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What a Center-Left Victory Means for Italian Politics

Three questions to Marc Lazar

What a Center-Left Victory Means for Italian Politics
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

The Italian center-Left won in local elections in October, leaving the Right wing defeated. What does this electoral result mean for the country’s center-Left alliance, the Right-wing coalition, and most importantly, for the future of Draghi’s government? Can this election symbolize a global revival of social democracy in Europe, as did the German elections? Marc Lazar, specialist in Italian politics, answers our questions. 

First Milan, Bologna, Naples. Then Rome and Turin. After years of stagnation, Italy’s center-Left took its revenge during the October 17 and 18 municipal elections, winning key cities. What does this return of the center-Left mean?

The center-Left did indeed win a rather resounding victory in these elections. It led in 52 of the 118 municipalities with over 15,000 residents where votes were cast, 15 more than during the previous election. This party won Rome and Turin, which in 2016 had been won over by two representatives of the 5-Star Movement (a populist party in full crisis since it came to power in 2018). The main center-Left party, the Partito Democratico (PD), won 26 out of the 30 tiebreakers between a center-Left and center-Right candidate, by either leading or supporting a coalition. It has even regained some votes in some peripheral areas where it had lost its foothold 5 years ago, as is the case for Turin.

The PD's alliance strategy has thereby been successful. This consisted in seeking to build coalitions, in particular with the 5-Star Movement. In the first round, the PD had 34 coalitions in the 118 municipalities with more than 15,000 inhabitants. In the second round, it had built coalitions in the 58 cities where the Movement had a candidate. It is hard to tell if the win of the PD was due to local circumstances (such as the quality of the candidates and their campaigns, or the desire for an alternative), due to the fact that the PD is the main supporter of Draghi's highly popular government, or rather, due to a combination of both.

We must be wary of hasty conclusions. Some have already been proclaiming that social democracy is back in Europe.

However, we must be wary of hasty conclusions. Some have already been proclaiming that social democracy is back in Europe, by aggregating the results of the SPD in the last German elections or those of the Norwegian Labour Party last September. These were municipal elections, held mainly in large and medium-sized cities, with a very specific voting system and a record low turnout of 43.9%.

In Turin, for example, only 42.1% of voters showed up for the second round (6 points lower than in the first round). In Rome, voter turnout was only 40.6%, 8.5 points lower than in the first round. Nevertheless, the center-Left consolidated itself in central Italy, traditionally its area of strength, and progressed in the South (27 municipalities won, 10 more than in 2016). Yet, it stagnated in the North. The PD needs to come up with an attractive program for future elections and consolidate its unifying strategy.

These elections point towards a center-Left vs. center-Right, form of bipolarism underway, crushing the 5-Star Movement which had been disrupting the political party system since 2003. The Movement is now divided over what strategy to adopt. Should it uphold the PD alliance, at the risk of being overpowered by it, or should it keep its autonomy at the risk of being marginalized?

But there is another question. A part of the electorate does not recognize itself in this bipolarism and prefers not to vote. What will these voters choose to do in the Italian general elections scheduled for 2023? The PD wants to bring together a large number of people, from the 5-Star Movement to small centrist groups. However, a number of centrist representatives do not intend to give in to the siren calls of PD leader Enrico Letta and will seek to form a true centrist pole. These representatives include former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and European deputy Carlo Calenda, who headed a "civic" list in Rome and who obtained more than 19% of the vote in the first round. The outcome of the next general election, at the end of the legislature of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, is still very much uncertain. There will be other issues at stake for this election and the electoral law will not be the same. As a result, surprises are to be expected, especially since the center-Right is stronger in smaller cities and provinces.

Precisely, where do the center right Forza Italia, the Lega Nord of Matteo Salvini and Giorgio Meloni stand after these election results?

