Italy: Democratic Party splits and 5-Star Movement in crisis

Class struggle can build real left force. 
After the defeat of Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in the referendum on constitutional reform on 4 December, the crisis of the political system in Italy has accelerated. In late February, two historic leaders, D’Alema  and Bersani, who came from the PCI (Italian Communist Party), and were founders of other parties from the same background, until finally forming the Democratic Party, announced that they were leaving the Democratic Party (PD). They have since helped create the ‘Movement of Democrats and Progressives’ or DP.

Renzi has to call a congress of the Democratic Party before the general election (which will probably be held by the beginning of next year). He will have to fight against Michele Emiliano, Governor of the region of Puglia, but also against Andrea Orlando, the current Justice Minister, for the leadership of the PD and prime ministership. His project of going to a general election, immediately, in order to secure the loyalty of as many members of the Democratic Party, as possible, by getting them reconfirmed, and then go to the party Congress, has been completely scuppered. The Constitutional Court has rejected the election law established by his government which Renzi had called “the most beautiful electoral law in the world that all other countries would copy “!

At the same time, it was clear that neither the president of the republic, Mattarella, nor Renzi’s strongest ally, Dario Franceschini, the minister of culture and old Christian Democrat closely tied to Mattarella, would have appreciated that, once again, a PD-led government (of Gentiloni), would be brought down by the PD itself. (This was what Renzi did in 2014 to the government of Enrico Letta, a few days after having made the famous reassuring tweet : ‘Don’t worry, Enrico! ‘).

It is not improbable that Franceschini, the well-known back-stabber, will decide in the end to side with Orlando and put an end to the political career of Renzi. All the more so because the former premier also risks being involved by a judicial inquiry, involving his father and his right-hand man, the Minister of Sport, Lotti.

In the space of a few weeks the rising star of Italian politics proved to be a falling star, as was entirely predictable given everything else. In January 2014, immediately after Renzi had become prime minister, we wrote: “Every gram of expectations that Renzi has aroused is a nail that holds him to doing what his predecessor Letta did not do, with all the spotlights trained on him and without holding in his hand one single more card. He will just have to make do with his own ‘charisma ‘, with the ‘fan base’ of an Italian bourgeoisie which has decided to support him thinking – like Agnelli in 1994 in relation to Berlusconi – ‘if he wins we all win, if he loses, only he has lost’ and with a PD that, more or less, thinks the same way.”  Things have turned out just like that.

Background of continued economic crisis

The crisis of the PD is also the fruit of the failure of the economic policy of the Renzi government. Unemployment remains at 12% (for youth, 38%). The end of the fiscal incentives for taking on workers spoken of in the ‘Jobs Act’ has brought to an end the job creation that Renzi had used as a propaganda weapon for two years. The attempt to deregulate the taxi sector and delivery services in February sparked protests by thousands of people, blockading the parliament in Rome where paper bombs were fired and the city brought to a halt for a whole day, forcing the government to withdraw the proposals opposed by the demonstrators.

In Naples, the tram-workers went on strike for five days against a plan to cut public transport.

The Gentiloni government has had to cancel the ‘working for vouchers’ plan which was introduced 15 years ago but was greatly strengthened by Renzi in order to avoid a new defeat in the referendum promised by the CGIL union federation which would have to have been called in May. In total, in the absence of a general mobilisation, sections of the working class and the middle layers were  beginning to get fed up and entered into defensive, but extremely combative, struggles which, this time, thay have managed to win.

The crisis in society has not spared the two principal competitors of the Democratic Party either – the centre-right and the Five Star Movement (M5S). The advance of so-called ‘populism’ on a world scale (Brexit, Trump, Le Pen) strengthens the leadership of Salvini (Lega Nord) at the expense of Berlusconi who is already overcooked. But obviously, Italy is not France. With Salvini as candidate for prime minister, the centre-right would be destined to lose. The League, which is trying to transform itself from a party of the North to a party ‘ of the nation ‘, is in fact present in only a third of the country and the racist and anti-euro positions of its boss are frightening the more moderate and Catholic elements of the centre-right.

Berlusconi, who at the moment cannot be nominated because he has been found guilty in the Italian courts, is waiting for the outcome of an appeal to the European Court of Justice to see if he can ‘enter the fray’ once again. But it is clear that Salvini would have difficulty accepting his leadership and that he could run as an alternative to Berlusconi, with a  part of Forza Italia (the party of Berlusconi) even deciding to break with the old millionaire and follow him.

