A dynamic new leader of the Democratic party was supposed to stop the rot. But now all of Tuscany may turn blue
When the rightwing mayoral candidate in Lucca sought backing from the former leader of a neofascist movement, rivals on the left thought it would be enough to send a shiver down the spines of voters in the Tuscan city, one of the Italian left’s last strongholds.
They were wrong. After a decade in power, the centre-left Democratic party (PD) was ousted, part of a wave of defeats over the past 12 months that has seen the Italian left’s version of the “red wall” crumble.
In the past month, the rightwing coalition led by prime minister Giorgia Meloni has tightened its grip across Tuscany with fresh victories in Siena, Pisa and Massa.
Mario Pardini, the businessman who became Lucca’s mayor, claimed the key to his success was listening to an electorate long disillusioned by its more distant leftwing governors.
“I went around a lot and spoke to people to find out what mattered to them,” he added. “We had to get the city going, to bring it back to life and be more dynamic.”
However it was the support of Fabio Barsanti, the former leader of CasaPound, a neofascist movement, that was decisive in Pardini’s victory.
Barsanti and his CasaPound militants had long been making inroads in Lucca, a predominantly middle-class provincial capital, and its 33 towns. They used the movement’s trademark benevolent tactic of attending to the neglected poor by paying for their shopping and medical bills. Barsanti’s party, Difendere Lucca (Defend Lucca), brought the alliance an additional 9.5% of the vote.
“Barsanti’s votes not only came from the right but from those who were disappointed with the left,” said Pardini. “At the local level, it’s no longer about left or right – it’s about people.”
Nationally, the PD is currently Italy’s second-largest political force, albeit trailing behind Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist roots, by a wide margin. There was hope when the youthful Elly Schlein promised a “big small revolution” after being elected PD leader in late February. But that revolution is yet to come to pass.
Unlike Siena and Pisa, Lucca is a more “contestable” city, which since the second world war has always veered slightly more towards the right than the left, said Francesco Raspini, the PD candidate who was defeated by Pardini. He blames the previous administration’s failure to adequately communicate its achievements, making it appear like a spent force, for its inability to hold on to power.
“We also had to deal with the pandemic in the last few years,” he said. “The previous mayor didn’t run for election again, so it was very difficult to get a third mandate.”
The PD fears it may now completely lose Tuscany, one of just four out of 20 regional administrations still in leftwing hands, in a vote in 2025 – and it faces an uphill struggle to be seen as a credible opponent to Meloni in time for the next general election.
Schlein has so far failed to unite the party and gain traction with voters, so much so that the mayoral candidate in Vicenza, the only town that the PD managed to seize from the right in a late May runoff, asked her not to campaign alongside him over fears it would cost him votes.
Schlein’s appearance on the front cover of Vogue Italia – her first interview after being elected, during which she admitted to hiring a pricey personal shopper – was also considered a faux pas that only reinforced the image of the PD as being elitist.
At the same time, some PD members are concerned that Schlein – whose socialist, liberal platform champions everything from a minimum wage and green policies to LGBTQ+ rights and migration – is taking the party down a radical path, diminishing its appeal among voters and inviting a similar fate to that of Britain’s Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn.
“Our worst predictions are coming true,” said a source within the party. “The PD needs to renovate and be seen as a serious party of government, but people are no longer convinced.”
In the wake of the local elections defeat, Schlein said opposition parties needed to come together in order to defeat the right, but she has been criticised for her overtures towards Giuseppe Conte’s populist Five Star Movement.
“The meetings with Conte are incomprehensible,” added the source. “Yes, you need an alliance to be more competitive, but Conte should be coming to us and not vice versa.”
Some prominent PD politicians have fled the party since Schlein was elected, including Enrico Borghi, who joined Italia Viva, the centrist party led by Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister and PD leader.
“Schlein was supposed to represent a break from the past, but instead she took the party back 30 years. The Italian left is now going through the Corbyn phase,” said Borghi. “The PD failed to interpret and react to changes in the electorate.
“As seen in the way elections played out in Greece, and what I fear will happen in Spain, each time that a moderate is given a choice between the conservatives and the radical left, the vote usually goes to the right. In this respect, the PD has chosen self-combustion.”
Source: The Guardian