The political tide turns in Italy

Silvio Berlusconi's fragile grip on power seems to be slipping as Italians vote against his policies

The first I heard of the news was an excited phone call from my father, who delivered a gruff, breathless cry of victory down the line: "We got him!"

Today saw the results of four referendum votes in Italy to repeal Berlusconi-era legislation on nuclear power, water privatisation and trial immunity for government ministers. The last of these has been fundamental in allowing the semi-despotic prime minister to continue his rule free of the tiresome hassle of legal action on charges of corruption and sexual harassment.

This referendum has finally given Italian voters the opportunity to bring the charade to an end, with a resounding 95 per cent of voters coming down against the government's policies. This represents a huge victory for the ideological left in the country, who have been conducting a frenzied campaign against the prime minister in the preceding weeks.

But more than that, this vote represents a fundamental, ground-level shift in Italian politics. No longer can Berlusconi be upheld as the licentious, yet charming rogue who all Italians secretly aspire to be. In the international community, his continual grip on power has been regarded with a form of open-mouthed incredulity, tempered with mild amusement at the poor, delusional voters who keep him in the top spot. Not anymore.

Italians have come out in their thousands -- the turnout for the referendums was 57 per cent, easily surpassing the 50 per cent quorum needed to validate the vote -- to express their deep dissatisfaction and disassociation with their increasingly beleaguered ruler. Couple today's result with Berlusconi's heavy loss in last month's local elections, and the message is resoundingly clear.

Italians, it seems, have finally woken up to what the rest of the world has known for years - that their prime minister is nothing but an orange-skinned, white-toothed buffoon, masquerading as an intelligent life-form. And they have had enough.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.