Where is Italy headed after the first elections in the corona crisis? (Part 1)

Maurizio Coppola

On September 20th and 21st 2020, elections were held in Italy for the first time after the lockdown and in the middle of the second wave of the coronavirus crisis. Voters were asked to decide on the reduction of the size of the Parliament and to elect new executives and parliaments in seven regions. The results confirm two things: a growing divide between the population and political institutions and a strengthening of regional governors.

Italy was by far one of the countries most affected by the coronavirus worldwide during the first wave. From March to May, Italy recorded 4500 to 6300 new cases of corona every day, hundreds of deaths (the peak was reached on March 27th with 969 deaths) and intensive care units throughout the country were stretched to the limit. After a quieter summer, infection rates started to rise again from mid-August onwards, but number of deaths has so far remained low. At the beginning of September, Italy, like most other European countries, entered the so-called second wave. But something had changed. During the first wave, the average age of those infected was relatively high at 58 years and it was primarily the northern regions that had the highest numbers. From September onwards however there was a change in direction as the virus hit younger people and the regions of the South in particular.

The health crisis very quickly translated into an economic and social crisis for two reasons. On the one hand, many economic activities were stopped from one day to the next and many workers were left without income. The extension of wage guarantee scheme and the introduction of a ban on dismissal during the corona crisis acted as a safety net for some sections of the working classes, but many people remained excluded from any form of social security. On the other hand, many industrial companies continued to produce despite high infection rates, putting workers at risk. It was in this complex context that elections were held at the end of September.

Fewer parliamentarians, less expenditure, less democracy

The proposal to reduce the size of parliament was one of the Five Star Movement’s (M5S) main promises when it took office two years ago. According to the M5S worldview, politics costs too much, the “caste” is unjustly enriching itself at the expense of taxpayers and consequently representative institutions are inefficient. The constitutional amendment that was put to a referendum proposed reducing the number of parliamentarians by 36.5% or 345 seats, from 630 to 400 seats in parliament and from 315 to 200 seats in the senate. The campaign focused on the savings this would mean for the public purse, which according to the M5S amounted to 500 million euros per legislative period. Although a study by an independent observatory on public finances contradicted these claims and estimated annual cost savings at only 0.007% of total public expenditure, the M5S’s claims dominated the political debate. The yes vote was officially supported by all major parties and won overwhelming support in the population: 69.96% in favour with 51.12% of voter participation. This result can be read as a triumph of populist resentment towards the power of elites.

In certain left-wing circles, the result was viewed positively. The high “yes” vote was understood as the expression of an ever-widening gap between the rulers and the governed and therefore a popular attack on bourgeois parliamentary democracy. This reading has at least two flaws. Firstly, it almost completely ignores the consequences of the reduction in the number of MPs on the functioning of democratic representation. We should decry the negative effects for democracy of a reduction in the number of representatives. Similarly, the current 3% election treshold should be cause for concern as it means that smaller parties are excluded from the parliamentary system, leading to a narrowing of democratic representation. The Democratic Party (PD) supported the yes vote on the condition that it would in turn be supported in putting forward a switch to a purely proportional electoral system. However the proposed system would include a raising of the threshold from 3% to 5%. The real goal of this referendum thus becomes clear: it is not about saving on public spending but rather about excluding opposition forces from the game of bourgeois democracy.

The second problem with viewing the referendum result as a sign of potential isolated reading of the result. In addition to the referendum, Italians were also voting on new regional presidents and parliaments in seven regions. As these were the first elections since the start of the pandemic, they are an indicator of the popular consensus on the health, economic and social measures taken by the respective regional governors. The interpretation of the referendum results must therefore necessarily be combined with the interpretation of the voting results in order to obtain a complete picture of the elections.

