How Italy's Democratic Party could win elections – in 2027
Engaging with civil society could help the party find new constituents
This episode of my newsletter stems from a presentation I gave to the Italian Democratic Party (PD) branch in Brussels (full disclosure: I am a PD member) after the 2022 local elections. The presentation had a provocative title: Psychoanalysis of a party. This episode elaborates on some ideas from that presentation and tries to propose some solutions for the longer term.
BRUSSELS – The victory of the right-wing coalition in the incoming Italian elections is nothing short of a fact of life. Yet, if the Italian leading center-left party is serious about winning elections, it should start knowing itself a little bit. Despite not publishing their methods, the situation is dire: some analysts argue that the looming right-wing majority could win enough seats to change the Constitution uncontested. Yet, if the Italian Democrats (and center-left at large) wanted, they could find a way to win the next elections. The following chart will describe the situation better.
This chart shows the share of votes by the Italian Democratic Party since its foundation. The Party is the merger between the last heirs of the Italian Communist Party (the Leftist Democrats) and the last left-leaning Christian Democrats (gathered in The Daisy). The two parties developed close connections supporting Romano Prodi in 1996, Francesco Rutelli in 2001, and Romano Prodi once more in 2006. Given a decade on the same side of the fence, it was pretty automatic, for the leadership, of the two parties to merge.
As the data show, the first years of the merger were relatively successful: the party got a solid (albeit insufficient for a majority) 33.2 percent in 2008, but troubles were waiting around the corner with a brutal defeat in the 2009 European elections, another loss in 2013. The only outlier is the 41 percent attained under the controversial leadership of Matteo Renzi. However, after 2014, the PD's share of votes remained relatively stable, some points around 20 percent.
In the chart above, we can see two elements: the volatility of voting habits (the Democrats saw their voting share cut in half in four years) and the relative stability of the party afterward. What could explain that?
The scatterplot above represents the share of the PD in local elections between 2019 and 2021. The chart considers municipalities where the PD ran with its electoral lists.
According to the data, the taxable income (the share of income upon which authorities calculate taxes) explains 14.7 percent of the results, with a very high degree of significance. The chart has plenty of outliers around median income value. Yet, the upward line suggests that personal wealth could be at least a factor in explaining electoral results for the democrats.
The consequence it entails, though, is that the Democrats could be perceived as the party of the rich. If rich people vote for the PD – a center-left party – is it from the left at all? In the mind of some electors, the idea could be that ideology doesn't matter: the Democratic Party is a safe choice to make local administration work, somehow. So, the party is not just the centerpiece of institutions in Rome but elsewhere in Italy. Evidence of this is present in other datasets.
Here, for example, we see the evolution of electoral manifestoes between 2008 and 2018. The fascinating part is that despite common sense suggesting that the Italian political system veered right, The League and Brothers of Italy decided to embrace the left during the last elections.
The likelihood of a measurement error is low: data come from the German Manifesto Project, a research initiative that studies electoral manifestoes in more the 50 countries, allowing to place them on the left-right continuum, according to the political scientists that elaborate on them.
Also, the chart regarding 2018 shows a peculiar element of the Italian far-right: its quirk way of being socialist. This originates from Fascism. Fascism, in its doctrine, had an element of social equality well rooted within the ideas of conservative systems where the interests of the great industrialists were managed within a corporative system.
Despite that, though, measures to support the welfare of the elders after the pension reforms under the Monti government became a wave the right decided to ride recently. So even though the PD is the left-most party here, another aspect is worth exploring.
The scatterplot has a cluster of cities around the middle of the horizontal axis but very high on the vertical one. There, it is possible to spot a few towns in Emilia-Romagna, one of the strongholds of the Democrats and one of the regions where social capital is the highest in Italy.
In this context, by social capital, DaNumber means the series of freely felt obligations that glue a community together, as sociologist Roberto Cartocci defines them. One of the indicators Prof. Cartocci utilizes is the number of volunteers in a given province. Here, DuNumbers decided to focus on regions. The names will not be translated into English, following the Italian National Statistics Office style.
The chart above shows the five regions where volunteers are the most in percentage. Veneto leads the way with 13 percent of people part of a volunteering association. Immediately behind, Emilia-Romagna, then Lombardy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Piedmont.
Lombardy has a strong network of volunteering associations that also arrives in Milan. Emilia-Romagna has arguably one of the strongest welfare systems in Europe. How does it translate for the Italian democrats? The following chart explains.
Between 2019 and 2021, the PD reached more than 20 percent in 13 cities in Lombardy and nine in Emilia-Romagna. Of course, the numbers could be flawed because elections were not uniformly spread throughout the country. Yet, they offer an interesting insight: two regions where the PD is most successful are in the top 5 of volunteering in Italy.
This suggests that where the Democratic Party connects with the so-called civil society, it manages to succeed. This idea is corroborated by what happened in Verona, where a center-left coalition won the Veneto-located city with a long tradition of right-wing administrations. Again, Veneto was at the top of the previous chart.
Despite the gloomy outlook for the September 25 elections, the Democrats could have a way forward, even from the opposition. If they wanted, they could start building a constituency with local civil societies and get the resources they need to re-approach the 30-percent threshold they desperately need.
This process won't happen overnight, and the current leadership tried to take steps in this direction, yet this is the focus the party should have from September 26, hoping that Italy doesn't go Hungary's way. Chances that this could happen are high, but with a caveat, as the following chart will show.
Here, on the right-hand side of the chart, we can see how the Northern League, once the leader of the right-wing coalition, fell from being polled above 30 percent to less than half of it in a few years. Giorgia Meloni's party is now at 23 percent after being estimated at 3.1 in 2018. The two far-right parties could account for 37 percent of the votes. This, with a small contribution by Forza Italia, could give the right-wing coalition a solid majority in the Parliament.
Yet, elections will be held locally and at the European level, and the polls collected since 2018 show that the right-wing electorate is more volatile and less cohesive than expected. This should give at least some hope that the institutions will withstand the incoming far-right storm, giving the Democratic Party a much-needed horizon to fight to win the general elections – in 2027.