Italy’s government looks a little more comfortable

The Italian government, a coalition between populists and the centre-left, marked its first anniversary earlier this month. Its tenure has sometimes looked precarious (as is often the case in Italy), but it is breathing easier today after good results in a referendum and local elections.

The populist Five-Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party came together after the far-right League had walked out on a previous coalition with the Five Stars. Giuseppe Conte, an independent aligned with the populists, remained as prime minister. Coalition between the two was in many ways an obvious option, but it had failed to happen following the elections of both 2013 and 2018.

Long-term readers might remember that electoral and constitutional reform has been a perennial issue in Italy. Back in 2016 the then centre-left government held a referendum on a big package of changes, including reducing the size of parliament, curbing the powers of the Senate and effectively abolishing the provinces. It was heavily defeated, prompting the resignation of Matteo Renzi.

So Conte and his government knew to be cautious, and they picked just one change to put to referendum on Sunday – the reduction in the size of parliament, a particular favorite of the Five Stars. And they won a big victory, with 69.6% of voters approving the change, a margin of almost ten million votes. The Chamber of Deputies will now be reduced from 630 members to 400, and the Senate from 315 to 200.

That’s a nice morale boost for the Five-Stars, who have been languishing in the polls. But it comes as no surprise; reducing the number of politicians is always popular, and there was never any doubt the referendum would get up, despite some doubts about whether the promised savings were really significant. More interest was focused on the regional elections held at the same time.

We had look at regional elections back in January, when two regions – Calabria and Emilia-Romagna – went to the polls. The centre-right took control of Calabria, but the centre-left withstood a challenge from the far right in Emilia-Romagna. Another seven regions were scheduled to vote mid-year, but the elections were postponed until this month due to Covid-19.

Two of the seven, Liguria and Veneto, were previously controlled by the right, and in both they were comfortably re-elected. Each resolved itself into a straight left-right contest; the Five Stars didn’t bother to contest Liguria, and in Veneto they managed only 3.2%, down from 10.4% in 2015. A third region, the tiny Val d’Aosta, is controlled by local autonomist parties.

The big worry for the government was in the four regions previously controlled by the centre-left, and especially Tuscany, the biggest. There was much speculation beforehand that the League would run very close, possibly forcing the Democratic Party to make a change in its leadership.

But Tuscany held out. Latest results show the centre-left with a reasonably comfortable 48.6%, up a point on 2015. The combined right ticket has 40.4% (up 11.6%), with the Five Stars back on 6.4% (down 8.6%). The centre-left was also returned with a big majority in Campania, and more narrowly in Apulia.

The only region to change hands was Marche, where the right-wing ticket scored an expected victory with 49.1% (up 15.4%), well clear of the centre-left on 37.3% (down 6.3%) and the populists 8.6% (down 10.2%).

There’s something for everyone in the results overall. The Five Stars got their referendum up, but their electoral position is dire: even in the south, usually their stronghold, they struggled to reach 10% (11.1% in Apulia was their best). The centre-left has more to celebrate, but it’s still a matter of minimising losses rather than actual gains. It can’t disguise the fact that the right is still on the rise nationwide.

On the right, the League is still the senior partner, but the post-fascist Brothers of Italy are snapping at its heels. They will provide the new regional president in Marche, although the League narrowly outvoted them there, and they provided more votes than the League for the losing tickets in Apulia and Campania. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in each case lagged well behind its more right-wing partners.

It seems unlikely that Italy in the longer term will be able to support two far-right parties: one will probably shift to the centre, perhaps when Berlusconi is no longer on the scene. On current trends they are on track to wind up in government together. But with the national parliament still only halfway through its term, the Conte government still has plenty of time to show that it represents a viable alternative.

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