Can Europe Make It?

Italian regional elections: and the winner is...?

Thanks to extremely complex electoral laws and the ease with which alliances are created and broken, as is usual in Italy, all sides claim victory. However, there are some striking conclusions we can draw from the results.

Carlo Ungaro
2 June 2015
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Matteo Salvini has established Lega Nord as the main right-wing opposition. Demotix/Cosimo Consoli. All rights reserved.As many had foreseen, the results of last Sunday’s regional elections in Italy appear to indicate a period of renewed, accentuated and totally irrational turmoil, perhaps even terminating with yet another Government crisis and the call for early elections.

Thanks to extremely complex electoral laws and the ease with which alliances and coalitions are created and broken, as is usual in Italy all sides claim victory, and it is not easy to perceive reality through the smokescreen of triumphant statements.

At times, on the surface, the victory claims appear plausible: the ruling Democratic Party, led by the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, has, after all, succeeded in securing five out of the seven contested regions. Silvio Berlusconi, generally considered a spent force in Italian politics, can boast of the fact that his party’s candidate won the elections in Liguria - traditionally a stronghold of the Left - while Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement has retained its position as Italy’s second largest political force.

Menwhile, the Northern League, led by the wily, capable, Matteo Salvini has confirmed its surging presence and become the undisputed leader of the country’s right-wing electorate.

All but one of these claims, however, fail to stand up to a more in-depth analysis, and it is particularly interesting to note how badly Renzi’s Democratic Party has fared in spite of its apparent success.

A Left in trouble?

The party’s loss in the Veneto region, traditionally a secure stronghold of the Northern League, was expected, but the Democratic Party, in spite of Renzi’s outspoken support for its candidate, suffered an unprecedented debacle, gathering the lowest percentage ever obtained by a left-wing party (including the Communists) in the history of the Republic.

The most humiliating and meaningful defeat, however, came in Liguria, traditionally a left-wing region, on which Renzi himself expended much energy in the course of the electoral campaign. The Renzi supporters were quick to lay the blame for the disaster on the left wing of the Party, which ran a candidate of its own, obtaining a respectable percentage even though it was lower than what they had expected.

The rift in the Democratic party, however, is not confined to Genova and Liguria, and is certainly a phenomenon to which Renzi – especially now in an apparently weakened position – should pay the greatest attention, before it spreads to national level.

In Liguria it was, in fact, the arrogant attitude of the mainstream party which was to blame, with the insistent support of an unpopular candidate whose name was produced through primaries whose legitimacy were hotly contested. To add insult to injury, the Democratic fiasco gave Berlusconi’s struggling “Forza Italia” its only winning candidate in the contest, but more about this subject later.

But also in the “winning” regions, the Democratic Party faced - and will continue to face – severe obstacles, especially in Campania, where official support was given to the winning candidate in spite of his having been placed on a “black list” by Parliament’s own anti-Mafia commission, presided over by one of the leading political figures in the Party itself (Ms. Rosi Bindi).

According to current Italian legislation, the winner, because of being a convicted criminal, will not be allowed to take up his position as Governor, and this will certainly add to Mr. Renzi’s embarrassment.

Also in the remaining Southern region, Puglia, the winner, locally popular, was not openly supported by Renzi and claims that, after his victory he did not receive the expected congratulatory telegram or telephone call from the Prime Minister.

The remaining three regions were widely expected to remain firmly in Democratic hands, and so scarcely constitute a triumph for the party. It has to be added that the party has experienced a dramatic drop in overall support, losing about ten percentage points and about two million voters from the unprecedented 41% triumph of last year’s European elections. This is a severe blow to Renzi’s stated ambition of forming a “National Party”, which would include rival factions and remain a dominant fixture in Italian politics.

Berlusconi: the final goodbye?

As the venerable Italian proverb states: “Though Athens weeps, Sparta is not laughing”, and another of the self-proclaimed “winners”, Silvio Berlusconi’s once dominating Forza Italia, emerges severely, perhaps irredeemably damaged, and this electoral experience could really signal the end of Berlusconi’s career as an active and influential political figure.

The Berlusconi owned Media, of course, point out the party’s victory in the hitherto hostile region of Liguria where one of a disappearing breed of loyal party faithful was elected Governor. This is certainly true, but while the victorious candidate bears, as it were, the “Forza Italia” label, his election is mainly due to the support of the Northern League and of other minor right-wing parties. Elsewhere, and on a national level, the party has experienced the most disastrous results in its history.

From comedian to serious politician

As for the Five Star Movement, it has to be said that its claims of “victory” are partly justified; first of all because it remains the country’s second political party, and also because it has recuperated some of the great numeric losses incurred after the 2013 elections.

The results, however, were not as successful as some of the supporters had predicted, and there are limited reasons to celebrate.

It is worth noting that, in the course of this campaign, the Movement went through a drastic change in style, eschewing the rough, sometimes obscene language used in the past and appearing on some of the main television political talk shows dressed, uncharacteristically, in dark suits and neckties. They were even compared to Jehovah's Witnesses. The appearances of its flamboyant founder and leader, former comedian Beppe Grillo were cut to an absolute minimum, and this caused speculation as to whether the Movement was experiencing a leadership crisis.

The Northern League rises again?

Only one of the exuberant victory claims appears fully justified, for the Northern League has definitely taken over the leadership of Italy’s political Right, and will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

This causes some concern because of the League’s strident xenophobic and anti-European stances, and there is a real danger that their success will condition the Government’s more traditional pro-European and more tolerant immigration policies, especially since the powerful Five Stars Movement – though certainly not a political ally of the League – is basically critical of the European Union and resistant to the massive inflow of migrants through the Mediterranean.

A pessimist view of the recent election could point out another winner: the abstention rate which has now reached unprecedented levels with voter turnout seldom above 50%, and this in country which, until recently boasted of voter turnouts much closer to 80%.

It is too early to assess to what extent these results will condition the ruling party’s and, of course, the Prime Minister’s prestige and decision making power, but it appears undeniable that great changes should be expected, which could eventually influence Italy’s role within the EU leadership.

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