Friendly fire threatens ex-PMs’ bid to rebuild Italy centre-left
Giuseppe Conte, the new leader of Italy’s 5-Star Movement, and Enrico Letta, the new leader of the Democratic Party (PD), intend to work together to restore the country’s divided center-left.
Their issue would be persuading their unwilling companions to accompany them.
The two former prime ministers agree that a coalition of reformed progressive parties is the best option to avert what seems to be a near-certain win for a powerful rightist bloc in an election as early as next year.
“If we want to prevail, we must shape a strong alliance, and the 5-Star Movement, which has grown quite positively to become pro-European, must be a part of it,” Letta said shortly after taking over as PD leader last month. more details
According to sources familiar with both Conte and Letta, they have established a strong bond since their first meeting in Vietnam in 2018.
Both ex-premiers are soft-spoken, bookish Catholics and retired university academics in their mid-50s, and they have a lot in common. Both were deposed by another ex prime minister, the cynical Matteo Renzi.
They also share an adversary in the anti-immigrant firebrand Matteo Salvini, who leads the three-party coalition that is expected to shape the next administration.
Salvini’s election, coupled with that of the far-right Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, will hand Italy the most right-wing, EU-skeptic presidency after World War II, which the 5-Star and PD leaders insist Italy cannot bear.
According to opinion polling, Letta is right that cooperation is the centre-best left’s hope. The right-wing bloc would be invincible under the new electoral structure if its rivals were fragmented. And if they merge, the right will continue to dominate, but the race will be more competitive.
Conte, the country’s most successful political chief, led Italy during the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis until being deposed by coalition infighting in January.
Furthermore, an Ipsos poll conducted on March 30 found that more citizens will support a coalition led by him and Letta than one led by Salvini and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni.
Although a Conte-Letta alliance might be common among 5-Star and PD voters, it faces stiff opposition within their respective parliamentary parties, who see themselves as emerging from somewhat different political traditions.
Conte, who has never been a member of a political group, decided to take over 5-Star at the behest of its president, 72-year-old retired comic Beppe Grillo. more details
Support for Grillo’s creation had waned after it won the last election in 2018 as an environmentally conscious, euroskeptic opposition group. more details
Almost simultaneously, Letta decided to lead the conservative, left-leaning PD, whose previous leader had just quit, citing “ashamed” by the party’s constant infighting.
Conte vowed to “refound” the campaign in a shake-up that goes way beyond “re-stying or strategic messaging” in a video conference with 5-Star lawmakers after embracing its leadership.
He provided no information, however, and his arrival seems to have exacerbated tensions in a group still divided about its decision to enter the national unity government led by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.
“He intends to build something somewhat close to the PD but somewhat different from our roots, another conservative center-left faction with a little more focus on ecology and anti-corruption,” said Raphael Raduzzi, a 5-Star dissident legislator.
Raduzzi is one of dozens of dissidents who have been kicked out of 5-Star’s parliamentary party for refusing to support Draghi. These hardliners are concerned that Conte would transform their faction, which used to oppose all partnerships, into a pawn of the PD.
Meanwhile, a simultaneous struggle is underway for ownership of 5-Star’s internet site, a critical decision-making instrument owing to the party’s historical dedication to direct democracy.
“I guess he’s just now seeing what a mess he’s inherited,” Raduzzi said.
‘PREJUDICE AND SUSPICION’
Letta’s challenges are less apparent, but under the surface, his PD is torn about the possibility of marrying the campaign that used to denounce it as the arch-representative of a bloated elite.
The PD’s economics leader, Antonio Misiani, supports a coalition but is concerned about 5-Star’s demand for further state involvement in the economy and its anti-corruption campaign, which risks overriding defendants’ interests.
“There is a lot of resistance in both parties,” he said, “but if Conte’s leadership takes hold, it will help to transcend the PD’s mistrust and bias against 5-Star.”
Conte’s mild, autonomous experience reassures those in the PD, but this is just what scares 5-Star stalwarts.
Conte has had more behind-the-scenes meetings with PD figures than with 5-Star figures since becoming 5-Star boss, according to a former 5-Star minister who did not want to be identified.
According to this party veteran, Conte is a strong mediator who cannot be trusted to protect 5-Star’s positions “on the climate, the legal system, the currency, or something.”
Conte and Letta, well informed of the challenges ahead, kept their first conference as party representatives, in Rome, so low-key that neither carried a photographer.
“At the end, they requested the building’s doorman to take a snap,” a source close to Letta said. This is the only image of what they think would be a watershed moment in Italian politics.