Democratic Party (PD). Like the PdL, the PD was formed from a series of splits and mergers.
The PD comes primarily from two, formerly competing, Italian political traditions.
With the end of the Cold War around two thirds of the former Communist Party voted to reconstitute the party as the Democratic Party of the Left, it was then further reconstituted into Democrats of the Left in 1998. These two parties aimed for a more moderate, social democratic party more like the major centre-left parties in other European states.
On the other side the dying Christian Democracy suffered a series of splits and fell apart. The Italian People’s Party, Christian Democracy’s legal successor, The Democrats, formed around the former Christian Democratic academic and cabinet minister Romano Prodi, and Italian Renewal, a joint list of all sorts of orphaned centrists factions and parties from the pre-1994 era gathered together in a coalition called Democracy is Freedom – The Daisy, a political party name designed by committee if ever there was one.
These two parties formed the bulk of what was known as The Olive Tree coalition of parties. The Olive Tree formed the primary opposition to Berlusconi and defeated him in the 1996 general election, in classic Italian style then providing 3 Prime Ministers over the next five years.
The Olive Tree also won the 2006 election, heading up an even larger coalition called L’Unione. Altogether the L’Unione had around 9 parties represented in government.
L’Unione won a small parliamentary majority in 2006 (a majority of 2 in the Senate), and suffered from immense internal contradictions, the coalition ranged from unreconstructed communists through to libertarians, through to socially conservative Christian democrats. This made it incredibly difficult to rule.
The coalition eventually fell in 2008 after the withdrawal of the small Popular-UDEUR party, after its leader was implicated in a corruption scandal.
The PD was long considered to be the natural endpoint of the Olive Tree. The goal was the creation of a single, broad, catch-all centre-left party for Italy. The name was chosen due to the party’s obvious inspiration – the US Democratic Party.
While the PD lost the 2008 election it succeeded in a separate goal, apart from its small and close ally all other parties of the left and centre-left were extinguished from parliament. The Democratic Party had achieved total hegemony on the left.
Yet, the party suffered from some difficulties. The PD is a broad party. On the one hand there are former Social Democrats, who mostly originate from the former Communists. On the other there is the Christian Left, principally originating from the left-leaning factions of Christian Democracy. A smaller faction are the social liberals, often sharply anti-religion who originate from the smaller Italian liberal parties, the Republicans, and to a lesser extent, the Liberal Party.
Like Berlusconi’s party, the PD contains both those with economically leftist and laissez faire economic views and those with socially liberal and socially conservative views (though the mix is slightly different).
There are also disagreements about structure. Those on the left of the party typically view it more as a traditional social democratic party, with close links to the labour movement, if possible. It prizes party membership first and foremost. The right of the party prefers a party more modelled on the US Democratic Party, with open primaries to pick leaders and candidates (in fact the PD always uses primaries to select its leaders).
Arguments about ideology have even stretched to international affiliations. The left of the party wished to affiliate to the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists. The right of the party wished to affiliate to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. In the end a compromise was found whereby the PD would sit in the PES group, but not join PES, leading to the rebranding of the group as the ‘Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats for Europe’, or Socialists and Democrats for short. In reality the ‘Democrats’ in this alliance consists entirely of the PD and the Cypriot third party, the Democratic Party.
Berlusconi’s party has suffered because of similar internal contradictions, but Forza Italia and the PdL have had a strong, charismatic leader to gather around, someone capable of stamping his authority on the party. In contrast, the PD’s leaders (and their predecessors in the Olive Tree) have tended to be rather boring, technocratic sorts.
In power the Italian centre-left has also tended to stress issues such as balanced budgets, state reforms and pro-Europeanism. The PD has gained a rather boring, technocratic appearance, especially when compared to the theatrical style of Berlusconi.
The 2013 election, should, on paper, have been a cakewalk for the party, up as it was against unpopular Berlusconi government which looked even worse than usual due to a mix of a poor economy, further scandal and corruption and governmental instability. In Pier Luigi Bersani the party was led by a man, who while a competent administrator, was a poor leader. A stale ‘old guard’ politician lacking in charisma, Bersani was the type of politician often thrown up by ex-Communist parties at their worst: better at following party rules and lines than leading.
The party also ran a terrible campaign, where it seemed to assume that the best way to win the election was to keep its head down and simply cruise to victory. While the party’s coalition won a majority in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, it only won a plurality in the Senate, forcing it into an embarrassing grand coalition with Berlusconi and for Bersani to eventually resign.
The new coalition was initially headed up by Enrico Letta. In December 2013 Bersani was replaced as leader in a primary election by Matteo Renzi, who had been Bersani’s previous opponent for the leadership.
Renzi, then the Mayor of Florence, could not have been more different to his predecessor. Firstly, at 39, he is notably youthful in a country where politicians skew towards the mature (Berlusconi is 77, Bersani is 62, Letta, is considered to be quite youthful at 47). Secondly, he come from the Christian Democratic wing of his party. Thirdly, he is extremely charismatic, and incredibly energetic.
Renzi had an unusual populist appeal. In Florence he had made a name for himself as a man who took on the elites in his own party, who reduced waste, mismanagement and the size of public administrations. He considers himself a straight talker, and a pragmatist.
Renzi is often compared to Tony Blair (an identification he somewhat encourages). Like Blair there have been concerns about his supposed leftism, but he points to his municipal record which was strong on environmentalism, feminism (his administration had more women than men in it by the end), investments in new technologies and promotion of culture.
Yet, it is certainly true that he backs some economically liberal stances, and he is more centrist economically than his predecessors, though Renzi would argue that his policies of tax cuts for employees, cuts in public administration, financial support for SMEs, labour market flexibility, and financial incentives for investors are simply long-needed reforms not implemented by governments of either left or right.
Renzi set into motion Letta’s retirement and became Prime Minister on the 22nd of February.
The first priority of Renzi’s administration is constitutional and political reform with the hopes of creating a more stable Italian politics. To this end he has signed a deal with Berlusconi. Berlusconi, possibly hoping to destabilise the left, is very complementary about Renzi, saying that he reminds him of himself when he was young.
Renzi’s government is currently enjoying something of a honeymoon period, and the PD is currently polling well off the back of it.
The Democratic Party is, broadly, a very pro-European party, and probably amongst Italy’s most pro-European parties.
Renzi has recently taken the party into the Party of European Socialists, as an apparent sop to his party’s left. Even though the party was, previously, one of the ‘Democrats’ of the Socialists and Democrats it is actually one of the most loyal parties in the entire S&D group. At 98.6% loyalty, it is the sixth most loyal member party. Incidentally, with 23 MEPs, it is also the joint largest party along with Germany’s Social Democrats.