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.
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 from interwar fascism. It played a positive role in local governments up until the 1990s. But instead of building on that success, the Communists’ heirs, represented by Partito Democratico, have over the years wasted their time quarrelling over who would assume the party’s leadership. They have come up with few new ideas and have done very little to keep the loyalty of their traditional electorate. The party was never even able to benefit from Berlusconi’s lapses: under Romano Prodi in 1996 and 2006, the center-left won elections against Berlusconi, but in both cases Prodi was “dismissed” by his own electoral coalition. That only reinforced the idea that, whatever Berlusconi’s faults, only he would be able to pull together a stable enough majority to lead Italy. No other leftist party, meanwhile, has been able to translate regional votes into enough support to influence national politics.

Europe’s other left-leaning and social democratic parties look no better off. That is a shame: the parties and ideas of Willy Brandt, Olof Palme, and Altiero Spinelli, among others, once built Europe’s welfare systems from the ground up. They championed social rights, accessible education, progressive family policies, and the protection of workers. They even had a hand in economic and industrial planning and were key actors in the European integration. Over the years, their role in government influenced many other political forces, including the Christian Democrats, to move leftward.

Given these experiences, the center-left parties would seem well placed to manage Europe’s current economic tailspin. That just hasn’t been the case. Some blame the social democratic parties’ recent failures on their turn in recent decades toward market-friendliness. Some of the parties have, in fact, actively moved toward the center of the political system. A prime example is the Labour Party in Great Britain. One of the few solutions to the crisis that European countries have adopted is to follow the whims of financial markets and rating agencies, cut state spending, and keep the faith that growth can be encouraged after economic austerity runs its course. In Italy, the Partito Democratico supported Mario Monti’s technocratic government and his austerity-like plans. That scenario was the case in Greece, too. For this reason, these parties could have hardly capitalized on the unpopularity of austerity to steal support away from the right wing.
In terms of social policy, these leftist parties also seemed at times blind to the plight of workers. In the 1990s, they ignored the dangerous tensions created by labor fragmentation, globalization, immigration, austerity, and the collapse of the social safety net, all trends that contributed to the appeal of demagogic far-right movements in some working-class areas. The parties similarly overlooked the needs of a new generation of lower middle class families and the hoard of educated and unemployed youth. If the left is not seized with these problems, it is unclear what its true ideology and worldviews even are.

Rather than sitting idly by, the social democratic parties could have taken the economic crisis as an opportunity to rework the European project. For example, a reconsideration of some of the EU’s debt policies and its fiscal compact might have been in order. So would speaking out on behalf of keeping some social spending (especially for health, unemployment, and education), thereby tempering some of the outcomes of austerity on the middle and working classes. Even if their calls went unheeded by the other parties in governments, the social democrats could have at least picked up some points with their constituents. But, in truth, Europe is missing powerful and visionary leaders who seem to be able to reverse this trend.

A good number of Europeans still prefer to vote for some mainstream conservative parties, which have tended toward the demagogic in recent years and have been backing cuts in public funding, social benefits, and the welfare state. Others prefer to look toward chauvinist and far-right leaders (including those of the fascistic Greek Golden Dawn) who openly criticize the EU, the richer European countries, the euro currency, markets, and banks. Ironically, during the Italian election, the Partito Democratico was even accused of being involved in some of Italy’s banking scandals (scandals which had to do with secret transactions, derivates, and alleged fraud, among other things). It is astounding that the center-left failed to respond with its own proposals for fixing the banking sector, perhaps including a sort of humanization of the financial sector, which would set aside some funding and relief for the most fragile national economies, small businesses, and average citizens.

With the left apparently on vacation, it is unsurprising that Europeans are increasingly turning toward citizen-led movements, such as Grillo's Five Stars Movement in Italy. Others have grown nostalgic for days gone by, like some of the Greeks speak fondly of the days of the dictator. Europeans in most every country have rejected representatives of traditional politics, forcefully criticized the banking and financial sectors, and dreamed of a euro-free Europe. If the left does not start recognizing Europeans’ needs, and elaborate some real intellectual and political strategies, this will continue. And Europe could stagnate for years to come.

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  • ANDREA MAMMONE is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book on transnational neo-Fascism is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
  • More By Andrea Mammone