Feb 22, 2017 | 17:59 GMT

3 mins read

Italy: The Wider Implications of Party Conflict

Italy's ruling Democratic Party (PD) is as divided as ever. The president of the southern region of Puglia, Michele Emiliano, announced Feb. 21 that he will challenge former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for leadership of the party. Other PD members said they will boycott several meetings to decide the party's future and suggested that they may create their own political party.

There has been conflict in the party for years: Leftist members of PD have long accused Renzi of being too conservative. But the divisions became more pronounced when Renzi's proposed constitutional reforms were voted down in a referendum in December. Immediately following the defeat, Renzi resigned as prime minister. Then in early February, he resigned as leader of PD to enhance the legitimacy of his leadership over the party. Renzi is now pushing for a party congress and then primary elections to choose a new party head. After that, he wants the Italian government to resign and for new general elections to be held as early as June. But his rivals in PD want current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni to finish his term and for general elections to be held when the legislature expires in early 2018.

Whenever general elections are held, they will probably yield a fragmented parliament. Opinion polls show that PD is competing neck-and-neck with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement for first place. In the meantime, the nationalist Northern League and the center-right Forza Italia are competing with each other for third place. Considering Italy's proportional electoral system, an alliance between two or more parties will likely be needed to form a government.

PD is allied with a small centrist party, but after the election it may be forced to seek an agreement with larger parties such as Forza Italia. If PD splits, votes would too. And even if the new party is small and attracts only a modest number of votes, in a close election it could be the deciding factor. Moreover, it's not a given that the breakaway party would accept a government alliance with PD after the general election, especially if Forza Italia is also a part of the deal.

The opposition Five Star Movement is dealing with problems of its own. Recent scandals in Rome, where the party is in power, have yet to affect its popularity at the national level. But over time a combination of scandals and mismanagement in the Italian capital could erode support for the party. So far, the Five Star Movement has refused to make pacts with other political parties. But after the general election, it may have no choice but to join the Northern League to form a government. Both parties want Italy to abandon the euro: If they band together, the alliance will pose a veritable threat to the eurozone.

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