The challenges for Italy’s opposition

Posted on: August 22, 2011

In my last blog, I wrote about the nearing end of the Berlusconi era.  In this edition, I want to briefly describe Italy’s main opposition parties and highlight some of the challenges they face if they want to win the next general election which is due in 2013.

The main opposition parties can be divided into two broad groups:  the center left which consists of the Partito Democratico (PD), Italia dei Valori (IDV) and Sinistra Ecologia Liberta` (SEL) and the third pole or center parties which consist of Futuro e Liberta` (FLI), Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro (UDC) and Alleanza per L’Italia (API).  There are other parties in addition to these six, but for simplicity I will leave them out.

The Partito Democratico is the main opposition party which currently holds the second highest number of seats in parliament.  PD is led by Pier Luigi Bersani who was a minister in the past Prodi governments.  He is considered a man of integrity but has struggled to articulate clear policies in contrast to those of the government.  More importantly, he has been unsuccessful in forging a coalition with some of the other opposition parties.  In fact, there is a faction in PD which gives Bersani only lukewarm support. 

Italy of Values is led by Antonio DiPietro, the former magistrate who came to prominence as a leading prosecutor in the Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s.  DiPietro has been the most outspoken critic of Berlusconi but he has shown little inclination to compromise and work with PD and the other parties in building a credible alternative.

SEL is led by Nichi Vendola who is currently the President of Puglia region.  Vendola is considered a rising star of the Italian left and perhaps the most charismatic figure in Italian politics today.  Many would like him to be the center left candidate for Prime Minister in the next election.  He is however openly gay and it remains to be seen whether Italians are prepared to elect a gay Prime Minister given the country’s conservative Catholic traditions.

The challenge for the center left is to unify behind a single leader with a policy platform that is well defined and which can appeal to moderate swing voters in the middle.  To this end, it remains to be seen whether the center left can build any kind of electoral alliance with the nascent third pole.

The third pole is largely the result of Berlusconi having to move to his right to appease the Northern League upon whose support his government depends to stay in power.  UDC was in the prior Berlusconi government of 2001-2006 but it did not rejoin government in 2008 because of major philosophical differences with the Northern League.

FLI is led by Gianfranco Fini who is the current speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.  Fini was a co-founder of PDL along with Berlusconi when Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale merged.  Fini wanted to succeed Berlusconi as leader but the two had a very public falling out which led Fini and a handful of parliamentarians to break away and form FLI.

Finally there is API led by Francesco Rutelli.  He is the former mayor of Rome and was a member of the PD on its right/Catholic wing.  He was also the center left candidate for Prime Minister in the 2001 election.  Rutelli left PD shortly after Bersani became secretary of the party. 

The third pole is struggling to carve out an identity and it is not clear whether it will look to its left or right for a partner in the next general election.  Although the leaders of the third pole have personal issues with Berlusconi and ideological differences with the Northern League, if Berlusconi leaves, that may increase the chances that they will try to form an alliance with PDL rather than the parties on their left.  Time will tell.

As mentioned above, the opposition in Italy has struggled because they have not put forward a single leader, a Prime Minister in waiting if you like, nor have they put forward a platform that they can all support.  Infighting among these parties and within some of the parties has hindered their chances of electoral success.  Italians well remember the Prodi government of 2006-2008 which consisted of nine parties who couldn’t put forward a coherent policy platform.  In fact, some of the ministers in Prodi’s government publicly criticized decisions taken by their government.

What is clear is that the current international economic crisis is putting pressure on governments who are struggling to keep their respective country’s head above water.  This is particularly so in Italy which has one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the world.  Whoever wins the next general election in Italy will face huge challenges in putting the country back on the road to recovery.

Franco Ciarlo