Italy’s fractured centre-left leaves door open for Meloni election win

Breakdown in alliance and ‘soap opera’ rows give clear advantage to rightwing coalition

The political alliance between two of Italy’s most prominent politicians was sealed with smiles, handshakes and a kiss for the camera. It lasted less than a week.

Enrico Letta, of Italy’s centre-left Democratic party (PD), and reformist Carlo Calenda of the pro-European Action party had publicly pledged to fight Italy’s upcoming snap election together. The pact was touted as giving the centre-left a fighting chance against a rightwing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy by winning support from voters wary of the far right.

But five days after it was unveiled this month, the alliance broke down. On TV, Calenda said he had changed his mind, blaming Letta and the PD for overtures to two small leftwing parties.

“Twist in the soap-opera of the centre-left,” Meloni scoffed on Twitter. “Calenda no longer marries Letta. Perhaps he runs away with [centrist former prime minister Matteo] Renzi. Letta ditched on the altar thinks of his old love [Five Star leader Giuseppe] Conte.”

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The PD’s shortlived tie-up with Calenda reflects the crisis of Italy’s centre-left as it heads towards the September 25th elections.

Centre-left parties were caught off guard, and deeply riven, by last month’s sudden implosion of prime minister Mario Draghi’s government, of which the PD was among the most enthusiastic, committed supporters. Letta has said that Draghi’s government – still highly popular among Italians when it collapsed – had been making important progress in tackling some of the country’s challenges.

In the current campaign, the PD has vowed to carry on with the reformist policies – or what it describes as the “Draghi agenda” – that have been admired by Italy’s European allies and global financial markets.

But while polls suggest the PD is almost as popular as Brothers of Italy, it has failed to forge a broad electoral coalition to compete effectively against the rightwing block of Meloni, Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

“It’s a mess,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “With all these splits and divisions, the left is not competitive.”

The centre-left’s disarray will have a decisive impact on the 37 per cent of parliamentary seats won through first-past-the-post races in geographic constituencies. Analysts forecast that centre-right candidates will secure at least 75 per cent of those seats against multiple squabbling ideological rivals.

“You have one front, which is united – the right – and another front that is way more fractured,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, founding partner of YouTrend, a political polling firm. “Having the centre-left basically divided into three different coalitions puts the right in a very favourable position.”

That advantage in first-past-the-post seats is expected to help secure the right – which polls suggest is favoured by about 45 per cent of voters – a clear majority in the new parliament, when added to the seats allocated according to share of the vote. Pregliasco said the centre-right was likely to secure around 60 per cent of the total parliament seats.

While that is shy of the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution, it would nevertheless be “a super majority the size of which we haven’t seen for a political government in the last three decades”, he said.

Until last month’s political crisis, the PD was expected to go into Italy’s next general elections allied with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing parliament. But after Five Star’s role in triggering the political crisis that culminated in the implosion of Draghi’s government, Letta ruled out a tie-up.

“The PD cannot say ‘We are going to run the election with the party that caused the downfall of Mr Draghi’,’” said D’Alimonte.

Instead, the PD tried to tack towards the centre and Calenda, a former economic development minister and another Draghi loyalist, hoping to woo moderates dismayed by Draghi’s downfall. “It was a useful alliance ... it would give the signal to voters that even moderate, centrist liberal parties were joining this alternative to the right,” Pregliasco said of the PD-Calenda union.

Voters would have received such an alliance as a “more competitive” alternative to the Meloni-led bloc, Pregliasco said.

But the strategy faltered after Calenda rebelled – a problem that analysts attributed to mistakes by Letta in the coalition-building process.

“The PD could not make up its mind about allying between the far left or the centre,” D’Alimonte said. “Letta thought he could ally himself with Calenda and the far left ... He messed things up.”

Since then, the centrists and leftists have spent nearly as much time publicly attacking each other as their rightwing ideological rivals. Calenda, as forecast by Meloni, has tied up with Renzi’s small Italia Viva party to create a tiny centrist alliance that polls suggest could garner around 5 per cent of the total vote.

Analysts said that even if the PD had managed to build meaningful alliances, it was unlikely to have prevented a conservative victory given Meloni’s surging popularity – but could have pared the right’s majority in parliament.

Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the UK’s University of Surrey, said Letta’s refusal to reconsider its position on co-operating with Five Star, which is expected to garner around 10 per cent of the vote, suggested the PD had reconciled itself to the inevitability of a rightwing victory.

“The PD have decided that it’s okay to lose this time around – and they want to come out as a good loser,” Albertazzi said. “The other side will do whatever they need to do to win and this side is not. The data is very clear: unless there is some kind of miracle, there is no way they are going to win.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022