Regional elections marked by clientelism

Regional elections were held in Valle d’Aosta, Veneto, Liguria, Tuscany, Marche, Campania and Puglia. In Italy, the distribution of public funds via patronage networks has always played a role in regional elections. Candidates mobilise their electorate not on the basis of a political programme, but on the basis of “electoral spending packages”.. In the run up to elections, candidates set in motion a powerful, personal-political machine structured around informal networks. The patronage-based connection between politics and organised crime has long been a cause for concern and Europol has warned of the risks that financial aid from the European Union to Italy could fall into the wrong hands. But the roots of clientelism run far deeper than the distribution of funds and have to do with the connection between politics and local entrepreneurship. Such machinations form part of party strategy as standard, as political forces seek to extend their hegemony through the construction of long-lasting links between positions in national and regional institutions and popular consensus. Just before the regional elections, the public prosecutor opened two investigations concerning the governor of the Campania region Vincenzo De Luca (PD), one for public procurement fraud in connection with the construction of Covid hospitals, the other for illegitimate aid and fraud in the employment of institutional staff.

The rise of the far Right and the renewal of the two-party system

The results of the regional elections saw the re-election of incumbent presidents in practically all regions, the only exception being the Marche region, where after 25 years of Democratic Party dominance, the presidency went to neo-fascist candidate Francesco Acquaroli of the Brothers of Italy party (FdI). He was elected with 49.13% of the vote. The impressive election result in the Marche region is an sign of the growing strength of the neo-fascist party led by Giorgia Meloni in all areas of the country. Brothers of Italy tripled its share of the vote compared with the previous year and even overtook the Lega in Puglia (12.63% vs. 9.57%). Matteo Salvini’s position as the leader of the centre-Right coalition had already begun to look tenious, and the recent results have given the charismatic Giorgia Meloni (FdI) a further boost.

In Puglia, the PD candidate Michele Emiliano was re-elected with 46.78% of the votes., The PD has ruled the southern Italian region since 2005, wining four mandates. In Tuscany, the PD also maintainedd power with a new candidate, Eugenio Giani, who gained 48.62% of the vote. He was able both to stop the advance of the Right in this historical Left stronghold, and to confirm the parliamentary hegemony of centre-Left in the region. However, one important change did take place in Tuscany. For the first time in almost seventy years, the socialist Left failed to get any seats in the regional parliament. The list Toscana a Sinistra of the candidate Tommaso Fattori – which along with Potere al Popolo in Campania represented the only left-wing alternative to the three ruling blocks of the centre-Left, the centre-Right and the Five Star Movement – received 2.86% and failed to gain any seats due to the local 6% treshold; only five years ago it made it into parliament with 6.27%.

In Liguria, the centre-Right coalition was returned to power. Former Forza Italia (FI) politician Giovanni Toti was re-elected as regional president with 56.13% of the vote, under the flag of Cambiamo!, the party he founded in 2019. This re-election came as a surprise, as the regional administration has invited mainly negative headlines over the last two years. On August 14th 2018, the Morandi bridge in Genoa collapsed causing 43 deaths and making more than 500 people homeless. Moreover, Liguria is one of the regions with the highest rates of coronavirus in Italy.

The results in the Marche, Puglia, Tuscany and Liguria regions can be interpreted as a return to bipolarismo, the two-party system that characterised Italian politics from 1947 to the early 1990s. The right-wing coalition (Lega, Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia) is opposed to the centre-Left coalition led by the Nicola Zingaretti‘s PD . The return to a two-party system is also bound up with the slow decline of the M5S.

The decline of the Five Star Movement

About ten years ago, the populist M5S caused an earthquake in the Italian political landscape by appearing on the political stage as a so-called “protest party“. With the slogan “neither Left nor Right”, and its clear stance against the “political caste”, the party, which had been founded only four years earlier, came a surprising first in the national parliamentary elections in 2013 with around 25% of the popular vote. In the national elections of 2018, the M5S gained further ground as it received more than a 32% share (10.7 million voters) and became the strongest party in Italy and formed the government. However, the Five Star’s astonishing rise was matched by a rapid decline. In the European elections of 2019 it only achieved 17% and in the recent regional elections its result fluctuated between 3.25% (Veneto) and 11.12% (Puglia).

