Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Democratic Party

The Italian political system is complicated, to say the least. In a series of articles examining each of the country's main parties, The Local Italy aims to introduce you to the key players and parties as they return from summer recess.

Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy's Democratic Party
Party Secretary Matteo Renzi. Photo: AFP

To start with, here's an introduction to the ruling party, the Democratic Party (PD), its history, policies, support, and key figures.


The Democratic Party (PD) is relatively young, founded in late 2007 as a merger of various centre-left parties, including former Communists and former Christian Democrats. Chief among them were the Democrats of the Left and the Democracy is Freedom – The Daisy. 

Like Italy's other major parties, the reason the PD was only formed quite recently is due to a massive corruption trial known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands), which rocked Italian politics in the early 1990s by uncovering bribes and graft.

By the time it had run its course, 3,000 people had been arrested and half of the country's lawmakers had been indicted, bringing an end to Italy's First Republic, which had seen a series of centrist and centre-left coalitions, and paving the way for the creation of new parties.

Photo: AFP

Since 2013, Italy has been led by a PD government – and the party runs the majority of the country's regional councils too.

But the party has internal problems due to the range of views represented by its members. Earlier this year, a group of left-wing rebels left the party to form their own, criticizing the leadership style of ex-PM Matteo Renzi – who came to power as a result of an internal coup – and calling for “a left-wing renewal”.

And there's friction between those who remain in the party, with Justice Minister Andrea Orlando heading up an anti-Renzi faction, and regular disagreement on policy.

READ ALSO: Six key things to know about the Italian political system


The ideology of the Democratic Party can be hard to pin down due to the party's broad nature, but is inspired by social democracy. As the name suggests, it draws inspiration from the American Democratic Party: ex-PM Matteo Renzi was one of Barack Obama's closest international allies, and the party's first ever leader, Walter Veltroni, has been described as 'Italy's Obama'.

Matteo Renzi and Barack Obama. Photo: AFP

The PD is pro-Europe and has traditionally had a liberal attitude towards migration, though as Italy has come under increasing pressure from the ongoing wave of migration to Europe, its leaders have promoted stricter immigration policies.


The Democratic Party enjoys strong support nationwide, with control of 15 of the 20 Italian regions as well as the major cities of Milan, Bologna, Florence, and Bari. However, in 2016's regional elections it lost Rome and Turin to the Five Star Movement, something the party acknowledged was a “painful blow”.

In the last two elections, it's had its best results in the centre and the north, particularly Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Umbria, Le Marche, Liguria, and Lazio. Nationwide, the party is currently polling at about 30 percent of the vote, putting it neck-and-neck with the Five Star Movement.

The last major public vote before 2018's election took place in June, and while Renzi declared the results a victory for the PD, the party's performance was unremarkable while the centre-right emerged as the big winners.

READ MORE: Five things we learned from Italy's telltale local elections

The main risk for the PD is a potential lack of allies for a coalition, which will be needed if no single party gets an outright majority. After the June votes, Renzi said he would not rule out a coalition between the Democratic Party and Berlusconi's Forza Italia, suggesting he is concerned about the threat of a united right, though the parties are not natural allies.

Graph showing the average trend of opinion polling between February 2013 and May 2017. The Democratic Party is marked in red.

Big names

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is the party secretary, having stood for re-election after he resigned following an embarrassing defeat in a referendum on constitutional reforms. Italy's youngest ever PM, Renzi was known as 'il Rottamotore' or 'The Scrapper' for his promises to do away with the old political guard, but his dogged pursuit of reform has left him with some enemies.

PROFILE: Matteo Renzi – a reformer ready to seize a second chance

Current PM Paolo Gentiloni is less comfortable in the limelight, but is a trusted ally of Renzi leading a caretaker government. A one-time student radical, Gentiloni has had a long political career but didn't come to prominence until his appointment as foreign minister in 2014.

Culture Minister and former Party Secretary Dario Franceschini is also an award-winning author and lawyer, and considered one of the movers and shakers of the party. He leads the Christian leftist faction Democratic Area (AreaDem), of which Gentiloni is a member.

Dario Franceschini. Photo: AFP

Andrea Orlando was appointed justice minister by Renzi, and at the time Italian media reports said he was chosen as part of a deal made between Renzi and Berlusconi, because he presented little threat to the media magnate, whose legal troubles were hindering his political career. The 47-year-old, who does not have a university degree and previously served as environment minister, is still in the same position and also leads an anti-Renzi faction of the party.

Maria Elena Boschi is currently Secretary of the Council of Ministers. She started out in politics as Renzi's adviser when he was Mayor of Florence, and remains a strong ally of the former PM. Despite that, she was in charge of constitutional reforms under Renzi and led the 'Yes Committee' to promote his proposed reforms, which were rejected by the public and led to his downfall.

READ ALSO: An introduction to the small parties on the Italian political scene



Italian rivals pitch abroad in trilingual vote videos

Days after Italy's far-right leader made a multilingual appeal to foreign commentators to take her seriously, her main rival in September elections issued his own tit-for-tat video Saturday condemning her record.

Italian rivals pitch abroad in trilingual vote videos

Former prime minister Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, declared his pro-European credentials in a video in English, French and Spanish, while deriding the euroscepticism of Italy’s right-wing parties.

It echoes the trilingual video published this week by Giorgia Meloni, tipped to take power in the eurozone’s third largest economy next month, in which she sought to distance her Brothers of Italy party from its post-fascist roots.

“We will keep fighting to convince Italians to vote for us and not for them, to vote for an Italy that will be in the heart of Europe,” Letta said in English.

His party and Meloni’s are neck-and-neck in opinion polls ahead of September 25 elections, both with around 23 percent of support.

But Italy’s political system favours coalitions, and while Meloni is part of an alliance with ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi and anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini, Letta has struggled to unite a fractured centre-left.

Speaking in French perfected in six years as a dean at Sciences Po university in Paris, Letta emphasised European solidarity, from which Italy is currently benefiting to the tune of almost 200 billion euros ($205 billion) in
post-pandemic recovery funds.

“We need a strong Europe, we need a Europe of health, a Europe of solidarity. And we can only do that if there is no nationalism inside European countries,” he said.

He condemned the veto that he said right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor “Orban — friends and allies of the Italian right — is using every time he can (to) harm Europe”.

In Spanish, Letta highlighted Meloni’s ties with Spain’s far-right party Vox, at whose rally she spoke earlier this summer, railing at the top of her voice against “LGBT lobbies”, Islamist violence, EU bureaucracy and mass

In English, he condemned the economic legacy of Berlusconi, a three-time premier who left office in 2011 as Italy was on the brink of economic meltdown, but still leads his Forza Italia party.

Letta’s programme includes a focus on green issues — he intends to tour Italy in an electric-powered bus — and young people, but he has made beating Meloni a key plank of his campaign.

Meloni insisted in her video that fascism was in the past, a claim greeted with scepticism given her party still uses the logo of a flame used by the Italian Social Movement set up by supporters of fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

In a joint manifesto published this week, Meloni, Berlusconi and Salvini committed themselves to the EU but called for changes to its budgetary rules — and raised the prospect of renegotiating the pandemic recovery plan.

Elections were triggered by the collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government last month, and are occurring against a backdrop of soaring inflation, a potential winter energy crisis and global uncertainty sparked by
the Ukraine war.