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Primary Elections: Democracy at Work, or the Usual Italian Sham?


Even if they appeared to be an attempt to restore credibility to politics in Italy, the primary elections held by Italy’s biggest centre-left PD democratic party last weekend were seen as an attempt by new face Matteo Renzi to wrest control of the party from the hands of the old guard.

Renzi is seen as being someone who wants to scrap the PD party’s old guard, but those concerned are not too keen on being scrapped.  In some respects, Renzi could be viewed as being the Italian equivalent of Tony Blair.  The Italian PD party is similar to the UK’s old labour party.

Another of the other major contenders in the PD primaries was Nichi Vendola, a progressive far left leaning politician and governor of Italy’s Puglia region.  It is unclear exactly whether Vendola is genuinely progressive or whether he is no different from the old guard.

There are suggestions that Vendola is part of Italy’s old guard and that he may have been using politics to line his own pockets.

Fake Italian Democracy at Work

Italian comedian activist Beppe Grillo is not at all convinced Vendola is as progressive as his public image suggests.  Despite the question marks hanging over Vendola’s motivation, he is viewed as being someone who could bring about much needed change to Italy’s centre-left.

Grillo is of the general opinion that the primaries are little more than a sham.  A typical case of everything changing so everything can stay the same in Italy. Grillo could be right.

Oh Dear, Old Guard

Although it is not 100% certain, it is looking as if the winner of the primary elections will be old guard candidate Perluigi Bersani who seems to be desperate for a crack at the job of prime minister of Italy.  However, Bersani may not manage to obtain more than 50% of the vote he needs to assure a definitive victory.

The vote count is not over just yet (and there is some bickering over how the votes are being counted), but indications are that Bersani has won around 44% and arch rival Matteo Renzi has obtained around 36%.  Vendola, coming third, is expected to earn 15% of the vote. A run-off ballot vote will be held on December 2.

Primaries, Yes, Primaries, No

Whoever wins will earn himself the title of leader of Italy’s PD party and may well end up becoming Italy’s next prime minister. There was much squabbling over whether primary elections should go ahead or not.

Present leader Bersani appeared to be worried he would lose, whereas pretender Renzi was fairly confident he would win, as was Vendola.  In the event, Bersani looks as if he will come out on top and now seems to think primaries are good for democracy.  Had he lost, it is probable he would not have been so enthusiastic about these pre-election elections.

And the Winner Will be?

Matteo Renzi
Matteo Renzi – A future prime minister of Italy?

The question now is who will win the definitive round?  Well, it’s going to be a photo finish thinks this Italy watcher.

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Stop reading, start speaking

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Those who voted for Matteo Renzi agree that the PD party needs modernizing, both in terms of personalities and policies. In other words, these voters want change.

The Typical Italian Aversion to Change

The 44% who opted for Bersani represent traditional Italians who find the mere thought of change terrifying, and who do not understand how badly Italy’s centre-left needs changing.

In general elections, the PD has lost to Berlusconi’s right leaning PdL party a number of times, yet the management of the left-leaning party has not really changed for decades.  Voters did not opt for Italy’s centre-left over Berlusconi because it inspired very little confidence.  The PD still inspires very little confidence and lacks substance.

We Want Change, but Not too Much

What about the 15% who chose Vendola?  These Italians want change and a new face, but they do not want too much change. Vendola can be seen as a kind of compromise between Bersani and Renzi in that he is not 100% new, but nor is he 100% old guard.  He is proposing some change, but not too much to scare traditionally cautious Italians.

Which way will Vendola voters swing in the December 2nd ballot?  A very good question.  If they all opt for Bersani, then Bersani will win and may earn around 60% of the votes.

Bribery and Disruption

In an obvious attempt by Bersani to win the support of Vendola fans, Bersani has hinted that he would offer Vendola the job of EU commissioner if he wins the second round.

If, however, the attempt to bribe Vendola voters into choosing Bersani fails, Vendola voters may opt for Renzi, who would then clinch victory, albeit with only around 51% of the vote, maybe slightly more if he receives the some of the votes of the other two primary candidates Pupola and Tabacchi.

Renzi – A Real Reformer?

In the event Renzi wins, and this Italy watcher hopes he does, Italy’s Democratic Party will receive a much needed shakeup, if the whole primary thing is not one big sham.  Even if Renzi does not win, he will end up in second place and this will appear to send a clear message to the old minds running the democratic party that they need to mend their ways.  This assumes that Renzi is genuine and not just a sly attempt by democratic party’s old guard to give the impression Renzi is a reformer when in actual fact he’s no more than a close friend.

On paper, Italy’s centre-left primary elections seem to be a win-win situation for democracy, but Beppe Grillo disagrees.  In the eyes of Italy’s comedian stroke political activist, the centre-left primaries were no more than a pretty show.  In Grillo’s eyes, all five candidates belong to the old guard.  Each of the primary candidates has been chosen to ensure everything changes so it does not, or so Grillo claims.

Well, democracy in Italy is really not much more than a trick of mirrors.


Photo of Matteo Renzi by Roberto Vicario

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