The massive loss of votes can primarily be attributed to the Five Star’s incoherence in government. In June 2018, the M5S entered into a pact with the Matteo Salvini’s League. Though the M5S was the bigger party, and the position of PM was held by a nuetral figure in the Giuseppe Conte, Salvini was able to effetively rule single-handedly for 18 months from his position as Minister of the Interior. The M5S eventually broke from the coalition in September 2019 in order to form a coalition with the PD – the same party that in the Five Star worldview represents precisely the kind of “worn out politics” it defined itself in opposition to. Although the M5S was able to implement some of its flagship reforms, such as the basic income for people living in poverty, it allowed itself first to bow to the dictates of the League, only to then back down and form a pact with the PD against Matteo Salvini. The M5S has lost political and strategic credibility in the last two years. Many disappointed people have left the party and 35 elected members have left the parliamentary party in the last two years. The disappointing election result has finally led to an internal power struggle over the leadership of the party. It remains to be seen how the M5S will emerge from this internal party crisis.

Regional governors reinforced

However, these regional elections also point to another trend. In Veneto (3.25%) and Campania (9.93%) the M5S lost ground and the traditional parties in the (centre) left-right spectrum were able to hold it. The results here do not indicate a “return to the two-party system”, but rather a concentration of power in the hands of the incumbent regional governors. In Campania, the right wing candidate of the PD Vincenzo De Luca was re-elected with 69.48% and in Veneto, Luca Zaia of the League was re-elected with 76.79%.

The overwhelming success of the current regional president Luca Zaia in Veneto cannot be attributed exclusively to a strengthening of the Right as Zaia’s politics are more to the centre than the League‘s leader Salvini. Zaia represents above all the interests of the numerous small and medium-sized enterprises in the North East that form the backbone Italy’s export-oriented production. In addition, Zaia‘s management of the coronavirus crisis has won him much support. Although Veneto initially had the highest incidence of the virus after Lombardy, Zaia was quick to roll out mass testing and even introduced compulsory testing for all those with mild symptoms. This made it possible to identify and isolate positive cases more quickly in comparison with the rest of Italy.

In Campania, on the other hand, the PD’s Vincenzo De Luca was re-elected with the support of no less than 14 lists, successfully mobilising his traditional clientele. During his first five years in office, he became known above all for having dismantled and privatised the region’s public health system. During the peak of the first corona wave in the spring, De Luca enforced a strict lockdown policy that met with broad approval. Initially, these measures seemed to be successful in containing the virus, but it is likely that the low rates of infection reported were mainly due to a lack of testing. Throughout the election campaign, De Luca refused to appear in public or take part in any debates, but continued his regular Facebook appearances, praising his own “successes” and criticising the mismanagement of his opponents. The alternative left-wing list Potere al Popolo won only 1.22%, failing to reach the 3% treshold and enter the regional parliament.

The landslide re-election of the two governors means a strengthening of the regional executive, a process that began with the constitutional reform in 2001 which granted greater powers to the regions. But it can also be interpreted as a search for a firm hand able to guarantee security in times of multiple crises. The popular consensus is directed at De Luca and Zaia and not at their political programme or parties. This is an indication of a growing distance between the population, politics and institutions and is a sign of an anti-parliamentary and anti-party mood in the electorate, as expressed in the referendum on the reduction of the size of the parliament.

Following these elections, therefore, it is not clear what direction Italian politics is headed in. The disintegration of the M5S, the poor results of the alternative left-wing forces in Tuscany and Campania and the rise of the neo-fascist party Brothers of Italy represent both a shift in general public opinion to the right and a return to a kind of two-party system and thus to an institutional balance between centre-left and centre-right coalitions. At the same time, the recent elections have also rewarded the more authoritarian governors. These trends represents a major challenge for the institutions of democratic representation. However, a new left should not make the mistake of falling into the trap of bourgeois illusions: the institutions of liberal democracy are in a state of crisis and decay, and this crisis can not be solved by guiding the political action of a new left exclusively to these institutions. Italy’s crisis is political, so it is necessary to invest in participation from below and political organisation so that democracracy becomes integrated into people’s everyday lives.

About the author

Maurizio Coppola works as a freelance journalist, translator and interpreter and maintains the telegram channel @ItalienNews with current news in German about Italy. He lives and works in Naples.