• The Italian Vote and the Problem of a New Left Political Entity

  • By Alfonso Gianni | 17 Nov 14 | Posted under: Italy , Elections , The Left
  • The results of the recent European Parliament elections raise more questions than they answer. Almost all opinion polls and forecasts, even those based on refined socio-political analyses, have shown that people in Italy feel extremely alienated from political reality.

    The Italian vote is analogous to that in the rest of Europe, but there are also significant differences: Mainly, fewer people voted in Italy compared to the European average indicating that abstentionism has generally been halted for the first time. If one does not keep the low turnout in mind, one risks overestimating the Democratic Party’s (Partito Democratico – PD) approval level: 27,448,000 votes were cast, a total that represents 54.2 per cent of eligible voters, well under the 60.8 per cent of the last European elections in 2009 and the 69.5 per cent of the national elections of just a year ago. For the first time in Italy, in elections of general interest, voter participation has dropped below 60 per cent. Even considering that, exceptionally, the polls were only open for a single day, the drop is still quite significant.

    The surprising leap in the PD’s percentage – unpredictable and in fact not predicted – is in large part due to this rise in abstention; if absentee voters had not syphoned off votes from other parties, the PD’s 2,255,000 votes, though respectable, would not have represented 41 per cent but 31 percent, a full ten points less. The PD did score a success, no doubt, but that success should be evaluated in the context of the impressive loss of votes – around 9,800,000 – suffered by all other parties. If the percentages were to be calculated not based on the actual valid votes cast but on the electorate (that is, those having the right to vote), the context would obviously be very different. Calculated in this way, the PD’s votes would be tantamount to 22 per cent of the electors, more than the 18 per cent of its votes in 2013 but less than the 25 per cent of 2008.

    Ilvo Diamanti, the well-known expert on electoral trends, has concluded that by now abstentionism needs to be understood as a non-voter’s vote, that is, as a conscious and willed expression of political opposition without adequate representation. However, the current election results challenge this hypothesis, precisely because the PD ran as the main party in the government. The PD should, therefore, have generated the greatest degree of popular rage or been the principal victim of what has been called antipolitics. Instead, exactly the reverse happened.

    The biggest loser in absolute terms, and especially in relation to political expectations, on the eve of the vote was the Five-Star Movement (the movement founded by Beppe Grillo). Contrary to what many of its critics hastened to declare, this defeat is far from signalling the early demise of this movement, as was shown by its next significant victory in a ballot held in one of the cities that symbolises the left: Leghorn. Still, it is clear that the 25 May defeat was a serious one for Grillo. Although sizable portions of Five-Star voters also turned to the PD, they mainly fed abstentionism – as did those lost by the centre-right coalition, the Popolo della Liberta (PdL). No significant voter migration occurred between the PdL and the PD.

    And this brings us to the vote for the Tsipras List. It was a success in terms of the reversal of the negative tendencies in the last two national elections, in which the two radical left coalitions – Sinistra Arcobaleno in 2008 and Rivoluzione Civile in 2013 – were defeated. It is rather less of a success if we examine the quantity and quality of the votes in their concrete reality. There were 1,103,203 of them. Taking account, as we inevitably must, of the organised political forces that supported this citizens’ list, there were a half million less votes for the radical left coalition than in the national political elections of the preceding year. Many of these votes went to the PD, attracted by the mirage of the ‘useful vote’. Others fed abstention. The best results were in the north, with a disturbing loss in the south, in particular in Puglia where the left’s votes were halved. The good results were concentrated in cities. Although the urban vote cannot be entirely assimilated to the category of the thinking middle strata (which in any case are in an advanced stage of proletarianisation) and is something more than the typical issues-oriented vote, from the social point of view it does point to an educated electorate.

    The vote for the Tsipras List also showed a significant component of activist faithfulness, however much this has atrophied due to the poor state of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) and of Sinistra-Ecologia-Liberta (SEL), the former being limited for some time now to the most minimal numbers, the latter in a freefall in the months preceding the vote. However, what is most important is the share of the youth vote. According to IPSOS, 21 per cent of voters for the Tsipras List are less than 24 years old, 39 per cent less than 34, and 8 per cent are secondary school voters. A good investment for the near future, one could justifiably say.

