Over the last twenty years the Italian left has undertaken a process of political reform even more radical and transgressive than that implemented by the British left. Indeed, the Italian Democratic Party (PD) is the European party that, by introducing open primary elections, has gone furthest in reforming the rules governing leadership selection (Kenig, 2009). Moreover, the PD emerged from the merger of two parties - the post-communist Left Democrats (PCI-PDS-DS) and the moderate centre party La Margherita (DL) - which openly broke with all the political traditions of the twentieth century and sought to create a reformist, post-ideological party.
Overall, the PD represents the most radical case of ideological change on the European reformist left. To be sure, all social-democratic parties have shifted to the right in the last twenty or thirty years and have modified some aspects of their original identity. Yet they still identify themselves as part of the social democratic family (Moschonas, 2002). In contrast, the Italian reformist left has shifted from communism to post-social democracy in less than twenty years.
However, despite being apparently anomalous or extreme, the Italian experience could be repeated in other European countries where the left is increasingly weak and unable to build solid majorities. In particular, involving not only party members but also voters and supporters in decision-making processes and in candidate and leadership selection is now regarded as a possible solution to the crisis of popular legitimacy faced by centre-left parties. After the PD, the French Parti Socialiste (PS) has also decided to adopt open primary elections to choose the next centre-left candidate for the presidential election. Indeed, in 2009 the premiere secretaire Martine Aubry called for organisational reform of the PS to promote new forms of political participation. More recently, the new leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has also suggested that 'a party of declining membership' could survive only by opening up its organisation and giving the general public a say in Labour leadership contests (Helm and Asthana, 2010). Of course, this debate on organisational issues is also related to the wider debate on the crisis of identity of the moderate left in Europe. From a comparative perspective, a deeper analysis of the Italian extreme case can therefore help us to understand the impact of processes of democratisation and organisational (and ideological) reform on the identity of the left and on political activism.
I begin with an analysis of the events that led to the creation of the PD in 2007. I then describe the transformations that occurred within the Italian left in the last three years. Finally, I discuss some of the issues that have recently emerged in the debate on the future of the PD and the Italian left in general.
From PCI to PD: a radical shift
From 1948 to the early 1990s, the Italian left was regarded as an anomaly in Europe, because it was dominated by a Communist Party that in the 1980s still controlled almost one third of the vote and had more than one million members. Whereas in the rest of Europe socialist and social democratic parties were able to impose their hegemony on the left, scoring between 30 and 50 per cent of the vote, the Italian Socialist Party never went beyond 15 per cent. However, with the collapse of the old party system at the beginning of the 1990s, the conditions for the creation of a large Italian social democratic party seemed very favourable. The collapse of the Soviet Union prompted the Communist Party (PCI) to reform its organisation and identity, thus giving life to a new party of the reformist left. In general, between the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became clear that the PCI was consciously shifting towards an ideological affinity with social democracy (Abse, 2001, 61).
The creation of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) - which in 1998 became the Left Democrats (DS) - was aimed at filling the vacuum left by the crisis of the Communist tradition and the collapse of the old (and weak) Socialist Party. …