The center-Right unquestionably suffered a heavy defeat, although the results should be interpreted with caution. In the north of the country for instance, they won 26 municipalities with more than 15,000 residents (3 more than in the previous election), compared with 12 for the center-Left. They can also boast of winning Trieste. But the stinging failure of the candidate chosen by the center-Right, and especially by Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d'Italia who received less than 40% of the vote in the second round, is symbolic. Truth is, the center-Right suffers from a lack of candidates for this type of election. They are often weak and less prepared to handle the responsibility of the position they seek. They are also deeply divided on many issues.

Matteo Salvini's Lega Nord is present in Mario Draghi's government, but its attitude is ambivalent. On one hand, some of its leaders want to appear as a more moderate center-Right force, participating in the implementation of the recovery plan as elaborated mainly by Mario Draghi, and in the writing of the next finance law. On the other, a part of the League intends to stick to protest positions and to challenge certain measures taken by the executive.

Truth is, the center-Right suffers from a lack of candidates for this type of election.

Being a "party of government and a party of struggle", as they say in Italy, can be profitable. Yet, at the moment, this penalizes the League. Matteo Salvini himself has lost some of his popularity. 

Fratelli d'Italia is deploying a completely different strategy, since it is in opposition. They performed poorly in these elections, but the voting intentions for the next elections project them to be the major party. They nonetheless still have a credibility problem, which was seen when Giorgia Meloni made highly ambiguous remarks after a violent demonstration in Rome in which a fascist group attacked the CGIL headquarters, Italy's main trade union confederation. As someone who began her political career in a fascist movement before becoming a reactionary, she claims no nostalgia for fascism. Yet, she does not distance herself with those who still claim to be fascists, some of whom are members of her own party.

Finally, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia has been highly reduced despite his candidate’s victory in Trieste and at the head of the Calabria region. Il Cavaliere seeks to be the moderate representative of the center-Right coalition. But the coalition appears very heterogeneous, since it includes the Lega on the one hand, and Fratelli d'Italia on the other, both clearly populist. However, according to opinion polls before this election tour, the center-Right had 44% to 47% of voting intentions. All options remain possible. 

In the aftermath of the elections, what does the future hold for Mario Draghi, both for him personally and his government? 

I believe that the government's position has been strengthened after these elections. Draghi has the support of the center-Left and of the population who, according to the polls, want to prioritize health, employment and security. This in itself likely enabled him to win his cities. Moreover, these newly elected mayors could relay the management of Italy’s recovery plan at the local level. The center-Right, who was initially hoping for early elections if Draghi became president early next year, may be a little more cautious. It will probably need more time to agree on its strategy and on its program. The 5-Star Movement wants to avoid early elections, as many of its parliament members and senators could be sent home should that be the case. Mario Draghi can therefore draw up his budget bill with a certain degree of serenity, continue to strengthen his position in Europe and, as far as the French are concerned, sign the Quirinal Treaty with Emmanuel Macron, to seal the Franco-Italian friendship. 

Who will be the future President of the Italian Republic? That’s the million-dollar question. Several scenarios exist. One is that Sergio Mattarella, despite much denying, exceptionally extends his term of office by one year, which would allow Mario Draghi to succeed him just before the elections to the Chambers. Another is that Mario Draghi becomes President of the Republic at the beginning of next year, and the Parliament manages to find a President of the Council to lead the government for a year. The third case scenario is that the new President dissolves the chambers. Either way, whatever the outcome of the elections, the President appears more than ever to be the guarantor of Italy's EU commitments, and above all, of the success of the stimulus package. This rings true especially if the center-Right wins, despite legitimate questions about its pro-Europeanism, and more generally, about the measures it might take on various issues, including immigration. History shows that the President can have real power. Finally, a fourth and final scenario is that Mario Draghi withdraws his presidential candidacy, even though there is a consensus that he should hold this office. In this scenario, another candidate emerges, and the legislature comes to an end. Super Mario's mission would end in 2023. Temporarily.



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