Matteo Renzi should be feeling worried. Demotix/Massimo Valicchia. Some rights reserved.On Sunday, 31 May, regional elections will be held in seven very sensitive regions in Italy. It is thought that the results of these elections will - on the one hand - partly clarify the political situation, at present particularly confused and chaotic even by Italian standards, and - on the other - give some indications on possible future trends.
In Italy, opinion polls cannot be made public for a number of weeks prior to elections, and, because of this, forecasting is made much more complex and very much based on intuition and guesswork. The more influential and wealthier political parties, however, commission polls of their own, and the changing attitudes of the party leaders can give an idea of the directions being taken by public opinion.
Still strongly influenced by the unprecedented 40% victory in last year’s European elections, leaders of the ruling Democratic Party, equating the upcoming contest to a football game (not unusual in Italy), were forecasting a crushing 7-0 victory. At later stages, wiser counsels prevailed and the probable score was given as 6-1 (The Veneto region appears to be safely in the hands of the “Northern League”), or - in a “worst case scenario” - 5-2.
In the past few days this amusing and perhaps irresponsible outflow of optimistic numbers has ceased and Prime Minister Renzi himself has stated that even a score of 4-3 would be a victory, and what is essential in these cases is to win. In even more recent statements both Renzi and some of his Cabinet Ministers have been quoted as saying that the outcome of local elections would not, in any case, influence the government’s path toward ambitious, albeit controversial reforms.
The early expressions of confidence in the result were partly due to the virtual collapse of the once powerful Centre Right forces, with Silvio Berlusconi's “Forza Italia” party in a state of apparently irreversible disintegration, with no credible alternative in sight. This evaluation, however, did not take into account the extraordinary surge in popularity of the “Northern League”, once almost exclusively regional but now active on a national basis, guided by the latest rising star in Italian politics, Matteo Salvini. Some irony has been expressed on the circumstance that Matteo Renzi’s most dangerous rival is also called Matteo and that also he, like the Prime Minister, owes his initial appearance as a public figure to the successful participation in a televised quiz show.
Salvini’s political stance is difficult to define, but it can best be described as a continuation of his Party’s traditional xenophobic and – above all – anti-European positions, in the capable hands of a youthful, well-spoken and very persuasive figure who uses his “boy next door” appearance to mask extremely virulent political positions. He has been assaulting the media and appears almost daily on one or the other of Italy’s innumerable TV Talk shows in which he invariably outshines his opponents in an admirable display of political savoir-faire.
Ever present in the background, stubbornly ignored by the more traditional parties, lies also the basically Euro sceptic “Five Star Movement”, headed by former comedian Beppe Grillo, which, until the most recent opinion polls, held on to a respectable 20% of electoral support, but which, according to spreading rumours, has recently seen an increase of its popularity precisely in those regions (such as Campania and Liguria) in which the Democratic Party is seen to be facing an uphill struggle.
The picture has been further complicated by the recent electoral victories of the Podemos movement in Spain and of the right wing candidate, Andrzej Duda, in the Polish presidential elections. Both of these, radically different though they may be, share a fundamental anti-European stance in tune with the positions of the Italian Democratic Party’s main opponents, who have not hesitated to express enthusiastic support for the victorious sides in Spain and Poland, thus touching upon issues that ought to be far removed from those generally associated with local, administrative elections.
It has to be noted that, in Italy, local elections are based on a run-off principle, and the person elected as “President” has to obtain at least 50% of the votes cast. This is unlikely to happen in the first round of any of the seven contests, and even though the Democratic Party may come out ahead in as many as five of them, the danger is that the voters adhering to the other two parties will converge on the second placed candidate, in the name of anti-European and anti-immigration principles, thus depriving the Democratic Party candidate of victory at the second round.
All this leads to the supposition that the race will be a close one, and that the governing party may actually come out of the contest in a weaker position than the one held presently, depriving Prime Minister Renzi’s hold onto the scattering of “independent” parliamentarians and, what is more important, on the growing opposition within his own party.
In Italy it is extremely rare for a defeated political leader to resign, and so a government crisis, though not impossible, is extremely unlikely, but it is certain that things will not be the same in Italy after May 31, and that Prime Minister Renzi will be facing a much more difficult struggle.
It is not to be excluded, however, that Renzi – in case of a particularly disappointing result – could threaten resignation, only in the aim of bringing his dissident party members to heel. At the moment, most Italian parliamentarians are terrified at the prospect of early elections because many of them would face almost insurmountable difficulty at getting re-elected without the goodwill and support of the leader.
Many of them, furthermore, have not completed five years in Parliament and would therefore fail to qualify for the not indifferent pension which is bestowed upon former Members of Parliament. This threat would almost certainly bring the dissidents back in line, and slightly offset the weakening effect of the elections.
This situation could also have far-reaching repercussions on the European level, depriving the already vacillating EU leadership of the strong support of a reliable ally. In case of negative results, Renzi would be forced to mitigate his very strong pro-European stance thus further weakening the decision-making abilities of the Union and consequently diminish its already waning authority.