Bersani routs Renzi in ‘centrosinistra’ primary to lead Italian left next spring

Florence’s brash, young mayor Matteo Renzi and his campaign to lead the Italian left threatened to remake Italian politics at a time of upheaval and uncertainty greater than at any point in the past two decades.

But the rank-and-file of the Italian left chose the more familiar path on Sunday, elevating instead the familiar, older and more staid, even boring, president of Italy’s largest center-left party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Pier Luigi Bersani (pictured above, enjoying a post-election beer).

The 61-year-old Bersani easily defeated the 37-year-old Renzi with around 61.1% of the vote (with just 38.8% for Renzi) — a victory so complete for Bersani that Renzi was winning only in Tuscany, the central Italian region that’s home to Florence, and even there, only with about 55% of the vote.

For many reasons, I argued last week that Bersani’s victory was very likely: his control of the PD party machinery, Italian cultural values that respect longevity (i.e. can you think of anyone in the past 50 years that could be described as ‘Italy’s JFK’?), close ties to Italy’s largest union, the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL, General Confederation of Labour) and support from the candidate who placed third in the first round of the primary election, Nichi Vendola.  Vendola is the openly-gay, two-term regional president of Puglia, a more leftist candidate who is the leader and founder of the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), which will join with a handful of other small leftist parties in supporting Bersani as a candidate for prime minister in Italy’s general election, scheduled to be held on or before April 2013.  Vendola memorably said, on the same day as his endorsement, that Bersani’s words were ‘profumare di sinistra‘ — perfumed with leftism.

Current technocratic prime minister Mario Monti is not running in the upcoming election.  Monti has shepherded labor reforms, budget cuts and tax increases through the Italian parliament since the PD joined with the main center-right party, the center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) in November 2011 to appoint Monti in the midst of a public finance crisis that resulted in Berlusconi’s resignation.

So what happens next?

Consolidation around Bersani.  Most immediately, it really does seem like the Italian center-left is coalescing around Bersani.  Renzi has pledged his support and, in no uncertain terms, conceded defeat without reserving doubts for procedural complaints.  Given that the vote has taken place just days after a similar party leadership vote within France’s center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) has brought former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party into open political civil war, this consolidation is not a foregone conclusion.

Renzi’s ‘sweep away the old generation’ appeal could have well resulted in an attempt to bypass the results of the ‘centrosinistra‘ primary to run his own renegade campaign in the general election.  Indeed, despite the impression that Renzi’s politics are to the right of Bersani’s, Renzi’s political thesis has always been more about elevating a new generation of Italian leadership than fighting over ideological differences.  So his concession and support for Bersani are, already, a key prerequisite for Bersani to win next spring.

The likely Bersani-led campaign.  The latest polls show the PD with a wide lead — around 30% (and around 38% total for the center-left coalition set to back Bersani) to just 18% for Berlusconi’s PdL and the 15% for comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), an anti-austerity, vaguely euroskeptic protest vehicle.  With Bersani now firmly in place to lead the center-left into the election, rather than Renzi, however, Grillo can argue more forcefully that his Five Star Movement is the only group that represents a true change from the status quo.  Renzi was — and remains — more popular among the Italian electorate in general than Bersani, the extent to which Renzi enthusiastically participates in the campaign on Bersani’s behalf may determine whether the Italian left can limit Grillo’s appeal.

What next for Renzi?  Despite a more lopsided victory for Bersani than he might have expected, Renzi will return as the mayor of Florence, but he’s certainly enhanced his stature, both within the PD and throughout Italy.  Renzi is well-positioned as a future force in Italian politics — with certainly more promise to lead Italy’s left in the future than Vendola or anyone else, in the event that Bersani stumbles in the upcoming election.  If Bersani succeeds, he’ll need to harness to excitement and enthusiasm that Renzi has generated, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Renzi take a key role within any PD-led government.

Waiting on Silvio.  The outstanding variable in Italian politics is now the center-right’s leadership.  The PdL had been set to host its own primaries on December 16, but Berlusconi has (once again) indicated he may stand as the center-right’s candidate for prime minister, perhaps through the PdL and perhaps through yet another new party.

Berlusconi warned last week that a Bersani victory would make his return to frontline Italian politics more likely, and he had a few nice words for Renzi as someone who could build a credible social democratic party in Italy — Berlusconi believes that Bersani and the Italian left’s old guard, as former communists, are wholly incapable of doing so.  His kind words certainly did Renzi no favors, but it’s not inconceivable that Berlusconi sees a little of himself in Renzi, with his bold attempt to muscle a new generation into Italian politics, much the same way Berlusconi himself did in 1994.

Regardless, we’re now left waiting, once again, on Berlusconi.  Although polls show Italians are weary of his failed promises, sex scandals with underaged women, convictions for tax evasion and indictments for corruption, Berlusconi remains incredibly wealthy and retains control of much of Italy’s private media.  So as a candidate or not, Berlusconi will certainly play an important role in the election.  If Berlusconi decides (for good) not to run for prime minister, it seems almost certain that his former justice minister and perhaps heir apparent, Angelino Alfano, a 41-year-old Sicilian, will contest the race.

Rome’s more staunchly conservative (some would say neo-fascist) mayor Gianni Alemanno may have national ambitions, however, and former neo-fascist-turned-centrist Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s one-time deputy prime minister, foreign minister and a former president of Italy’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Camera die Deputati), has formed a new party, Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI, Future and Freedom), to contest the election.  If the PdL crumbles as a result of infighting or indecision, Fini’s party stands a good chance of winning much of that support, and Fini himself remains perhaps the most respected official from the Berlusconi-led governments of the 2000s.

Who will govern Italy?  If the polls hold out, Bersani and the center-left seem set to win the largest share of seats in the Italian parliament next spring, although, as I’ve noted, Italian politics remains incredibly fluid.

If Bersani emerges with a strong plurality of seats, but something short of an absolute majority, it seems likely he will still become prime minister — leading a less stable minority government or a more formal coalition government.  Unlike Renzi, Bersani indicated that he’s open to a aligning with the Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre), a small centrist party led by Pier Ferdinando Casini.  The UdC, heir to the once-dominant Christian Democrats, has supported the Monti government, but could likely find common ground with a broad center-left coalition headed by Bersani.  The UdC, however, remains socially conservative and has close ties to the Vatican, so it would likely not support a Bersani-led push for same-sex marriage.

Polls, meanwhile, also show that Monti remains relatively popular and, especially among Italy’s business class, the overwhelming favorite to continue as prime minister.  Monti, as a technocrat with no real political base of his own, will not contest the elections in his own right, but he’s made it clear that if a hung parliament emerges, he’ll remain available to serve as a caretaker prime minister.

Monti’s role has been crucial in stabilizing Italy’s finances and its image among bondholders over the past year — if he doesn’t continue in some role (perhaps as finance minister or business minister in a center-left government), he’ll likely be a top candidate for Italy’s mostly ceremonial presidency, which will be determined by the Italian parliament in May 2013.  Current president Giorgio Napolitano has said he won’t run for reelection, and Monti would likely command the support of both the center-left and center-right.

3 thoughts on “Bersani routs Renzi in ‘centrosinistra’ primary to lead Italian left next spring”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *