Is there any political logic in what is shaping up to be a constant and exhausting pendulum swing in relations between the PD and M5S? And how long can it go on? “Forced to cooperate, destined to compete,” as Mario Ricciardi wrote in this newspaper.
The dilemma stems from some objective difficulties with causes that go a long way back. Why, indeed, does Conte shun any binding commitment whenever anybody asks him about the prospect of some form of organic alliance with the PD? I think the answer is to be sought with an assessment of the distinguishing traits of the current and potential M5S voters. At this point, these are mostly former leftist voters who have reached the point of a radical break with the PD over the past decade. And that is not the kind of rupture that can be healed easily. The distrust is very deep-seated.
It should be added that the M5S is truly a post-ideological party, with all the freedom of movement that comes with it, accentuated by the strong personal traits of its leadership: its profile is defined by a number of identity markers, but not by a governing strategy based on a comprehensive vision. This is the reason for its sometimes-ambiguous positioning, which signals its autonomy on certain issues (and consistency with past choices doesn’t carry much weight). Rather than competing with the PD to peel voters away from it, Conte first and foremost wants to keep his own voters – who, moreover, have a particularly low level of loyalty, as shown by the local elections.
However, on the issue of electoral competition, let’s be clear: all analyses agree that the social, cultural, and territorial characteristics of the M5S and PD electorates are profoundly different, overlapping only to a small extent. Viewed from a long-term perspective, the polls show only marginal shifts in recent months. And the same is true for the PD. Elly Schlein’s critics are accusing her of being overly pliable – but, as we’ve mentioned, coming as close as possible to unity is really the only way to speak to that share of M5S voters who are open to the idea of a political alliance on the left. And perhaps to try to move them, if the M5S shows itself too reluctant. Do the critics think that an aggressive response from her would bring some kind of benefit to the PD? It would only perpetuate the suicidal attitude of past years, when the contemptuous way of dealing with the M5S (dismissed as political “runaways”) only reinforced the hostility of these former left-wing voters to the “reformist” and “institutional” version of the PD (the same one to which some would like to return today, in another example of a suicidal attitude).
However, looking at certain controversial statements (such as on Trump, or on migrants), one might ponder whether Conte is cultivating an illusion: that the M5S could return to describing itself as a transversal force, gathering voters from all parts of the political spectrum (like the M5S of 2013, but already mostly gone by 2018, when the party benefited mainly from the flight from Renzism).
This return to the roots is no longer possible, and Conte would do well to take note: the PD-M5S government marked a watershed. Since then, the perception of the M5S has changed, and its relative resilience in the 2022 elections also stems from this new positioning.
On the one hand, the PD is forced to seek cooperation because its headroom for electoral expansion in the short-to-medium term is quite small (Prodi did well in a recent speech to recall the six million votes it lost on the way: a mass exodus, a structural downsizing of the social base of the party, which only a radical renewal and lengthy work could be able to remedy to some extent). The M5S, on the other hand, can certainly signal its autonomy on certain issues, but at some point it will have to explain to its voters what use it intends to make of the support that it could gather for the purpose of governing the country.
This knotty issue will have to be untangled sooner or later. In the meantime, what we can expect in the coming months, until the elections and perhaps beyond, is a kind of competition and/or emulation, hopefully with low polemical intensity, aiming at least to recover absentee voters. In the short term, there can be no “organic” alliance, but there will be no break either.
What we need to loudly demand, from all opposition forces, is that they identify some other common ground for engagement, clearly and decisively: in particular, regarding institutional policies.
Many have said, including in this newspaper, that we cannot merely play catch-up with the government. Well, there is one issue on which it is really possible to build a full-bodies alternative proposal, supported by a very broad front, including Calenda: looking at reforms that would be fully and rigorously inspired by the German model, both for the form of government and (this might be the novelty) for a proportional electoral law. It seems that convergence would be possible on this point.
What are we waiting for to start talking about this openly, in the face of the simultaneously disturbing and shambolic spectacle coming from the majority?