21st Apr 2021


Letta's comeback - Italian politics' Count of Monte Christo

  • Enrico Letta, back from Paris to tackle Italian policits. Is he 'really the last hope for the Democratic Party'? (Photo: Bellabona Foto)

In a new twist in Italy's chaotic politics, the assembly of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) last weekend elected former prime minister Enrico Letta as its new secreatary - almost unanimously.

Letta returned to Italy from Paris (where he self-exiled in 2015, a year after then PD's secretary Matteo Renzi sank his government) to take over from Nicola Zingaretti, who left office a fortnight ago due to splits within the party.

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Italian newspapers have likened Letta to the Count of Monte Cristo, and some analysts believe that his appointment will ensure that the pro-Renzi minority in the party finally loses its leverage, "avenging" the wrongs he suffered.

Letta's return has certainly been welcomed by Italian voters. According to polls, the PD is now back to being the second-placed party of voters after Salvini's far-right League - overtaking both the allies of the Five Star Movement and the ultra-nationalist Brothers of Italy.

"Letta is an extremely high-profile figure, he represents an important resource in a situation of serious crisis for the PD," Emanuele Felice, a scholar and head of the economic department of the Democratic Party under Zingaretti, told EUobserver.

"Letta was wronged by the Renzi-led PD [in 2014]; by choosing him as its new secretary, the party is repairing the damage."

A scholar, like his father and uncle, Letta was born in Tuscany in 1966.

He is a pro-European Catholic who began in politics as a young man. In his 20s, he was president of the Young European Democrats and met powerful political leaders such as Giulio Andreotti and Helmut Kohl (whom he described as "perhaps the most important figure in post-war European history" in an interview with the Italian daily Avvenire four years ago).

Appreciated by the former prime minister and president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, Letta was minister three times and prime minister once (2013 to 2014).

After the collapse of his government, he moved to Paris, where he became director of the École des Affaires Internationales of Science Po.

Centre-left civil war

Known for his diplomatic skills, Letta will have to unify a party in a state of perpetual civil war, where former communists co-exist with former Christian Democrats, and which has had nine different secretaries since it was founded in 2007.

"The PD is an unsuccessful amalgam which suffered an almost embarrassing series of splits, both on the right and on the left," says Andrea Ceron, associate professor of political science at the University of Milan. "What the PD has lacked is coherence along a precise and clear line".

The truth is, there are more factions in the PD than in post-Gaddafi Libya, and "more than Letta, you would need the Blue Helmets to manage it" says a only half-joking MP from the Democratic Party - who prefers to remain anonymous.

Felice admits: "When I was in charge of the PD's economic department, I often found more hostility inside the party than outside - despite not being part of any 'corrente' [faction]."

But besides holding the PD together, Letta has publicly set himself the goal of leading a grand centre-left coalition from the small liberal parties (including Renzi's Italia Viva - Letta is perhaps more forgiving than the actual Count of Monte Cristo) to the archipelago of left-wing parties.

He also confirmed the alliance with the post-populist Five Star Movement, which is likely to be led by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

"Letta is smart and experienced. We trust that he will work with us for the good of Italy," a Five Star Movement source told EUobserver.

'Good luck!'

Benedetto Della Vedova, a pro-EU liberal and undersecretary of state for foreign affairs under the current government of Mario Draghi, hopes that "the new PD secretary Letta will seek a dialogue with pro-Europeans and liberal democrats, instead of pursuing a close, exclusive and exclusionary alliance with the M5S, as his predecessor did. I sincerely wish him good luck".

Letta has only been secretary for a few days, but he has already managed to push the buttons of Italy's largest party: the League's leader Matteo Salvini did not appreciate Letta's statements in favour of the 'ius soli' (the right to Italian citizenship of immigrants' children born in the country).

Letta also called for granting the right to vote to the 16-year-olds, something Ceron considers "an assistance to others, since the League has invested a lot on 16-year-olds and the very young demographic group from the point of view of political marketing, with strong social media campaigns".

Letta also mentioned worker participation in company decisions and profits, the transition to a green economy, and new laws for gender equality.

"He is trying to bring out the specificities of the PD at a time when the party is in a government of, let's say, grand coalition," notes Annarita Criscitiello, professor of Italian political system at the Federico II University in Naples.

Overall, it seems that the PD voters appreciate the new leadership. Many are convinced that this is its last chance to become a real party.

Criscitiello thinks that "Letta really is the last hope for the PD. It emerges from his words too: this is the last possible attempt."

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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