A big year in regional Italy

We haven’t looked at Italy for a few months, since a new government was sworn in early last September, putting the populist Five Star Movement in coalition with the centre-left Democratic Party and ejecting the far right League.

That sent a wave of relief through most other European capitals. But since it happened as a result of manoeuvres in parliament it didn’t tell us much about underlying public sentiment. There remained a common view that the far right was riding a wave of popular enthusiasm, and opinion polls have continued to show that the League, in alliance with centre-right and post-fascists, would win a majority in an early election.

But as long as the new governing alliance holds, there’s no need for a national election prior to 2023. And in the meantime, a grassroots movement of resistance to the far right – the Sardines – has acquired plenty of visibility, reflecting a determination in some, at least, to learn the lessons of Italy’s history.

So with a great deal at stake, it’s going to be well worth looking at regional elections this year in Italy as a guide to which way the tide is moving. The right has been on a roll in the regions lately: in the five that voted last year, the centre-left went in with a majority in every one, and the right-of-centre coalition won all of them (two led by the centre-right and three by the far right).

That left the centre-left in power in only eight of Italy’s 20 regions, and six of those are voting this year – of which the first two, Calabria and Emilia-Romagna, went to the polls last Sunday. (Two right-controlled regions, Liguria and Veneto, will also vote mid-year, for a total of eight.)

The results were a mixed bag. In Calabria, the right took power with a big swing, finishing with 55.3% to the centre-left’s 30.1%. But within the right, the centre-right Forza Italia narrowly held off the League, and its leader, Jole Santelli, will become premier.

In Emilia-Romagna, much the bigger and more closely-watched region, the centre-left held off a strong challenge from the right. It scored 51.4% of the vote, up 2.4% on last time, while the right was up 13.8% to 43.6% – about three-quarters of that with the League. The Democratic Party’s Stefano Bonaccini will retain the premier’s job.

The Five Stars, who have never done particularly well at regional level, managed only 3.5% in Emilia-Romagna, down almost ten points, but were up 2.4% to 7.4% in Calabria (although still falling short of the 8% threshold there).

For the left to retain Emilia-Romagna can hardly be counted as a triumph: the region (centred on Bologna) is famous for its radicalism, and the right has never won an election there since the war. But at least the far right wave has been shown to be something less than all-conquering.

While it’s natural for attention to focus on the left-right contest, just as important in the long run will probably be the question of what the centre-right does. Still led by the 83-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, it has generally tried to keep some distance from the League without precipitating a complete break. But it’s not clear for how long that will be a viable strategy.

A century ago Italian democracy tottered and then fell, not because its enemies were overwhelmingly strong, but because its supporters lacked the will to co-operate in its defence. The next year or two may tell us whether history will repeat itself.

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