Analysis-Friendly fire threatens ex-PMs' bid to rebuild Italy centre-left

Gavin Jones and Angelo Amante
·5-min read

By Gavin Jones and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) - Giuseppe Conte, the new head of Italy's 5-Star Movement, and Enrico Letta, who has just taken charge of the Democratic Party (PD), want to join forces to rebuild the country's fractured centre-left.

Their problem will be taking their reluctant parties with them.

The two former prime ministers believe a partnership of reformed progressive parties is the only way to prevent what seems a near-inevitable victory for a potent rightist bloc at an election that may come as soon as next year.

"If we are to win we have to form a broad coalition, and the 5-Star Movement, which has evolved very positively to become pro-European, has to be part of it," Letta said immediately after becoming PD leader last month.

Conte and Letta have built up a solid rapport since they first met in Vietnam in 2018, according to sources who know them both.

The two ex-premiers have much in common - both are softly spoken, bookish Catholics and former university professors in their mid-50s. And both were brought down by another former prime minister, the ruthless Matteo Renzi.

They also have a common enemy - the anti-immigrant firebrand Matteo Salvini who spearheads the three-party alliance that is favourite to form the next government.

A victory for Salvini, alongside the far-right Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, would give Italy its most right-wing, EU-sceptic administration since World War Two, something the 5-Star and PD chiefs say Italy cannot afford.

Opinion polls suggest Letta is right that co-operation is the centre-left's only chance. Under the current voting system the right-wing bloc would be unstoppable if its opponents remain divided. Even if they unite the right still leads, but the race would at least be open.

Conte, who guided Italy through the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis before being felled by coalition infighting in January, is the country's most popular party leader.

Moreover, a March 30 poll by the Ipsos agency showed more people would back an alliance led by him and Letta than one headed by Salvini and Brothers of Italy chief Giorgia Meloni.

GRILLO'S APPEAL

Yet while a Conte-Letta tie-up may be popular with 5-Star and PD voters, it meets huge resistance within their respective parliamentary parties, who see themselves as coming from very different political traditions.

After losing the premiership Conte, who had never joined any party, agreed to take command of 5-Star at the request of its founder, the 72-year old former comedian Beppe Grillo.

Support for Grillo's creation had withered since it triumphed at the last election, in 2018, as an ecologically-minded, eurosceptic, protest party.

Almost simultaneously, Letta agreed to head up the mainstream, left-leaning PD, whose previous leader had just resigned saying he was "ashamed" by its endless infighting.

In a video-conference with 5-Star lawmakers after accepting its leadership, Conte promised to "refound" the movement in a shake-up going far beyond "re-stying or political marketing".

He offered no specifics, however, and his arrival seems to have worsened divisions in a party already split over its decision to join the national unity government of former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi.

"He wants to create something very similar to the PD and very distant from our origins, another mainstream centre-left party with just a bit more emphasis on ecology and anti-corruption," said Raphael Raduzzi, a 5-Star dissident lawmaker.

Raduzzi is among scores of rebels who have been expelled from 5-Star's group in parliament because they refused to back Draghi. These hardliners fear Conte will turn their party, which used to reject all alliances, into a mere satellite of the PD.

Meanwhile, a parallel battle is raging over control of 5-Star's internet platform, a vital tool for its decision-making due to its historical commitment to direct democracy.

"I think he is only now realising what a mess he has inherited," said Raduzzi.

'SUSPICION AND PREJUDICE'

Letta's problems are somewhat less visible, but beneath the surface his PD is also divided over the prospect of a marriage with the movement that used to lambast it as the arch-representative of a corrupt establishment.

Antonio Misiani, the PD economics chief, backs an alliance but said his party was uneasy with 5-Star's push for more state intervention in the economy and its anti-corruption drive, which risked overriding the rights of defendants.

"There is a lot of reluctance in both parties, but if Conte's leadership takes root it can help to overcome the suspicion and prejudice in the PD towards 5-Star," he said.

Conte reassures many in the PD due to his moderate, independent background - but this is exactly what alarms 5-Star stalwarts.

Since becoming 5-Star chief, Conte has held more behind-the-scenes meetings with PD figures than with 5-Star ones, said a former 5-Star minister who asked not be named.

This party veteran said Conte was a good mediator but could not be trusted to defend 5-Star's positions "on the environment, on the justice system, on the economy or on anything".

Well aware of the hurdles ahead, Conte and Letta kept their first meeting as party leaders, in Rome, so low profile that neither brought a photographer.

"At the end they asked the doorman of the building to take a photo," said a source close to Letta. This remains the only image recorded of what they hope will become a landmark encounter for Italian politics.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones and Angelo Amante; Editing by Alex Richardson)