Local elections rarely cause a flutter. But when a head of government makes them a referendum on his popularity, and then loses, everybody takes notice.
This is what happened to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. Never lacking in self-confidence, even at a time when his country is floundering economically and he is personally bogged down by mounting legal troubles (he is a defendant in multiple ongoing trials), Mr. Berlusconi chose to advertise this year’s local elections as a vote for or against his tenure. It was a politically reckless move and he suffered a resounding defeat at the polls, inflicted by an electorate tired of hearing about his personal problems and his increasingly extravagant behavior. In the first round of voting, held two weeks ago, opposition parties won important mayoral posts in Bologna and Turin. The losses in Sunday’s run-off in Milan and Naples were an even harsher outcome for Mr. Berlusconi.
These results may put more strain on the already tense relationship between Mr. Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party (PdL) and his allies of the Northern League (Lega Nord), who see the prime minister as a liability and are likely to hold him hostage and ask for increasingly untenable political concessions in exchange for their continued support of his government.
Mr. Berlusconi is not one to give up easily. He has emerged from the ashes many times before; most recently, in December 2010, he resurrected from political near-death. The defection then, from Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition, of his protégé-turned-nemesis Gianfranco Fini triggered a vote of confidence that was all but certain to take the government down. The prime minister survived, but these kinds of feats become more implausible as years go by. Mr. Berlusconi looks older, less boisterous and less in control of his own paranoia. Right before the start of the G8 meeting last week in Deauville, France, cameras caught him as he sneaked up on U.S. President Barack Obama to complain about Italy’s “dictatorship of left-wing judges.”
No vote carried more weight than Milan’s, Italy’s industrial and financial capital, and a traditional Berlusconi’s stronghold.
Mr. Berlusconi had handpicked incumbent Letizia Moratti to run for a second term despite his allies’ skepticism. On Sunday, Mrs. Moratti lost to Giuliano Pisapia (Moratti won 44.9% of the votes to Pisapia’s 55.1%), a lawyer and long-time member of one of the ex-Communist Party’s spin-offs (Rifondazione Comunista), who had unexpectedly won the Democratic Party (PD) primaries last year. It has been eighteen years since a center-left mayor last governed Milan.
Mr. Berlusconi’s own performance in the first round of voting, when residents of Milan selected city council members, was just as disappointing. Ever the risk-taker, the prime minister had put his name on the ballot to raise the stakes (Italy’s electoral law allows national-level politicians to run in local elections regardless of whether they intend to serve), convinced that his name recognition would benefit his party. But things didn’t turn out quite so smoothly. Mr. Berlusconi’s support crumbled to half the votes he had received in 2006, the last comparable election.
The city that always nurtured him (Mr. Berlusconi’s real estate and commercial TV empire was born and is based in Milan) turned against him, weary of a struggling economy, high unemployment, mounting debt problems, and the never-ending distractions caused by Mr. Berlusconi’s controversial lifestyle.
In Naples, the other closely watched mayoral run-off, former justice Luigi De Magistris trounced center-right candidate Giovanni Lettieri by a margin of over 30% (65.3% to 34.6%). Many other cities, Cagliari, Novara, Trieste to namebut a few (even Arcore, the town where Mr. Berlusconi owns the villa now infamous for “bunga bunga” parties) fell in the hands of the center-left coalition in what was basically a landslide election.
For the embattled Italian prime minister, everything now hinges on the alliance with the Northern League of Umberto Bossi. Threatened by a disenchanted electorate, the two partners might decide to go one of two ways. They might hunker down and wait the storm out. “Our defeat is evident,” said Berlusconi in the vote’s immediate aftermath. “We lost. The only way forward is to stay calm and keep working. I’m a fighter. I talked to Bossi and he agrees with me we should stick together.” Or they might be pulled apart by their difference of opinions, the blame-game that will take place, and the Northern League’s increasing dissatisfaction with Mr. Berlusconi.
Either way, Italians may be in for more fear mongering, a glimpse of which we were given in the last few weeks. Once Letizia Moratti’s defeat seemed inevitable, electoral posters by the Northern League began alleging that, under Giuliano Pisapia, “gypsies” and Islamists would overtake Milan.
So much so that Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, who was visiting Italy last week, said he was “shocked by the use, during the campaign in Milan, of xenophobic messages against Romas and Muslims,” and that after the elections “it’s important to stop and think how certain parties have decided to conduct themselves.”
The kind of mud-slinging campaign of personal attacks and racial overtones both Mr. Berlusconi and the Northern League chose to embrace, as their chances of victory grew slimmer, seems now just a strategy of last resort. They appear to be worn-out political actors, their decline slow but unstoppable.
The center-left will get a shot at retaking the parliamentary majority in the general elections of 2013. Although it is not improbable that Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition may fracture, forcing the country to an early vote.
But to win, the opposition will need to absorb two lessons that emerged from the ballot box. First of all, Italians want a bigger say in who runs for office. In both Giuliano Pisapia’s and Luigi De Magistris’ cases, voters favored candidates from smaller parties over those handpicked by the political establishment (De Magistris is a member of Italia dei Valori (IdV), a centrist party whose focus is on the fight against corruption. In the first round of voting, he came in second behind Mr. Berlusconi’s candidate and ahead of the Democratic Party’s favorite).
Secondly, left-of-center voters appeared to respond positively to their coalition’s unity. The decision of the opposition to rally behind Pisapia and De Magistris allowed them to capture truly historic victories. In the run-off, they even won over the skeptic supporters of comedian Beppe Grillo’s populist, anti-party movement Cinque Stelle, who had fielded a few candidates of their own in the first round but refused to endorse anyone else.
Over the next few months, it will be interesting to watch if and how the governing coalition led by Mr. Berlusconi dissolves and, simultaneously, if and how the opposition coalesces around its newly found strength.
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