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A new miracle in Milan

Local elections in Italy mark a defeat of Berlusconi's administration, and nowhere more so than in the moral capital of Italy.
Michele Monni
19 May 2011

When Vittorio de Sica and Cesare Zavattini were creating one of the masterpieces of Italian Neorealism, they were hardly thinking about elections or anything related to polls, political coalitions and politicians. But what happened in Milan on the May 16 has something of the transcendental about it: a veritable Miracle in Milan.

The round of Italian elections that closed this Monday were only for local administrations, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi emerged as the big loser as he won only a third of the votes he had himself set as a benchmark for success in his hometown and the stronghold of his party (PdL) Milan. In a big surprise, Giuliano Pisapia, candidate of a leftwing coalition won 48.1% of the votes for the post of mayor of the city of Milan, against the 41.6% taken by Letizia Moratti, the incumbent, and a former minister in an earlier Berlusconi government. The two will face a runoff on May 30.

Someone has said that the party is over. Berlusconism as an invincible narrative and the charismatic self-made man tale has fallen under the axe of reality. There is no more room for systematic deceit, populist propaganda and manipulation of the media. This time the Prime Minister cannot wave fake polls wielded as weapons of mass distraction. This time there is a vote of thirteen million Italians  who believe that his political parable is not an inevitable destiny and even ‘a divine plan’. Running as the main name on the party section of the Milan ballot, Berlusconi took only a third of the 53,000 votes he won in the same election in 2006, a figure he set as his new target last week while giving a speech in support of the government supported candidate, Letizia Moratti.

It is worth noting that it was Berlusconi himself who announced that the election was more than a local dispute. Mr B. defined the vote in Milan as ‘a national test’, advocating (as he did when he entered the political arena in 1994) a ‘referendum’ on his own persona. Well, the response of voters has been adamantly clear. The prime minister has lost his referendum - lost dramatically in the city where his fairytale (or nightmare, some would argue) began almost 20 years ago, and where the right has built a fortress which seemed impregnable through a hegemony that appeared insuperable.

This vote depicts first of all and principally a disastrous personal defeat for the Prime Minister. In the last few weeks Berlusconi has polarised and radicalised the entire campaign with a simple clear strategy: a systematic smear campaign against political opponents in the cities involved in the elections and by a permanent siege against the institutions in the country. In Milan he attacked (not for the first time) Milanese magistrates allegedly guilty of bonding with the candidate of the left, defined by Berlusconi as a dangerous and illiberal extremist. But this time the trick has not worked as he expected, and a sad grin has taken the place of his notorious salesman’s smile.

But this vote also marks the political victory of the opposition: of all oppositions. The leader of the Democratic Party, Pierluigi Bersani before the elections said that he would have felt satisfied by two solid victories (in Turin and Bologna) and two second ballots (Milan and Naples). This is exactly how it went. 

Milan goes to a run-off ballot for the first time since 1997, with Berlusconi, who sees his preference votes more than halved compared to the 2006 municipal elections, and the Democratic Party becoming the first party of the city. But this time not only Berlusconi has lost. In contrast to what happened in the national political elections three years ago, PdL’s preferences were not drained by the Northern League; in Milan Berlusconi’s party has lost almost 5 points on the 2010 regional vote and slightly more than 3 points on the elections in 2008. The expected reinforcement of La Lega in the Lombardy region has failed to take place and instead of strengthening and expanding its consensus, Bossi’s party has seen its fiefdom’s borders fading and shrinking.

Significantly, in important northern cities such as Turin and Bologna, traditionally leftwing strongholds, the left coalition has confirmed its position as a leading force, sending respectively Piero Fassino and Virginio Merola to the highest city post at the first turn. Major administrative cities such as Trieste, Savona, Varese, Pordenone, Rovigo and Novara, traditionally included in the conservative spectrum, go to the second round as well, with the centre left candidate leading the competition. “The north wind” quoting Pierluigi Bersani “has begun to change direction.” 

For the Northern League this is more than just an alarm bell. The Party is paying a very high price in terms of loyalty in its hardcore base due to its metamorphosis from feisty antiestablishment party to a government party. It is also suffering as a result of the coalition bond that has forced La Lega to support in parliament Berlusconi’s infamous ad personam bills, the war in Libya, and the fact that most of its voters have not seen true federalism delivered. The additional forces to the left of the Democratic Party are growing significantly all over the country. Not only the IDV (Italy of Values), with the exploits of ex magistrate Luigi De Magistris in Naples (also at ballot in two weeks), but also radical left parties such as Sinistra e Liberta’, led by the Puglia governor Nichi Vendola, and candidates of the Five Stars Movement inspired by activist and comedian Beppe Grillo have achieved, especially in Milan and Bologna, stunning results.

But again, the outcome in Milan remains the most striking. Milan is the most important city in the north and some would argue of the country. It is the economic and the financial engine of Italy: alone it produces more than the 10% of the entire Italian GDP, and it has always represented the moral capital of Italy from the Risorgimento to the Partisans Resistance movement during the Second War World. The incredible result of the centre left and the defeat of Berlusconi fundamentally re-shape the perception of the electorate in regard to the self-assumed popularity of the government, sending a clear and unequivocal message to the Berlusconi administration and to its coalition party the Northern League. Maybe, after dozens of scandals, several cases of corruption, a political agenda defined by indecisiveness and zero accountability, Italian voters have understood that the power to change things still resides in their hands. 

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