Problems of Five Star Movement

Even the M5S seems to have begun its parabolic descent. In Rome the head of the local authority’s personnel, the right arm of the mayor, Raggi, has been arrested for corruption. In February, the ruling group approved a project for building a new stadium – a massive speculative construction scheme agreed three years ago by the Democratic Party administration. But this has now caused the resignation of the member responsible for town planning – the third to resign in eight months. It appears increasingly clear that cliques of dealmakers linked to the underworld are infiltrating the new administration, which has to turn to dubious characters because it is not able to run the bureaucracy of the municipality alone.

In January the ‘ boss’ of the 5 Star Movement, the comedian Grillo, announced on his blog that the MEPs of his movement will join the ALDE group – the most neo-liberal and pro-European in Brussels – and launched a consultation on the web the next day to get the green light from the movement’s membership.

Some of the members of parliament expressed their opposition to a choice of which they knew nothing and that would lead the M5S to deny its own past. A few days later, ALDE backtracks and rejected Grillo’s request to join, and he is forced to return to Farage and ask him to be readmitted to the group with UKIP in it.

More generally, there is a crisis due to the emergence of conflicts that have always been present within this heterogeneous movement, which lacks a political line of principle on the main issues. In Genoa almost 2,000 employees of the AMIU (waste) Group have been mobilising and are forcing the City Council to reject the privatisation of their company (thanks also to a vote of the M5S). But in the meantime news is coming out that the leader of the municipality who handled the negotiations for the sale of AMIU, after leaving Genoa, could be taken on in Rome by Mayor Raggi on the recommendation of Grillo’s accountant. (In fact it happened just a few weeks later.)

In Genoa a clash inside the M5S for nominations for the upcoming municipal elections has resulted in the splitting away of three local councillors (out of five) and of a regional councillor. These conflicts and mini splits reflect a more general political failure: the enormous expectations raised by the victories in local elections in June in Rome and Turin have been replaced by a feeling, even among voters of the 5 Star movement, that in reality everything is staying the same as before.

In February ControCorrente published interviews with two transport trade unionists in Genoa and Turin, asking them to take stock of the first seven months of government by the 5 Star Movement(M5S) and the answer to both was: “Many words, little action!”. Polls say that after the split in the PD, M5S has come back as the first Italian party and for some time might survive its crisis, but it is still there and threatens the future of the movement.


In any case the conclusions made on the basis of current polls, assuming that the electoral law remains that of Renzi, as amended by the Constitutional Court, tell us that parliament is so fragmented that no coalition would be able to have the majority needed to govern. For this reason amongst many, indeed all, they are calling for a new election law, but it is very difficult to imagine that the parties will be able to reach an agreement. In short, there is a loss of control without precedent, which only confirms the crisis of the Italian ruling classes.

Also on the left there are large manoeuvres going on. There has been the split of the Democratic Party, the founding congress of Sinistra Italiana (‘Italian Left’) issuing from the fusion of SEL (the party of Nichi Vendola) and a group of parliamentarians that left the PD in 2015 and the initiative of Pisapia, the former Mayor of Milan, launching yet another attempt to unify the left by proposing the umpteenth alliance of the Left with the Democratic Party.

On the other hand, the same D’Alema and Bersani have made it clear that their objective is to collect the votes of the many voters who are fed up with the PD to support a new centre-left of which the very same PD would be the first party! Every attempt at unification then ends up in a new division.

Genuine new force needed

At the Congress of Sinistra Italiana, 17 MPs (out of 31) of the SEL announced that they will leave the SI to give birth to new parliamentary groups with the break-aways from the Democratic Party and collaborate with Pisapia. As a result in these new parliamentary groups will be former PD members who in the last three years have supported Renzi, then Gentiloni and former SEL members who in the same years were in the opposition! So this is tactical repositioning unrelated to any dynamic in the class struggle, only in order to recapture a few of votes in support of old, failed policies.

In Genoa, we have shown instead that the only way to rebuild a left is to take to the field of workers ‘ struggles against those policies. A small group of trade union activists, born out of the five days of ‘wild’ strike action in the public services in 2013, has, in three years, become an alternative point of reference to the CGIL, CISL and UIL union federations. They were able to mobilise their colleagues, to separate the union and force a part of it to support the struggle. And this forced the City Council to reject a resolution that seemed destined for easy approval. These workers have put an end to the political career of the Mayor (who was near the SEL and Sinistra Italiana), who has announced he will not stand as a candidate in municipal elections in June.

For the first time in ten years, they have managed to block, at least temporarily, the privatisation of a large Italian public company. This means they have done more than left and far-left parties and small parties have managed to do in five years!

An editorial in Repubblica accused ControCorrrente of being responsible for this “defeat of the left and of the Democratic Party, the only democratic bulwark against the advance of populism and of Italian Trumpism”. And this is the best recognition of the effectiveness of a generalised political input and method of intervention: the class struggle wins out against parliamentary cretinism.


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March 2017