Elections after the lockdown: An attempt at political renewal between clientelism and crisis (Part 2)

Maurizio Coppola

On September 20th and 21st 2020, Italy held a referendum on reducing the size of its parliament and local elections in seven regions. In Tuscany and Campania, the political formation Potere al Popolo, founded three years ago, led a campaign based on a call for political renewal, but failed to reach the threshold necessary for entry into the regional parliaments. We spoke to Giuliano Granato, Potere al Popolo‘s presidential candidate in Campania.

The elections in Italy took place in the middle of a health crisis which then provoked an economic crisis. Can you explain how the crisis has played out in Campania specifically?

Italy is goin through what we could call a transitional phase in the coronavirus crisis. As far as the health situation is concerned, the first wave of coronavirus mostly affected the North rather than the country’s southern regions, although the health system in the North is much better equipped than in the South. The prevalence of the virus in the North is due to the correlation between illness, poor air quality and the degree of industrialisation, as well as to the strength of the industrial business lobby in that part of the country. Throughout the first wave, productive industry, represented by the Italian union of business Confindustria, exerted pressure on politicians to keep industrial production going.

Campania has the youngest population in Italy (the average age is 42.15). This fact brings with it an enormous economic, cultural and political potential. But we risk becoming the “capital of emigration”. Due to a youth unemployment rate of almost 50% and a lack of prospects for the future, more and more young people decide to leave the region. In Campania 700,000 people are recipients of the Italian basic income benefit for people living in poverty, introduced by the Five Star Movement. Campania ranks first for the prevalence of informal labour with around 20% of the gross domestic product being produced by informal labour, and 7 out of 10 companies inspected by the labour inspectorate were found to have violated their workers‘ rights. So an already precarious situation has been further aggravated by the coronavirus crisis which is producing a profound change in the social fabric of the region.

So the key theme is work?

Clearly. The deindustrialisation process began decades ago. But Campania has not always been an industrially underdeveloped region, as exponents of the CPI and Liberals claimed. Rather, we need to understand its specific position in the national division of labour. Indeed, despite decades of factory closures and the dismantling of its productive capacity, there are still some important productive industries in Campania today, which are now under severe pressure: the Fiat plant in Pomigliano d’Arco, various aircraft parts manufacturers, the port of Naples, tourism and the food industry. The development of these sectors is crucial for the future of the region.

But the social crisis goes beyond the question of employment, it also affects the ability and political will to organise the welfare state. In Campania, two out of five people are affected by poverty. This figure rose again with the corona crisis, and during the months of the lockdown people became increasingly dependent on charitable support.

A central theme of the election campaign was health policy. Effective management of the coronavirus crisis depends not only on keeping the number of infections down but also on maintaining the stability of the public health system. What is the situation in Campania?

We are experiencing a tragic health crisis here, and not just since the pandemic. Over the last ten years, the regional presidents Stefano Caldoro of Forza Italia and Vicenzo De Luca of the Democratic Party have destroyed the region’s public health system with their politicies of austerity and privatisation. During De Luca’s last mandate, four hospitals were closed in the city of Naples alone, while in the other provinces of Salerno, Avellino, Caserta and Benevento the most important hospitals were dismantled. There is a shortage of health workers everywhere. In short, the health system is in ruins.

It is the failure of an entire healthcare model that relies on a few, often private, state-of-the-art clinics, without, however, guaranteeing a network of hospitals that function around these clinics. What we need is exactly the opposite: namely the strengthening of community medicine, the role of family doctors and a wide network of outpatient clinics in the neighbourhoods and small villages of the region.

How else can President De Luca’s policy during his first mandate in 2015-2020 be assessed?

Before answering this question, I need to take a step backwards. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Italian constitution was amended in the direction of a federal system, devolving further power to the regions. However, this process is far from complete because of the numerous political crises in Italy. Today we find ourselves stuck with a complex division of powers between central government and the regions. This has led to a situation where, in many policy areas, different local, regional and national bodies want to have their say and influence on the distribution of money, power and positions in the institutions. The real battle for regional elections has always been in the field of health. This is where the power of the regional administration holds most sway and we can speak of a business that accounts for between 65 and 70% of the total expenditure of the region.

The second important area is public transport. At present the regional transport company EAV (Ente Autonomo Volturno) is in deep red. De Luca inherited a lot of debts and although he was able to reduce some of them in his first five years, this was done off the back of the workers and commuters. There are now far fewer trains running, they are often late, overcrowded and old, and tickets have become more expensive. There is also a shortage of staff, not because nobody wants to work in public transport, but because of a disfunctional recriutment policy. Workers who retire are not replaced. In the last five years many train lines necessary to connect peripheries and city centres have been closed. In this time of crisis, well-functioning public transport means health prevention.

The paradox is that in Campania we have numerous companies the region could have invested in to manage an ecological transition of public transport (Hitachi, ex Ansaldo-Breda in Naples; IIA, ex Fiat-Irisbus in Flumeri (AV); Ansaldo STS in Naples). The skills exist at a local and regional level, what we need is a unified public planning process that is geared to social and environmental needs.

Potere al Popolo took part in the national elections in 2018 and now, two and a half years later, in the regional elections in Tuscany and Campania. Why did Potere al Popolo accept this challenge?

