The immediate future is uncertain for Italy’s Democratic Party. Matteo Renzi formally stepped down as head of the party Sunday, February 19. This decision comes as a consequence of Renzi’s weakening power, starting with the Italian public’s rejection of his proposals in the recent Constitutional Reform referendum. Following the results of the referendum, Renzi resigned as Prime Minister. His defeat strengthened the minority within the PD and pressure on him mounted until he stepped down this week, opening the door to a party leadership battle, which may exacerbate divides within the PD. The party, while enjoying its current parliamentary control in the lower chamber, is increasingly vulnerable to the rising 5-Star Movement. With the next General Election taking place by 2018 at the latest, the PD cannot afford a party schism.
Some within the PD leadership, along with constituents, have expressed dismay over Renzi’s centrist policies during his reign as PM and party leader. They fear that his pro-business policies have alienated the ordinary citizen that the party normally relies on for support. Dissidents are considering leaving the PD to form a faction. It is unclear what this might look like, whether it will be a new party or a movement with the Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left).
Meanwhile, Giuliano Pisapia, former Mayor of Milan, is in the process of creating a movement called ‘Progressive Field.’ His movement will offer voters “hope,” a message that they have not heard from parties recently. Pisapia believes that a split in the PD would be a “disaster,” fearing the consequences of a deeply divided left. Pisapia wants to bridge the left and center and inject himself as an important player. A divided PD would diminish the power of his envisioned coalition. It will be important to keep an eye on the left and what happens if the PD dissidents do indeed split from the party.
On the other hand, the Renzi faction is pushing for earlier elections because he wants to regain traction as a credible national candidate. The ex-PM recognizes that the current government suffers from the same lack of legitimacy that he did because his candidacy was never put to a popular vote. Renzi sees an election as the only way to regain his credibility. As of now, he is the favorite to be victorious. At the same time, he wants to hold a party convention as soon as possible to reaffirm his legitimacy. According to a Euromedia Research poll, 58% of PD voters support Renzi within the party with all of the other candidates polling at less than 5%.
Others within the PD implore their colleagues to mend the divide. They stress unity at a time when the party is vulnerable to both the left and the right. In fact, a recent poll shows that 70% of PD voters do not want a split. Andrea Orlando has declared himself as a candidate to run against Renzi. The current Minister of Justice offers to serve as a bridge to unite the party. These party representatives are calling for the elections to occur as scheduled so that they can work with the rest of the party to develop a party platform (manifesto) addressing social welfare and inequality. He and others fear 5-Star’s populist message and want to maintain the party’s parliamentary majority when the next General Election is held.
We may consider the local elections held in May to be the next crucial event in Italian Politics. The Renzi faction wants the PD elections to be held before the local elections, which they fear could further weaken his political standing unless he has re-captured the helm of the party. Meanwhile, it will be important to follow the minority faction closely. Italy has a proportional representation system, in which parties earn seats based on the amount of votes they receive rather than the winner-take-all system, in which the party receiving the most votes wins. Therefore, Italian parties are incentivized to establish coalitions because it is almost impossible for one party to earn a majority (or even a plurality) in a fragmented, multi-party system. If the minority splits off from the PD, it may form a partnership with other leftist parties and/ or Pisapia, thus creating a problem for the PD from both the left and right. Stay tuned!