It’s not an easy task to analyze the prospects of the opposition to the Meloni government. Italy doesn’t have a two-party system, or one in which there is one political formation which, by virtue of superior numbers and clarity of ideas, has a dominant role among the group of parties that are not part of the majority. The two main forces sitting on the opposition benches, the PD and M5S, are potentially in competition, even when they (occasionally) cooperate.
This situation doesn’t arise from the electoral system alone. There are also factors tied to political culture that make building a true coalition problematic. While the PD has been a late 20th-century party undergoing an identity crisis for years now – divided between those who would like to position themselves decisively on the left, following the example of the Spanish Socialists, and those who instead are harboring nostalgia for the Third Way and New Labour – the Five Star Movement is fully a creature of this new, confused century: a jumble of various points of solidarity and reflexes to defend social interests, speaking above all to the “losers” of globalization.
Similarly, the leaders of these two political forces seem destined to fail to understand each other. Elly Schlein has a strong sensitivity towards issues that typically appeal to young European progressives: openness to the world, pluralism of values and life choices, concern for the environment and the disadvantaged. Giuseppe Conte, on the other hand (and not just for reasons of age), is less concerned with the new personal freedoms, and more inclined to focus on social rights threatened by neoliberal policies (which the PD has also pursued in the recent past). For now, neither seems to be interested in finding a synthesis between the two. In Schlein’s case, this is probably out of fear of internal opposition from the so-called reformists, who are eager to replace her with an exponent of the party’s moderate wing, partly because they can count on broad support from the centrist press. In Conte’s case, it’s because he doesn’t feel any need for it. His political force is not driven by a vision – not coincidentally, it has no relations with the big European political families – but by reaction.
In my view, this situation explains the weakness that the opposition as a whole is showing when confronted with the current government. Playing catch-up is not a sustainable strategy – not only because it is detrimental to the electoral prospects of both the PD and the M5S in the long run, but also because Italy runs the risk of becoming marginalized in an international landscape in which the right is on the rise everywhere, and is exerting a very strong attraction even on centrists and conservatives of the traditional type (where such still exist).
At stake are not just the economic prospects of a country that seems less and less able to compete, except by lowering standards, but also democracy itself as we have known it after World War II. The European and U.S. right-wingers are taking on a distinctly authoritarian character that threatens to rapidly change the terms of the social contract born of social-democratic compromise (to which conservatives have also adapted for a long time). A new right wing is emerging, which is positioning itself as a “strong” guarantor for economic interests and which has no qualms about dismantling what remains of the welfare state and personal freedoms.
As for the left, including all the groups that make it up, the only way out of this dead-end street is taking up initiative once again on the political level, putting forward radical proposals not only with regard to personal freedoms and the environment, but also with regard to economic justice.
I believe this outlook is reinforced by research presented on Wednesday in the Guardian by Macarena Ares and Silja Häusermann, two political scientists who are part of the Progressive Politics Research Network. According to the two scholars, the claim that the defenders of the Third Way have been arguing for many years is not true: namely that if it wants to win, the left must pander to the moods of the conservative electorate on the social level and the interests of capital on the economic level.
Their new research shows that a progressive coalition could compete effectively with the right if it recovered the strength of its convictions, proposing a more just society that offers real opportunities for a decent life for all, and not just for the winners of globalization.
This, I believe, is the challenge that Elly Schlein should take up, also exerting pressure on the M5S in the process. It will not be easy, because of the peculiar characteristics of the Italian political system mentioned above, but the stakes are so high that it is worth attempting. It’s not the right time for ambiguity, but for making choices.