Nicola Zingaretti elected leader of Italian opposition

Supporters of Italy's fractured centre-left opposition Democratic Party (PD) on Sunday elected Nicola Zingaretti as new leader, an ex-communist son of a bank manager who will now take on the ruling populist coalition led by the hard-right League.

Nicola Zingaretti elected leader of Italian opposition
Nicola Zingaretti has become head of Italy's centre-left Democrats. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

The PD was left reeling and languishing in the polls after the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigrant League won elections and formed a government in June of last year.

Zingaretti, who has been compared to Britain's Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn and Senator Bernie Sanders in the US, tweeted his thanks after most of the primary votes were counted, saying it was “now time to turn the page”.


Around 7,000 polling stations, including 150 abroad, had been staffed by 35,000 volunteers throughout the day, with over 1.5 million turning out.

The other candidates were Roberto Giachetti, 57, considered the closest to former PD leader and prime minister Matteo Renzi's centrist politics, and Maurizio Martina, 40, a former agriculture minister.

Zingaretti, 53, is currently the president of the Lazio region, which includes Rome, and is a former Italian Communist party member as well as a founding member of the PD in 2007. Born into a middle-class Roman family, he was a member of the European parliament and is a supporter of European federalism who has criticised austerity measures.

His Jewish mother and grandmother escaped the Nazis in 1943, while his great-grandmother died at Auschwitz. His father was a bank manager who “never missed a day of work in 40 years,” he said in an interview last year.

His older brother Luca is famous in Italy for playing the title role in popular detective series Inspector Montalbano.

League leader and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini sarcastically wished Zingaretti success in his new job, while noting that turnout in PD primaries had been dropping. Zingaretti told journalists after his victory that “Salvini has created a model based on hatred and is betraying the productive north”, his political opponent's political heartland.

Nicola Zingaretti with Matteo Salvini in Rome in November 2018. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP 

Salvini's League and the M5S have seen Italy's growth rate drop and deficit rise as they have sought to deploy expensive, populist measures against the wishes of Brussels and the markets.

Zingaretti is considered an intellectual leader, who holds social media partly responsible for turning people away from helping the collective.

“In the Colosseum 2,000 years ago the people were allowed to express judgement only with a thumbs up or down,” he said in an interview last year. “Now on Facebook it's the same thing: judge but don't think.”

While often disagreeing with former PD leader and prime minister Renzi, the two were never in open conflict. “Those who speak ill of others do so because they have nothing to say about themselves,” Zingaretti said.

Zingaretti's policies will become clearer after the PD holds its party conference on March 17th.

READ ALSO: Italy's shattered Democratic Party tries to bounce back

All three candidates had already excluded a future alliance with the M5S, which won 220 seats in the lower house elections last year compared to the PD's 112.

The rightwing League party won 123 seats but has overtaken the M5S in opinion polls since then thanks largely to Salvini's tough anti-immigrant line.

The left is nevertheless finding its feet again, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets of Milan on Saturday for an anti-racism demonstration. The Milan demonstration was a reply to those who have imposed a policy of “closure and exclusion” that has become intolerable, elder PD statesman Romano Prodi told La Repubblica newspaper.

Renzi, who resigned after a failed referendum on constitutional reform in 2016 which Zingaretti backed, but remained PD leader until last year, voted in the primary in his hometown Florence.

The man who in 2014 became Italy's youngest-ever premier refused to publicly back a candidate, saying the “different movements that were with me over the years have divided themselves among all three candidates”. Renzi, 44, appealed against infighting, whatever the result. 

READ ALSO: Matteo Renzi: How the one-time great hope of the Italian left fell from grace

Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

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What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

After Russian energy giant Gazprom suspended gas deliveries to Italy on Saturday, many are wondering what consequences the stoppage will have on the country’s energy supplies.

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

What’s going on?

Over the past three days, Italy has received none of the gas supplies it expected from Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

The impasse officially started last Saturday, when Gazprom announced it would not be able to deliver gas to Italy due to “the impossibility of gas transport through Austria” – Russian gas supplies are delivered to Italy through the Trans Austria Gas pipeline (TAG), which reaches into Italian territory near Tarvisio, Friuli Venezia-Giulia. 