With a view to building a sucessful national political project, the regional elections allow us to reach places it is hard for us to reach in our usual political activites. This is the big difference between local elections – where you act where you are already active – and national elections, where you act on a more general political level without needing to be anchored in local communities. Due to their specific configuration, regional elections force a political organisation to have a presence in the most diverse areas, to develop activities where it had none before. At the organisational level, therefore, regional elections can actually be a stimulus to growth. We have taken a different approach to this depending on the regional context. In Tuscany we joined the coalition Toscana a Sinistra; in Campania, on the other hand, we appeared with our own symbol and our own name, Potere al Popolo.

The challenge of the regional elections for a new Left organisation was to introduce into the debate a perspective which represents a clear break with traditional politics. It would of course have been important to have a representative in the regional parliaments to hold the regional governments to account “from within”. This would have been especially useful over the coming months, as the money of the Recovery Fund will be distributed and an insight into the distribution of this money, the projects it is used to fund, would be an important political lever. From the outside, it is more difficult to approach this task.

How did you run your campaign?

We invested a lot in communication. Since our foundation, the basic idea has been not to avoid the old labels of the Left and to put political issues before political identity. Today it is of little use to keep repeating that we are Left-wingers or belong to this or that tradition. The communicative adherence to a political identity has a negative and excluding effect.

Thematically, in the vein of a Left-wing populism, we work with the juxtaposition of the people vs the elite, “the many against the few”, or “us against them”. In contrast to the Five Star Movement, however, we do not use the term “political caste”, but rather the term “machinations of power” – machinations that affect politics, but also the economy, culture etc. In short: the whole capitalist system. In communicative terms, the point here is not to identify the problem in one person or another, but in the apparatuses of power.

With whom did you conduct the election campaign?

Our aim was to involve young people and activists in the campaign. The decision to put me forward as a presidential candidate in Campania was made with this in mind. It was about choosing a person who would express something socially: I was by far the youngest candidate at the age of 34, I have a university degree, but had to emigrate to London because I couldn’t find a job here for a long time. Then I decided to come back to Naples, struggled with many precarious jobs and was then dismissed for union activism in my last job, which was a bit more stable. Now I am unemployed again. My biography in many respects mirros that of thousands of young people.

We followed the same idea when putting together the list of candidates, in both Tuscany and Campania. They should represent as broad a section of society as possible: trade union activists, teachers, students, etc. Former, disillusioned activists of the Five Star Movement, who were on the left of the party, were also on our lists, not only members of Potere al Popolo. Of course, this also has a long-term goal that goes far beyond the elections: to be socially anchored as broadly as possible for the construction of the political organisation.

How do you judge the election results?

From a class perspective, the referendum outcome is very bad. I see its approval rate of almost 70% as a rejection of politics as a whole and a desire for strong authority in the executive. The reduction in the size of parliament raises the question of how smaller political parties in particular should behave towards elections in future.

There is no longer any Left-wing opposition in the regional parliaments today. Especially in Campania, the centre-Left and centre-Right coalitions are unrecognisable in comparison to the past. Half of the lists that until recently belonged to the centre-Right coalition have been transferred to the De Luca camp, and not because they betrayed Right-wing ideals. The fact that the centre-Left coalition welcomed them with such ease shows that the two regional projects are very similar. Throughout the entire election campaign, the political divergences were essentially nothing more than theatrics.

In my opinion, the regional elections should not be seen in a positive light. Irrespective of the individual results, a general trend is visible: in times of crisis, the winners are those who already govern and can convey security. So people tend to entrust themselves to those in power. This tendency can also be seen in other countries, for example in Spain, Portungal and also in Great Britain. The situation is different in the United States and Brazil, where Trump and Bolsonaro seem to be losing ground, precisely because until recently they talked down the consequences of the virus and did little to counteract it.

Finally, these regional elections mean the end of the parliamentary experience of radical Left-wing and socialist parties. By choosing the “lesser evil” to keep the Lega from taking power, many traditionally Left-wing voters have defected to the Democratic Party. This happened in Tuscany, where Toscana a Sinistra was not re-elected. But we have also seen it in Campania, where many ultimately preferred to vote for De Luca rather than Potere al Popolo. This voting behaviour indicates that there is currently little awareness within the class about the need for organised class autonomy.

In this context of crisis and in the middle of the second wave, what should be the priorities of a new Left?

A new Left must above all be able to understand the current political, economic and social crisis. At the moment we are experiencing an intensification of the crisis that has resulted from the pandemic. The coming months will bring radical changes. The possibility of a new, partial lockdown will again threaten the material situation of millions of workers, especially because the welfare state will not respond adequately. With the end of wage guarantee schemes and the lifting of the ban on redundancies in connection with the pandemic, the number of unemployed will rise, which will have a direct impact on industrial relations. The President of the Italian business lobyy Confindustria, Carlo Bonomi, is vehemently opposed to collective bargaining agreements and wage increases. However, the living conditions of workers are becoming increasingly difficult to cope with and I fear that they will accept massively worse working conditions due to a lack of job prospects.

A new Left must start by organising in the community, opening new People’s Houses, building up an organised social base through permanent neighbourhood meetings, and thus be politically capable of acting at all levels. Sooner or later a broader social movement will necessarily emerge, and then it will be our task to make our organisational knowledge and structures available so that the movement can grow and achieve victories.

Finally, elections will be held again in spring 2021, among others in the three largest cities in Italy: Rome, Milan and Naples. We as Potere al Popolo want to participate wherever it is feasible. Although at first glance the local elections appear “simpler” than the regional elections, it will be a great challenge. For in comparison to the strengthened governing parties, we will remain a small political force. So it is all the more important to organise ourselves in each neighbourhood. Only in this way can we gain the social legitimacy needed to grow.

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.