    The numbers for the Tsipras List strongly suggest not only that none of the two micro-parties would have passed the electoral threshold alone, but that not even the sum of the two would have resulted in reasonable electoral numbers. This is also confirmed by the regional elections that coincided with the European election in some places. For all of its defects, and they were enormous, the List’s underlying project has been successful. Without it the left would have disappeared from the ballots. In sum, without descending into dangerous self-congratulation, the project consisted in the intention to not be oriented to the component parties, basing itself instead on high­profile intellectuals with explicit reference made to Tsipras and the anti­austerity struggle. Its programme was based on a solid critical Europeanism. The campaign – though not without a touch of hauteur – refused to treat the European Parliament election as if it were a national election. The micro-parties were not excluded; their cooperation was accepted, sought, and valued, above all in the first phase of collecting signatures for getting the List on the ballot, which required organisational capacities and traditions that a new list without the parties could not have provided, much less in the short time available.

    The construction of this List, as well as the rather less attractive debate that followed around the make-up of the parliamentary delegation, was neither easy nor painless for the organised forces that supported it. Its existence ignited a clarification process within SEL, whose results are still unclear. SEL’s second congress, held at the end of January 2014, began very differently from the way it ended. The congress debate profoundly altered the party’s initial position, and the majority was won for the Tsipras List, relegating the neutral position between Tsipras and Schulz to the statements of a few leaders.

    Even if less evident, a debate has opened up in the PRC, too, which had been incubating for some time, on the fate of the party itself. Because of its decision not to support the List, the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI) has suffered some defections. In addition, explicit declarations of support for the Tsipras List came from parliamentary deputies elected as Five-Star-Movement candidates but who had broken with Grillo. Considering the very narrow margin – a little more than 8,000 votes – with which the List passed the unfair electoral threshold, even small tremors among the potentially left electorate, which on other occasions would be negligible, were decisive for the List’s good showing in the end.

    This good showing, incontrovertible if the objective results are looked at, makes all the more incomprehensible that sort of longing for dissolution that seems to have taken hold of the List following the more than discussable rethinking Barbara Spinelli did on accepting a possible parliamentary seat. I do not intend to take up the question again here – which I have already publicly called a serious error, not only on the part of Spinelli but also the List’s guarantors. I only want to point out that the sense of defeat was and is so deep among the left population – they have to be called this even if their numbers are rather small – that it could not be reversed even by an electoral response that in terms of the timeframe and ways in which it was built is nothing short of miraculous.

    Still, what has been said so far is already enough to confirm that a hoped for side effect – which for the future is really the most important thing – of the List’s electoral success if not achieved has at least got off to a good start: Right now we are no longer facing the decomposition of the left, even if it is possible to return there, seeing as the ‘little family store’ mentality – on the part of everyone – has been felt even in the recent electoral campaign and in the succeeding debate. Now we can work concretely to open up a constituent phase for a new political party of the left.

    Clearly, every European country needs to construct such a political entity as a point of reference for debate and decision-making in common battles and initiatives to be conducted on a supra-national scale, such as the Party of the European Left can. The reinforcement and renewal of the European Parliament’s radical left grouping (GUE-NGL) in terms of politics and ideas, resulting from the protagonist role that Tsipras and Syriza have played, can also help in situations which by comparison are very backward. And among these we have to include Italy, the Mediterranean country in which the left is weakest and must fear for its survival. But only we can carry out the constituent process of constructing a new political party of the left. What is more, it is doubtful that we can look to a model for inspiration. Obviously, I am not speaking of the past but of the present. We often hear people say ‘let’s create an Italian Syriza’, or ‘let’s do like Podemos’. The sincere spirit of unity that comes through in these statements, the wish to question oneself and start almost as if from the beginning on an exciting new adventure, is clear and very positive. But also too naive. We have to resign ourselves to the fact that models only become valid ex post, never ex ante. Certainly, experience resulting from visible errors, above all one’s own, could, if there is the intellectual courage to confront them, be useful in avoiding the path just taken from being buried. But not even this is enough to trace a road map. Every route can only be original, thought through, and projected on the basis of the concrete conditions in which one is moving.

