On a beautiful sunlit Friday evening in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, Italy’s centre left was in defiant mood. At the end-of-campaign rally of the Democratic party (PD), a large crowd sang along as an orchestra played the famous old resistance song Bella Ciao. Elly Schlein, one of the party’s rising stars, threw down the gauntlet to Giorgia Meloni and the right over same sex unions.
“I am a woman,” she said. “I love another woman but that doesn’t make me any less of a woman. I am not a mother, but that does not make me any less of a woman.”
Enrico Letta, the PD’s leader, urged his audience to make a last push ahead of Sunday’s election: “A comeback is possible. In this campaign we have stood for a positive Italy, the Italy of the future. [Our opponents] stand for the past. Long live a progressive and democratic Italy. On Sunday we are going to win. We are going to win!”
Igor Moltisanti, a 19-year-old politics student at Rome’s Sapienza University, wanted to believe it was true but couldn’t quite manage the leap of faith. Clutching a red, white and green PD flag, he said: “I’m very pessimistic. We’re almost certainly going to lose. And that will mean an Italy that moves away from the rest of Europe and becomes a version of Orban’s Hungary.”
Ahead of an election likely to deliver a radical right government for the first time in Italy’s postwar history, supporters of progressive parties are clinging to fragile grounds for optimism while preparing for the worst.
The final opinion polls carried out before a pre-election embargo two weeks ago gave Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party a clear lead over the PD, which remained stuck at just over 20% of the vote.
The right’s coalition – which also includes Matteo Salvini’s League and the 85-year-old Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – was running almost 20 points in front of the PD. The support of minor parties such as the Greens and Left alliance, which make up the left’s coalition, is small beer compared with the assembled forces on the other side.
There are rumours of a surge in the south by the Five Star Movement, which it is hoped could impede Meloni, and Letta has pointed to evidence that 40% of eligible voters were still undecided about whether and how to cast a ballot. Last week, he directed an impassioned message to under 25s. “Don’t let others decide your future,” said Letta on TikTok and other social media. “Go out and vote.”
Moltisanti is sceptical: “So many of my generation have no interest in politics. And the PD under Letta has not been radical enough in its economic proposals to draw people in. He focused too much on attacking the extreme right and not enough on the PD and its own offer to people.”
A hung parliament, and perhaps yet another technocratic government, is almost certainly the best outcome the centre-left can hope for.
Behind the scenes, the soul-searching has already begun. Letta, briefly prime minister in 2013, staked the left’s hopes on a head-to-head confrontation with Meloni. He presented the PD as the responsible, mainstream alternative to a party whose political roots are on the post-fascist far right.
But the party’s passionate defence of civil rights in relation to abortion, immigration and same-sex unions has struggled to shift the dial. And a failure to build a coalition with either centrist parties or the anti-establishment Five Star Movement has left opposition to a unified right looking divided and confused.
On Thursday evening, the Greens and Left alliance held their own closing rally next to the ancient Roman ruins of the Fori Imperiali. Brandishing a placard stating “Meloni has a woman problem – she doesn’t speak for us”, Emilia Galtieri was trying to keep cheerful.
In areas such as abortion rights, she said, regional Brothers of Italy administrations have sought to put new obstacles in the way of women’s right to choose. Meloni will carry on that work at a national level, as the far right launches an illiberal counter-revolution to roll back social reforms dating back to the 70s.
But according to Galtieri the left is failing to assemble a sufficiently broad coalition. “The PD has become a middle-class, professional party and lost touch with the working class,” she said. “There is an anger driving these great populist waves in Italy – for Salvini and now Meloni – and it’s to do with economic inequality. The left needs to persuade them back on board or it will be stuck.”
Her friend, Susanna Crostella, a former hospital administrator, hopes the rumoured Five Star surge may prevent the far right gaining a majority big enough to govern. But she criticised Letta’s decision not to seek an alliance with the party of the former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte.
“This was a big, big mistake,” she said. “I know lots of people in the PD who think the same. Faced with Meloni, we need as big a tent as possible to deal with this moment.”
According to Gianfranco Baldini, professor of political science at the University of Bologna, another problem has been the PD’s presence in different governments for most of the past decade – most recently as arch-loyalists in Mario Draghi’s technocratic government. As a result, PD is associated with austerity measures brought in following the 2010s sovereign debt crisis, and long-term economic stagnation.
Meanwhile Meloni, who stayed out of Draghi’s unity administration, can present herself as a fresh solution to perennial economic problems.
“In Italian politics, the PD is now perceived as the ‘establishment’,” said Baldini. “Bringing Letta back as leader has not helped. He was prime minister 10 years ago at a time of economic crisis. And his uncle used to be one of Berlusconi’s closest advisers – as close as you get to the ‘establishment’.
“The image Letta has is of a nice guy, but not a new guy. So far it looks like the left has not had a powerful enough message to speak to people who want to try something new. Where is the left’s renewal coming from?”
Within the PD hierarchy there is a sense of frustration that its role in helping steer the country through Covid has not yielded greater rewards in the polls. But, barring a shock, a painful reckoning seems certain. In surprisingly direct comments, Laura Boldrini, a former speaker for the Italian parliament and a PD candidate for the senate, told the Observer the centre-left was paying the price for failing to take the right strategic course since the 2008 financial crash.
She said that after taking power in 2013, despite finishing well behind the new Five Star Movement in the polls, the left became associated with protecting the status quo.
“It was in love with globalisation and never undertook measures to correct its negative effects, which hit the weakest in society. We should have corrected this and come up with different policies, instead of thinking that capitalism gave benefits to all.
“That was a mistaken theory. Globalisation has increased inequality in Europe and the left should have repaired the effects of it.”
Ahead of the likely postmortems, there is for now only a sense of foreboding and trepidation.
In the northern town of Monza a week ago, Letta assembled more than 500 PD mayors from across Italy at a rally to showcase the party’s record in local government.
“Ignore the polls,” was the constant refrain as speakers implored the crowd to persuade undecided neighbours to come out and vote.
Looking on was Anna-Maria Meregalli, 81. She has voted left all her life going back to Enrico Berlinguer, the leader of the Italian Communist party in the mid-1970s when it was one of the most charismatic forces on the European left. As the rally came to an end, she gave a heavy sigh, all too aware of the stakes.
“We can just hope for the best,” she said. “I didn’t like Salvini when he was dominating the right but Meloni is something else. The violence of her rhetoric! It’s such a bad example to the young. And I simply cannot believe that abortion is a hot political topic again, 40 years after feminists won that battle. If she wins there are dark times ahead.”
Additional reporting, Angela Giuffrida