ANALYSIS: Why Italy’s Democratic Party is betting its future on an unlikely coalition

Italy's staunchly pro-European, centre-left Democratic Party -- riven by internal divisions and lagging in the polls -- is now betting its future on an audacious tie-up with the country's anti-establishment movement.

ANALYSIS: Why Italy's Democratic Party is betting its future on an unlikely coalition
Leader of the Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti (C). Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Founded in 2007, it currently effectively has two leaders: soft-spoken and measured chief Nicola Zingaretti, 53, and former prime minister Matteo Renzi, 44, who has seized on Italy's political crisis to flex his considerable party powers.

It was Renzi who touted uniting with a previously loathed group he once scoffed at for “calling into question the Moon landing”.

TIMELINE: 15 months of drama in Italian politics

The Democratic Party (PD) was left reeling after the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) triumphed at the general election last year, going on to form a coalition with the far-right, anti-immigrant League. After coming second in the vote, the PD proceeded to drop into third place in voter intentions as the League under strongman Matteo Salvini skyrocketed in popularity while painting the centre-left as a discredited political elite.

The social democrats had consistently ruled out an alliance with the M5S — until Salvini pulled the rug on the coalition last month and Renzi stepped back into the limelight to suggest a M5S-PD deal to save the country from fresh elections. Zingaretti, who was elected the party's leader in March and had been insisting such a deal would only favour Salvini, was forced to relent — on the condition that the coalition would last until the end of the legislature in 2023.

“The poor chap had no choice, because the PD has a leader, but its leader does not have [command of] the PD,” summed up political philosopher Massimo Cacciari in La Stampa.

READ ALSO: Understanding Italy's Democratic Party

The PD's former leader, Matteo Renzi. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Machiavellian manoeuvrings

The party hopes the accord will not only keep Salvini from power, but give it time to improve its standing for the next election. The PD will first face critical regional elections in the historical socialist strongholds of Emilia-Romagna and Umbria in November — areas where Salvini's League has been successfully drumming up support.

“If Salvini wins in Emilia-Romagna, the PD will melt like a snowflake the very next day,” Cacciari said.

The PD has been struggling to provide a convincing answer to Italy's migrant question, leaving the door open to a strident Salvini, who has wooed voters by closing the ports to charity ships rescuing people from the Mediterranean.


The tie-up with the M5S also risks alienating those of its members disgusted by the Movement's kowtowing to the hard right.

“A combination of weakness within the PD and the profound differences with 5-Star will not bring anything good to Italy or the party,” former industry minister Carlo Calenda said on Wednesday as he quit the PD in disgust.

Some fear that Renzi — who has ruled out a role in the new government — is preparing to betray the PD by splitting the party in the coming months in a power grab. The former boy scout leader has form in Machiavellian manoeuverings: after taking over the PD in 2013 he pushed out its number two Enrico Letta, who was prime minister at the time. The now notorious tweet he sent before the coup, reassuring Letta with the hashtag “#Enricostaisereno” ('don't worry Enrico'), became synonymous in Italy with back-stabbing.

'Not in good health'

The party initially blossomed under the boyish former mayor of Florence, winning 40 percent of votes at the 2014 EU elections and inspiring the entire European left.

But Renzi was soon accused of being an arrogant and authoritarian leader who favoured and trusted only a chosen few. In 2016 Italians rejected his ambitious reform plans and he resigned, first as prime minister then as party leader.

He may now be a simple senator, but he still has 3.4 million Twitter followers, compared with Zingaretti's 453,000.

Nicola Zingaretti. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Zingaretti, well known in Italy as the brother of the actor who plays famed television detective Inspector Montalbano, has posited himself as the man to bring unity to the fractured party. His biggest challenge, however, may lie not with party politics but with ordinary Italians.

“The problem is that Italians continue to believe in right-wing ideas,” political science professor Lorenzo Castellani from Rome's Luiss university told AFP, adding that the left was “not in good health”. The PD-M5S tie-up risks creating a dangerous division between ordinary Italians and the country's institutions, he said. 

By AFP's Ella Ide

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Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her allies on Tuesday began what is set to be a weeks-long process of forming a new government, with crises looming on several fronts.

Italy's Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, which triumphed in Sunday’s elections, has no experience of power but must assemble a cross-party team to tackle sky-high inflation and energy prices, and relations with a wary Europe.

The 45-year-old is hoping to be the first woman to lead Italy as prime minister, but needs her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party and former Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, for a majority in parliament.

The division of the top jobs – notably economy, foreign affairs, the defence and interior ministries – will always be political but now, more than ever, “will have to reflect areas of expertise”, the Stampa daily noted.

President Sergio Mattarella will begin consultations on who should lead the new government only once the Senate and Chamber presidents have been elected by parliament, which meets on October 13th.

In the past, it has taken anything between four and 12 weeks for a new administration to take office.

But the first deadline for action is coming up fast, with Italy due to submit its draft plan for next year’s budget to Brussels by October 15th.

READ ALSO: The five biggest challenges facing Italy’s new government

The parties have said they want to make major changes, with a manifesto promising to slash taxes, roll back welfare, and “revise” the terms of Italy’s recovery fund agreement with Brussels – potentially putting the rest of the deal, worth a total of almost 200 billion euros to Italy, at risk.

EU economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said he urged “the next Italian government to ensure that this opportunity is seized”, saying the fund was key to putting Italy on a path to “strong and durable growth”.

Agnese Ortolani, senior Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said she expected Meloni “to continue to reassure the markets by picking a non-controversial figure for the role of finance minister”.

“She will also want to avoid reputational damage by nominating someone who is not perceived as credible by the markets,” she said in a note.

READ ALSO: Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Meloni’s allies have been pitching for heavyweight positions, Salvini wanting his old job as interior minister back, and Berlusconi eyeing president of the Senate.

Their parties’ disappointing performance in the polls, however, with neither reaching 10 percent while Brothers of Italy’s secured 26 percent, means Meloni may already be planning to sideline them.

League leader Matteo Salvini (L) and Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni are set to form a government together following the election. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Salvini and Berlusconi do not see eye-to-eye with Meloni on several fronts, including on Russia and public spending to relieve the cost of living crisis.

With all the potential friction ahead, winning the elections “was almost the easy part”, commented Luciano Fontana, chief editor of the Corriere della Sera daily.

Berlusconi downplayed concerns he would rock the boat Tuesday, claiming his party was ready to make compromises “in the country’s interests”.

His ally Antonio Tajani, a former European parliament president, is tipped as possible foreign minister, an appointment which could both appease Berlusconi and assuage international fears that Meloni’s Eurosceptic populist party plans to pick fights with Brussels.

Salvini may prove more difficult. He is currently on trial for allegedly abusing his powers as interior minister in 2019 to block migrants at sea, which some say could rule him out returning to the job.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“Defusing Salvini” without sparking a backlash that could weaken the government is “Meloni’s first test”, the Repubblica daily said.