The italian centre-left begins its rebuilding process

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After the umpteenth electoral debacle of the Italian centre-left in a general election (let us remember that the only time it achieved an acceptable level of support was in the February 2013 elections under Pierluigi Bersani, who due to his sectarian refusal to agree on a name with the President of the Republic with Forza Italia ended up being left without an "incarico" to form a government after having been shot down by the so-called "snipers"), a new congress has been called for February 2023, which should produce the new Secretary General for this recently begun legislature and, in principle, the future candidate for the next general elections, which should be held in September 2027 if the legislature, as happened in the previous one (the XVIII), does not end prematurely (it was extended for a period of four and a half years, as opposed to the maximum established by the 1948 Constitution).

The candidacies are now official because the deadline for presenting them ended last November and, from here on, the electoral campaign begins to find a person who will help it rise from the pyrrhic 19% of the vote harvested in the last "political" elections in September and lead it, if not to power, then at least to the possibility of winning it, at least to the possibility of making a pact with one or more parties that will give him the "maggioranza" necessary to govern, as happened in the XVIII Legislature, in which thanks to a split from Forza Italia (the Nuovo Centrodestra of Alfano, a Sicilian who is now retired from politics) he was able to have three consecutive governments: the one headed by Letta (April 2013-February 2014), the one led by Renzi (February 2014-December 2016) and, finally, the one that had as President of the Council of Ministers between December 2016 and May 2018 the current Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni. Let us also remember that the PD was present in the only Five Star-PD-Italia Viva government (September 2019-February 2021) and was also part of the "maggioranza" that supported the Draghi government (February 2021-October 2022).

Thus, the three candidates who will be competing for the vote are clearly differentiated and it seems clear that they are looking for a different type of vote. All this within an unavoidable reality: the eurozone's third largest economy is ageing fast (at the moment only nine of the sixty million people in the transalpine population are under 18 years of age) and this tends to benefit the conservative vote, which is the one that supports the centre-right (at the moment formed by the Brothers of Italy, Forza Italia and the Lega). So, whoever the winner of these primaries is, he or she will be faced with the need for the current legislature to leave the centre-right too worn down (which is beginning to happen because of the war in Ukraine and the resulting skyrocketing cost of living) to have a chance of regaining control of the presidency of the Council of Ministers. 

It is true that Forza Italia is reluctantly supporting the Meloni government (it will not forgive him for his demand, not granted, to receive the Ministry of Justice for Licia Ronzulli), and that Salvini is also on the lookout because he knows that this is his last chance to become "premier", but the problem for both is that Meloni, who does count on Noi Moderna, has no chance of winning the presidency, who does count on former minister Maurizio Lupi's Noi moderati and is working to gain the support of other parties (the clearest case is Renzi and Calenda's Terzo Polo), is trying to widen the parliamentary "maggioranza" as much as possible because he does not trust either Forza Italia or the Lega at all. In any case, the new government took office on 22 October and is preparing to approve its first General State Budget (PGE), while Meloni is trying to strengthen his position within the European institutions, recalling the validity of the Quirinal Treaty signed by Mario Draghi and the French President (Macron) in the autumn of 2021.

But let us return to the PD primaries, a real leader-crusher: Matteo Renzi, who won in 2013 and 2017 (in both cases with 70% of the votes), knows this well, as does Nicola Zingaretti (winner in March 2019 with 65% of the votes). Because the reality is that, if a candidate wins the primaries, the rest of the party will wage what Renzi called "internal war". This has its consequences when it comes to each general election, as the leader gives an image of a weakened person and a lack of support among a substantial part of the leadership.

Certainly, by far the strongest candidate is Bonaccini, the current governor of the country's main "terra rossa": Emilia-Romagna. Born in 1967, he belongs to the same generation as Zingaretti, but he has in his favour the fact that he was the only one capable of beating Matteo Salvini when the latter was winning one after the other (Sardinia, Abruzzo, Basilicata, etc.) all the elections for the government of the region between May 2018 and January 2020. Until the time came to elect the Secretary General of Emilia-Romagna in the last weekend of January 2020: Salvini was already looking like a winner with his candidate (the current senator Lucia Borgonzoni), but in the end Bonaccini beat Salvini by 50% to 43% of the votes. Bonaccini was not contesting his election, but his re-election, which means that he has now been at the helm of the Emilia-Romagna region for eight years.

Bonaccini is a solid man, well known in the party, supported by the other centre-left governors (such as Giani, Zingaretti and Emiliano), and who would have more capacity to make a pact with the centre-right, because his friendship with Matteo Renzi is well known and, moreover, most of the members of his candidacy (such as former Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini) are all very close to the current Senator for Campania and co-leader (together with Calenda) of the Terzo Polo. Of course, this reality may also work against him, because a substantial part of the PD base detests Renzi, as does part of the leadership. In any case, his candidacy is by far the strongest and he plays the trump card of being the most popular man within the PD who, on this occasion, is running in these primaries.

Her two rivals will be women. The first is Paola de Micheli, born at the end of 1973, who is trying to play the female vote: since the PD was formed in October 2007, only once (on that very occasion), at the hand of Rosario "Rosy" Bindy, has there been a woman among the three finalists in the primaries. After that, it has been all men (Marino, Civati, Orlando, Emiliano, Giachetti, etc.) who have made the final shortlist of candidates. De Micheli was once Zingaretti's "right-hand woman" (who made her Deputy Secretary General of the PD and Minister of Infrastructure, although she was also a member of the Renzi and Gentiloni governments), but now her relations with Zingaretti (who is currently combining being governor of the Lazio region with being a member of the lower house) are not good and, in practice, she has little support: in reality, one could say that she is "in no man's land". But her status as a woman is no small asset in a party where women MPs have already rebelled against Zingaretti when, when Draghi asked for three names from the PD for his executive, the Roman politician gave him the names of three men and no women, which made them "cry out to heaven", and rightly so.

Finally, the third candidate in the running is Ely Schlein. Born not in Italy but in Italian Switzerland (specifically, in the city of Lugano), she is clearly looking for a generational change, because there have already been general secretaries born in the sixties like Zingaretti and Letta, and now Bonaccini is running, who is from the same generation, and in turn belonging to the generation of the seventies is Matteo Renzi. She is by far the youngest: she was born in the 1980s, in 1985 to be precise. And she is also the one with the least extensive "curriculum", as she was only Vice-President of Emilia-Romagna during Bonaccini's second term, and she is also looking for a very minority vote: the PD's potential voters under 35 years of age probably do not exceed 30-35% of the electorate. But he is going to try, trying to give an image of "freshness" that neither Bonaccini nor De Micheli certainly have.

There are still two months left to find out who will be the new Secretary of the PD. And, most importantly, who plans to form a coalition with the Five Star Movement: Bonaccini certainly won't, but both De Micheli and Schlein surely will. And therein lies a fundamental part of what will happen: a part of the PD (both leaders and potential voters) cannot even see Five Star, while another part considers that the future lies in uniting the strength of both formations. We will see what happens, but whoever wins, he or she risks being the next to go through what we have already called a real "shredder" of leaders in the PD, a formation that is fratricidal by nature. Will there be a woman at the head of this party for the first time, just as there is a woman presiding over the Council of Ministers for the first time? Time will tell, but anything can happen.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Professor of International Relations at Nebrija University and author of Historia de la Italia republicana (Sílex Ediciones, 2021).