READ ALSO: Russia suspends gas to Italy after ‘problem’ in Austria

Though Gazprom originally attributed the problem to Austrian gas grid operators refusing to confirm “transport nominations”, Austria’s energy regulator E-Control said that the Russian energy mammoth had failed to comply with new contractual agreements whose introduction had been “known to all market actors for months”. 

Additional information about the incident only emerged on Monday, when Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s national energy provider ENI, said that supplies had been suspended after Gazprom failed to pay a 20-million-euro guarantee to Austrian gas carrier Gas Connect. 

Descalzi also added that ENI was ready to step in and deposit the guarantee itself in order to unblock deliveries to Italy.

Logo of Italian energy regulator ENI.

Italian energy regulator ENI said it was ready to pay Austrian gas carriers a 20-million-euro guarantee to unblock deliveries. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

READ ALSO: Italy’s ENI ready to pay guarantee to unblock Russian gas

At the time of writing, however, no agreement between ENI, Gas Connect and Gazprom has yet been reached, with the stoppage expected to continue until Wednesday at the very least.

What would an indefinite stoppage mean for Italy’s upcoming winter season?

Though energy giant ENI appears to be confident that a compromise between all the involved parties will be reached shortly, the “indefinite shutdown” of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September is somewhat of a menacing precedent. 

After fears of a long-term supply suspension cropped up over the weekend, outgoing Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani publicly reassured Italians that “barring any catastrophic events, Italy will have the whole of winter covered”.

It isn’t yet clear what exactly Cingolani meant by “catastrophic”, but the latest available data seem to suggest that Italy wouldn’t have to resort to emergency measures, chiefly gas rationing, should Gazprom halt deliveries indefinitely. 

Italian Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani.

Outgoing Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani said that, “barring any catastrophic events”, Italy will have enough gas supplies for the winter. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy received around 20 billion cubic metres of Russian gas per year, which accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s annual gas imports. 

But, thanks to the supply diversification strategy carried out by outgoing PM Mario Draghi and his cabinet over the past few months, Russian gas currently accounts for, in the words of ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi, only “about nine to 10 percent” of Italian gas imports.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Draghi criticises Germany over latest energy plan

Granted, Italy still receives (or, given the current diplomatic deadlock, expects to receive) a non-negligible total of 20 million cubic metres of Russian gas per day. But, should supply lines between Rome and Moscow be shut off until further notice, Italy could fall back on existing gas stocks to meet winter consumption demands. 

Last Wednesday, Cingolani announced that the country had already filled up 90 percent of its national gas stocks – Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas – and the government was now working to bring that number up by an additional two or three percentage points.

These supplies, Cingolani said, are set to give Italy “greater flexibility” with respect to potential “spikes in winter consumption”.

Gas storage station in Loenhout, Belgium.

Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Finally, Italy is expected to receive an additional four billion cubic metres of gas from North Europe over the winter months – deliveries which will be complemented by the first shipments of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) from Egypt.

Both of these developments are expected to further reinforce Italy’s position in the energy market for the cold season.

What about the long-term consequences of an indefinite stoppage?

An indefinite shut-off of Russian gas supplies would effectively anticipate Italy’s independence from Moscow by nearly two years – Draghi’s plan has always been to wean the country off Russian gas by autumn 2024.

However, the Italian government’s strategy is (or, perhaps, was, as a new government is about to be formed) centred around a gradual phasing out of Russian supplies. As such, although not immediately problematic, a ‘cold-turkey’ scenario might create supply issues for Italy at some point during 2023.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How much are energy prices rising in Italy this autumn?

Granted, Algeria, whose supplies currently make up 36 percent of Italy’s national demand, is expected to ramp up gas exports and provide Rome with nine billion cubic metres of gas in 2023.

But, even when combined with LNG supplies from several African partners – these should add up to a total of four billion cubic metres of gas in 2023 – there’s a risk that Algerian gas might not be able to replace Russian gas on its own.

An employee works at the Tunisian Sergaz company, that controls the Tunisian segment of the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) pipeline, through which natural gas flows from Algeria to Italy.

Algerian gas supplies, which reach Italy through the Trans-Med pipeline (pictured above), might not be enough to replace Russian gas in 2023. Photo by Fethi BELAID / AFP

Therefore, should an indefinite shut-off be the ultimate outcome of the current diplomatic incident between ENI, Austria’s Gas Connect and Russia’s Gazprom, Italy, this time in the person of new PM Giorgia Meloni, might have to close deals with other suppliers or ask existing suppliers to ramp up production.