead chose to trust the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigration League, a party allied with Berlusconi, yet with a clear far right, populist trend.
Regardless of what it entails for Italy’s future, with a hung parliament and seemingly no chance of a stable majority, something crucial is to be learned from Sunday’s result. And this does not apply to Italy alone.
Sunday’s main loser is former PM Matteo Renzi, who led a campaign based on optimism and continuity in light of the Democrats’ alleged economic results. The PD focused on the successes of the last three governments, of which they represented the main political force, mainly consisting in relatively modest measures – such as some timid advancements on civil rights – and reforms that the EU had requested – such as a largely contested labour market reform. Obviously, Renzi’s team had completely misunderstood what Italians wanted from their government. As the Sole 24 Ore reports, since 2010 Italian per capita GDP has fallen by almost 15%, unemployment has almost doubled, and so has the proportion of people who live in poverty. Especially in the South of the country – were the Five Star Movement was close to 45% of the vote and the PD to 15% – anger is a lot more common than optimism, and Renzi’s moderate, practical proposals sound more insulting than appealing.
So what went wrong with the (centre-)left? How could a party that used to portray itself as the representative of the weak and the common so dramatically misunderstand what matters to the vast majority of Italians?
The pattern is by no means isolated. Last year, the French Socialist Party collapsed by similar margins, the working-class vote being split between far-right Marine Le Pen and far-left Jean Luc Mélenchon. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party has been reduced to a permanent minority partner of Angela Merkel’s government – as its members voted to support yet another Merkel coalition government last Saturday. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has turned the Labour Party into a radical anti-establishment force, while the Liberal Democrats have disappeared from the political landscape. The Dutch Labour party lost 80% of its support in last year’s elections, and Greece’s Syriza government has been less and less popular ever since it started negotiations with Greek debt holders.
In all these countries, the political space originally occupied by mainstream centre-left parties has now been taken over by other political forces. Their nature varies from country to country, but they all share a strong anti-establishment rhetoric, challenge the current economic status quo – especially with respect to the EU – and have been labelled, in one way or another, ‘populist’. This is the case for Corbyn’s leadership as it is for Mélenchon’s presidential campaign, it applies both to far-right parties such as the German AfD and the French FN, it captures the boom in support for Geert Wilders and the Italian League.
In Italy, the Democrats have maintained some support in central Rome and Milan, while the populists – the League in the North and the Five Star Movement in the South – have humiliated them in working-class areas where the daily concerns that matter are unemployment, immigration, and collapsing purchasing power. As in most European countries, the people have turned their back to the left and preferred populist parties because these parties actually responded to their daily struggles and needs.
Most leftist parties used to benefit from a strong local presence in working-class areas, a rhetoric focused on protecting the people against their enemies, and people’s hopes for change and revanche against the injustice of the existing social order. Today, populist parties have taken their place. The European left has, to a large extent, collapsed to the centre, leaving a political void to be filled by others. And quite often, the others are far-right, anti-immigration parties with policies that will do absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions of the working class. Yet there are plenty of examples in today’s Europe which show that this doesn’t need to be the case.
If the European left wants to survive, it must take back what was once its natural territory: the political needs of the economically weak. It needs, in a certain way, to become more populistic, in the sense of speaking to ordinary people about ordinary problems and advocating radical change. Instead of whining about how the poor have suddenly become racist and childish, the left should listen to their concerns, and provide appropriate answers, or it will be the far right providing them. The PD and the Parti Socialiste have collapsed because they were unable to do what the Five Star Movement and the France Insoumise succeed brilliantly in raising issues that people care about. That is what democracy is about – although maybe the aforementioned Brussels bureaucrats would like to think otherwise.
Image Simone Ramella via Flickr