Italy went to the polls last Sunday and Monday. It was only for local elections (with one exception, which we’ll come to), and elections are staggered so only a minority of municipalities were voting. But those included the country’s four biggest cities, so it was an important test of public opinion, and the first such test since the multi-party government of Mario Draghi took office back in February.
Draghi’s government embraces most of the political spectrum, including the centre-left Democrats, the centre-right Forza Italia, the far-right (but possibly moderating) League, and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement. The one major party outside it is the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy – although it still co-operates electorally with both Forza Italia and the League.
Draghi, an independent technocrat, has no party of his own, but his government has the potential to rearrange the party system. And since no national election is due for another year and a half, that process may still have some time to run.
So what do the local elections tell us? The big story, although not unexpected [link added], was the collapse of the 5-Star vote. In two of the four big cities it had won the mayoralty last time, but this time was eliminated in the first round, falling from 35.3% to 19.1% in Rome, and from 30.9% to 9.0% in Turin. In Milan its vote went from 10.1% to 2.7%, and in Naples, where it had 9.6% in 2016, it did not even bother to run separately, although as part of the centre-left ticket its vote held at 9.7%.
The gains mostly went to the centre-left. Democrat mayor Giuseppe Sala was re-elected in Milan with 57.7% of the vote, a swing of 16% in his favor, and the party’s candidate won with 63.0% in Naples, replacing a left-wing mayor who had won 42% of the first-round vote last time. The other two will go to a runoff at the end of next week, but in each the centre-left is strongly favored to win.
The right’s vote declined in three of the four cities but recovered strongly in Turin, up from 9.0% to 30.9% – not enough to beat the Democrats, who went from 41.8% to 43.9%, but apparently soaking up most of the old 5-Star vote (which it conspicuously failed to do in Rome).
There was also one regional election: in Calabria, whose regional president died last year, triggering an early poll. The result showed very little change from last year; there was some reshuffling on the left, but the right-of-centre alliance, fronted by Forza Italia, was re-elected with 54.5% of the vote, down just 0.8%.
Sicily, also controlled by the right, is due to vote next year, but otherwise there should be no more regional elections until 2023.
What does it all mean? Big cities, as we know, are not always representative of the country at large; even if the right is losing ground among urban voters, it may be making compensating gains elsewhere. Many countries seem to be seeing growing polarisation between the conservative countryside and the more liberal cosmopolitan cities.
Opinion polls for Italy as a whole show relatively little change since the beginning of the year. Brothers of Italy have gained at the expense of the League to be now roughly equal with each other and with the Democrats; the 5-Stars are a little further back but still respectable, while Forza Italia is stuck in single digits.
So while there is not enough so far to shift the general view that the right is better placed for the next election, the left is not without hope. What it needs most is for the 5-Stars, now led by former non-aligned prime minister Giuseppe Conte, to find a niche where they can command a substantial share of the vote but also be a secure part of a left-of-centre coalition rather than (as in the past) a proverbial loose cannon.
The weekend’s voting may or may not have advanced that goal. We’ll take another look after the second round results are in.