    In the assembly of the Tsipras List’s regional committees held in Rome on 7 June, the expression ‘social coalition’ kept resonating, often accompanied by ‘political coalition’. Explicit reference was made to these concepts both by Marco Revelli and Stefano Rodotà, among others. Both of them, and this is an important point, are motivated to wage counter critique of the insincere and specious criticism made of the Tsipras List, above all by some PD milieus, that it is an operation created by ‘big professors’. This conveys the typical contempt for culture on the part of the powerful, or of those who aspire to being such, which has tragic and well-known historical precedents, especially in the extreme-right camp, but not only, since Stalinism, as a system of power, shared this contempt. In reality the drama of the left exploded when it wanted to separate culture from politics, through a twofold and simultaneous operation: make the former sterile and technicise the latter. The aspect of the autonomy of politics which we first have to combat is autonomy from culture, understood as the entirety of diffused knowledge and not as a deposit, access to which is limited to a few chosen illuminati. Perhaps it is enough simply to take up Gramsci’s writings. But unfortunately people do so everywhere except in our country, save some laudable exceptions.

    We must finally take cognizance of the end of the autonomy of the political, if it ever did exist, and at the same time of the autonomy of the social, since the two levels are interrelated and neither exists in a pure state.

    At bottom, it is the end of this separation, which in any case is more conceptual than real, that has determined Podemos’ success in Spain and its transformation into a political movement. And it has had a positive influence on the experience of the Tsipras List in Italy – in this case in limited ways and with limited effect due to the pre-existent and persistent history of divisions, often reaching heights beyond the ridiculous, which has studded the experience of Italy’s radical left since its inception. To act on a territory like Italy that is neither virgin nor reclaimed is doubtless much more difficult but not impossible.

    Paradoxically, we can get a boost from Renzi’s scheme of forming a political force that goes well beyond the majoritarian party launched by Walter Veltroni. Renzi’s model is that of a catch all party, as many have already observed, a party-government (the updated and modernist version of the party-state in the worst tradition of actually-existing socialism), a party that identifies with and is stimulated by established power, which therefore must preserve itself at all costs. It may do this at times with electoral laws that crush any substance that delegated democracy has (and which makes us yearn for the return of the ‘fraud-law’ of the 1950s, in which at least a majority bonus was granted to those who had already won it in the field), at times by inserting some redistributive element into the most aggressive neoliberalism in order to garner popular consensus.

    To this party of established power we need to oppose a party, in progress, of constituent power working on behalf of society’s weakest members. It is a process on the cultural, political, and social level, seamless and without rigid distinctions, not even in the individual biographies of its protagonists, that constructs a new political space, also made up of concrete ‘fortresses and earthworks’ [of civil society, Eds] (Gramsci). This party must manage to be simultaneously a political coalition and a social coalition, resulting from the convergence and cross-fertilisation of intellectual political experiences and of new movements capable of separating themselves from their own past without recantations, though with substantial rethinking of theory and practice.

    It is a difficult course, one that has already led to failure at other times, and is therefore ripe for new disappointments. The electoral affirmation of the Tsipras List and the new size of the European radical left can furnish the anchors and the strength that have up to now been lacking. For this we should not miss the opportunity to expand and provide coalition experiences in the most participatory way possible and starting right now – with great attention paid to horizontal principles of political and human relations, to the need for being rooted socially, at the same time taking great care with the places and moments of the formation of an alternative political-programmatic thinking.

    And we should pay great attention to that combination of women and men who gave us confidence and have filled us with questions through their vote and their participation in an electoral campaign without any resources other than ideas, passions, and the will to make the left live.

    translated by Eric Canepa

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