The Demise of Italy's Left

Why the Social Democrats Don't Win

Newly appointed Prime Minister Enrico Letta rings the silver bell, to signify the start of his first cabinet meeting at Chigi palace in Rome, April 28, 2013. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters)

As always, politics in Italy are full of surprises. The country held elections in late February; it won’t be until May that the new government and parliament will finally get down to the business of running the country. Following some weeks of convulsions, the sitting president, Giorgio Napolitano, was re-elected on April 20. Enrico Letta, a longtime political figure, was chosen to replace Mario Monti as prime minister. The outcome might look like a victory for the left: Napolitano is a former Communist Party member and Letta is the deputy leader of the center-left Partito Democratico. Yet the real winner is Silvio Berlusconi, of the right, who will keep his hand on the government’s rudder -- albeit out of the public eye.

In part, the February vote reflected Italians’ rejection of some of the traditional parties and of EU-led austerity. More important, though, it reflected a failing on the part of the center-left to deal with the current social and political realities of the country. And that is a failure that has been replicated across Europe.

In the run-up to the Italian elections, the smart money was on a solid victory for the center-left -- Berlusconi seemed to have relatively little appeal, and the economy, which had been driven by technocrats and subjected to their favored austerity agenda, was in an appalling state. Yet the left was still simply unable to gain an electoral majority. As a result, Letta will now be governing as part of a coalition that includes close political allies of Berlusconi, including the secretary of Berlusconi’s party, who will serve as Letta’s vice prime minister.

The Italian center-left’s loss was especially galling given that the Italian Communist Party was once the largest communist movement in the democratic Western world. The party helped to liberate Italy

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