On September 7, a mostly young crowd turned out in Rome’s working-class Tuscolano neighborhood to welcome Jean-Luc Mélenchon, appearing on an impromptu stage. The popular French left-wing leader had come to Italy to support Luigi de Magistris, who appeared alongside him. A former mayor of Naples, De Magistris is today head of Unione Popolare, whose name is inspired by the coalition that supported Mélenchon in this spring’s French presidential election.
Unione Popolare is a new force uniting various organizations of the Italian left: Potere al Popolo, Rifondazione Comunista, DemA, Manifesta, and Paese Reale, as well as nonparty representatives of social movements. Created at the beginning of July 2022 with the intention of building a political project for elections scheduled for mid-2023, by the end of that same month it was forced to revise its plans, as the fall of Mario Draghi’s cross-party government brought the elections forward to today, September 25. Despite difficulties, Unione Popolare decided to run anyway, and in just two weeks in August, managed to collect the necessary signatures to participate in the elections across Italy.
Barring any twists and turns, the right-wing coalition will win today’s elections and form a government led by Giorgia Meloni. She is leader of the postfascist Fratelli d’Italia, which headed the final opinion polls with around 25 percent support. The Democratic Party, a liberal center-left force, presents itself as an alternative to the Right but lacks credibility. This is, in the first place, because of its recent record governing under Draghi in alliance with no less than three of the four parties that today support Meloni’s coalition (Fratelli d’Italia was the only major party to remain outside Draghi’s coalition). Second, it is because it’s the party mainly responsible for a senseless electoral law that is estimated to give almost two-thirds of seats to the Right even if it only gets around 45 percent of votes.
Against this backdrop of distrust for the Democratic Party, Giuseppe Conte’s Five Star Movement has made something of a comeback in the polls thanks to a campaign focused on social issues like unemployment benefits and the minimum wage. This party also struggles to gain the trust it once did: indeed, having arrived in first place in the last general election, in 2018, it governed first with Matteo Salvini’s xenophobic Lega, then together with the Democratic Party in a center-left government, and finally became part of the Draghi administration — a postdemocratic “national unity” government running from center-left to far-right, with a conservative and neoliberal program.
In this carousel of Italian politics, the Left has remained out of the picture for too long. It has not been in parliament since 2008, with the exception of small lists in alliance with the Partito Democratico or MPs who quit other parties. It has thus been fourteen years since an independent left has had its own parliamentary representation in Italy. It is an even greater tragedy if we remember that Italy once had the largest Communist Party in Western Europe and a Left whose presence extended from social movements and trade unions to the world of culture.
Something Is Moving
This time, however, something has moved. With the launch of Unione Popolare, the Italian left is trying to reorganize itself to return to the political scene. The other left-wing forces in Europe have also been active in lending a hand to their Italian siblings: after Mélenchon’s generous endorsement, Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias also came to Italy on September 17 to meet Luigi de Magistris, and told journalists that, if he were Italian, he would vote for Unione Popolare without any doubts.
Despite the difficulties of running an electoral campaign in a short time and with only an embryonic political organization, Unione Popolare seems to be doing better than in the past. It is getting rid of some of the limitations that have characterized the Italian left in recent years, such as sectarianism, a distrust of media-friendly and charismatic figures, and a rejection of national identity. Luigi de Magistris also often appears on TV, thus managing to reach an audience that left-wing organizations have struggled to reach. De Magistris was first a magistrate, dealing with important investigations on corruption and organized crime, then a member of the European Parliament, and finally mayor of Naples for two terms. In Naples, he won both times without the support of any major party, only that of civic lists and the radical left. This makes him an exception in the Italian politics of recent years.
While trying to give the Left a more modern image and a fresher language, Unione Popolare has not, however, abandoned the radicalism of its political proposals. Its electoral program is rich and extensive: it safeguards social and civil rights, insists on the urgency of the ecological transition, claims Italy a role as a mediator for peace in international disputes (starting with the war in Ukraine), and pushes for a tax reform that increases taxes on the country’s great wealth so that the tax system becomes truly progressive again.
In the face of the rapid impoverishment of the population due to inflation and a precarious and deregulated labor market, the Union Popolare has put some fundamental social issues at the center of its campaign.
First, it proposes the introduction of a €10 an hour minimum wage. Italy is one of few countries in Europe not to have such a baseline, and also the only European country in which wages have fallen since 1990 (by some 2.9 percent). For Unione Popolare, the minimum wage must also be used as an instrument of industrial policy that forces companies to find methods for profit-making other than continually squeezing wages — for example, by innovating, investing in new technologies, and pursuing better work organization. Such a minimum wage would restore dignity to workers and set in motion the process to restore lifeblood to a productive fabric that has suffered years of deindustrialization.
Second, it proposes a serious program of public employment. In Italy, it is commonplace to say that there are too many public employees, that they work too little, and that they are not needed. However, when we look at the data, Italy is in last place in Europe for public employees relative to population, due to sustained neoliberal policies that have drastically reduced public hiring. Unione Popolare proposes the hiring of 1 million public employees, starting with school and health, two pillars of our universal social system, so that it can become inclusive and effective again. In ten years, Italy has cut some €37 billion from public health. The result? Italy was one of the countries most affected by the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, the number of intensive-care beds was under one-third of German levels.
Third, it has committed to help the population with rising energy costs. Many families in Italy are already falling into poverty as a result of the spiraling prices of energy bills. The redundancy fund rose sharply in July against companies that could not produce at full capacity, a situation that is already causing a bottleneck in demand. The size of most Italian companies must be remembered; as many as 95 percent are micro-businesses, and thus have small profit margins to cope with exogenous shocks. Unione Popolare proposes immediate aid, financed by taxation of 90 percent of the extra profits of energy companies, based on the Spanish model.
Faced with the energy issue, the solution cannot be to reopen old polluting, coal-fired power stations, as the Italian government is currently doing. Rather, this is an opportunity to start a rapid ecological transition toward clean and renewable energies. To do this, Unione Popolare insists that it is necessary to bring the national energy system under public control as soon as possible. It is necessary to have the courage to implement nationalization where privatization has clearly failed.
Finally, the Unione Popolare insists on the search for a peaceful solution to the war with Russia. There can be no doubt as to Vladimir Putin’s crimes; the aim is to avoid entering a spiral of escalating military conflicts that risk being as disastrous as those of the twentieth century, or even more so. Moreover, given Italy’s heavy dependence on Russian gas, working for a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine is not only the ethically right thing to do but also an urgent material necessity.
Today the crisis is plunging countless working-class households into poverty (and not only Italian ones, as the new famines in Africa linked to the war remind us). On this point, the Italian left has found an unexpected ally in Pope Francis, who, like Unione Popolare, insists on the need for Italy to take serious action to seek peace in Ukraine instead of supinely following US demands.
Made to Last?
Unfortunately, the Italian left in recent years has had many electoral alliances that died shortly after the elections. Why should this time be any different?
There are some reasons for hope. Unione Popolare has found in De Magistris a unifying charismatic figure who helps to hold together political groups with previous hostilities and sometimes different opinions. Moreover, the parties that make up Unione Popolare seem to have learned from past mistakes, and there is now a greater awareness that it is necessary to be united to rebuild a popular left-wing force in Italy.
Finally, if Unione Popolare performs better than the left-wing alliances of 2013 and 2018, this would give further strength to the idea that the project should continue to build up, returning to Italy the stable left-wing point of reference that it so urgently needs.