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Italian Elections: Conte Supported at Salvini’s Expense

Three Questions to Marc Lazar

Italian Elections: Conte Supported at Salvini’s Expense
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

On September 20 and 21, the Italians were called to the polls in order to vote on three different ballots: a referendum to reduce the number of members of parliament by a third, municipal by-elections, and elections in seven regions (Veneto, Liguria, Campania, Tuscany, in the Marches, Apulia and Valle d'Aosta). Considering the fragile health and economic contexts, have the Italians encouraged or rejected the power in place? Marc Lazar, an expert in Italian politics, answers our questions.

The Italian regional elections are a democratic test for this country, which was hit with full force by the pandemic. What are the results for the ruling coalition, or for the right-wing opposition?

Italy has indeed held three ballots, a referendum, elections in seven regions, and municipal by-elections, while Covid-19 is still very much present - although much less devastating than last spring. A big question was whether Italians would go to vote, especially the elderly, who are very numerous in Italy. All health measures were taken. Nearly 54% of Italy went to the polls, despite some apprehension at the opening of the polling stations, due to the absence of many presidents and assessors who had to be replaced on very short notice. The Italians came in ever larger numbers when they were called upon to elect their presidents or regional councillors. This can legitimately be interpreted as a manifestation of genuine political concern.

What are the key takeaways of the  regional elections? The centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, or PD) emerged as the leading party when the total number of votes cast in all the voting regions was calculated. It lost the Marches, after a quarter of a century of left-wing rule, but managed to keep Campania, Puglia, and Tuscany. The case of Tuscany is interesting. It is a historically and traditionally left-wing region, but it is undergoing profound changes. The League has been steadily developing there (and indeed, with just over 40% of the vote, its candidate has this time scored double the votes of the party's previous candidate in 2015). With several very encouraging polls published about its progression, the League declared that this would be a "crucial match". Despite the erosion of the traditional communist culture and its organizational deficiencies, the PD still benefits from networks capable of mobilizing its voters to block the League’s development, as they put it. Moreover, its candidate, Eugenio Giani, was able to attract former voters of the Five Star Movement, and even moderate center-right electors who feel distrustful of the League. In Campania and Apulia, the PD won thanks to outgoing presidents Vincenzo De Luca and Michele Emiliano, two strong personalities with a flamboyant style whose speeches sometimes take on a populist tone. 

Salvini is certainly not threatened, but there are voices in his party questioning his leadership and even criticizing his style and political orientation.

Their ways of managing their regions are clearly appreciated, for instance when it comes to dealing with the epidemic, and they do not hesitate to practice political clientelism. In any case, despite the loss of the Marches, the PD emerges stronger from this election. On the other hand, the Five Star Movement does not carry any weight in these regional elections, nor does Italia Viva, Matteo Renzi’s small party.

The right-wing has enjoyed satisfying results, but they were not as good as hoped. A centre-right candidate, outgoing president, remains in Liguria. The League tops the list in Valle d'Aosta, thus establishing a remarkable progression. Luca Zaia, an influential member of the League, is also re-elected with an impressive score (77% of the votes). A candidate from the radical-right party Fratelli d'Italia won the Marches. Therefore, Matteo Salvini did not meet his goal to win Tuscany, and thus suffered another defeat, after failing to overthrow the left-wing in Emilia-Romagna in January. Luca Zaia's triumph overshadowed him, even though the new "Doge of Veneto" keeps repeating that he does not intend to run for the League’s leadership. Salvini is certainly not threatened, at least for the moment, but there are voices in his party questioning his leadership and even criticizing his style and political orientation.

What are the main political consequences of this vote at the regional level?

There are several of them. At the party level, the often-contested Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Democratic Party, is reinforced in his position and in his conflicting alliance policy with the Five Star Movement, which had aroused internal opposition. The failure of the Five Star Movement is obvious, even if its leaders seek to conceal it by claiming to be the brains behind the success of the "yes" to the referendum that the party had called. This party is divided between those who want to maintain the governmental alliance with the PD, and those who reject it. Matteo Renzi, who thought he could play a pivotal role with his small party Italia Viva, finds himself in great difficulty. At the level of the opposition parties, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia continues to deteriorate. The League is questioning its strategy. For nearly seven years now, Salvini’s strategy was to forge a truly national party, therefore present in the south, but this never occurred: because of that, the supporters of traditional northern regionalism, starting with Luca Zaia, want to go back to basics and increase their regions’ independence. Fratelli d'Italia, led by Giorgia Meloni, failed in taking over Apulia, but the party continues to make electoral progress and, more than ever, it intends to let its allies hear its voice. The entire right-wing coalition must adapt to the new situation that follows these elections.

This regional ballot shows the strong antagonism between, on the one hand, the right-wing coalition - Forza Italia, Lega, Fratelli d'Italia - and, on the other, the PD. If this is confirmed in the next elections, the Five Star Movement will be compelled to definitely choose between one side or the other, with the risk of leading to a split regardless of the decision taken.

 The entire right-wing coalition must adapt to the new situation that follows these elections.

Last but not least, Giuseppe Conte’s government and the M5S-PD coalition are expected to remain in power at least until 2022, when the new President of the Republic - a strategic position for Italian institutions - will be appointed, or even until the end of the legislature, in 2023. This should reassure the Europeans and the financial markets. Nevertheless, there will be clashes between the DP and the Five Star Movement on the recovery plan, for example, as well as on other issues, and even changes of ministers. However, one of the major risks for the government’s stability will come from the splits within the Five Star Movement, which could lead to defections in the Senate where the majority only hangs by a thread

Can the referendum renew the confidence of Italians in their institutions?

The referendum aimed to reduce the number of parliamentarians. The main parties were calling for a "yes" (with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and several internal divisions), while only small parties campaigned for a "no". However, now a real political and citizen debate began. Newspapers, such as La Repubblica and La Stampa, took a stand in favor of the "no", and there were heated controversies among constitutionalists, political scientists and intellectuals. The victory of the "yes" by almost 70% carries a twofold dimension. It is a victory for those who believe that the political class is plethoric and corrupt, but it is also an aspiration for new, more effective policy. It is now up to politicians to follow suit, by adopting a new electoral law and initiating additional institutional reforms, in order to make Italian democracy more effective and closer to the Italians.



Copyright : Tiziana FABI / AFP

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