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27 January 2020updated 24 Jul 2021 6:02am

How the Italian left defied the far right in Emilia-Romagna

In the traditional socialist stronghold, a new climate of polarisation mobilised voters against Matteo Salvini’s League. 

By David Broder

“At least it was a contest – I’m happy even if I lost.” Matteo Salvini put a brave face on last night’s election result, after his far-right League failed to capture the historic red fortress of Emilia-Romagna. In recent weeks, Salvini had tried to turn the regional contest into a referendum on national politics – bidding to give a final “shove” to the teetering Five Star-Democratic coalition and force an early general election. Yet the League’s much-expected final breakthrough will have to wait. The northern Italian region’s incumbent Democratic president Stefano Bonaccini took 51.4 per cent of the vote, as against 43.6 per cent for his League rival Lucia Borgonzoni – a less close outcome than most polls had predicted.

The centre-left’s relief at the result was palpable. An op-ed in La Repubblica bore the title “Stalingrad has not fallen;” the Democrats’ national leader Nicola Zingaretti tweeted a photo of himself receiving news of the result, sat with his feet on his desk and his face adorned by a beaming smile. Insisting that the national government had emerged strengthened from this test, Zingaretti also paid tribute to the Sardines movement whose mass protests have spread across the region, and Italy, in recent months as a demonstration of civic opposition to Salvini (the movement’s name is a reference to the densely packed participants).

As well as the Sardines – now touted as a distinct political force – much of the credit will go to Bonaccini himself, who campaigned on his record as one of Italy’s most popular governors and doggedly focused on local issues such as the expansion of free kindergartens and school transport. While the various liberal and social-democratic lists backing his candidacy (from the Greens to Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva) won 48.2 per cent of the vote, around 150,000 electors backed Bonaccini for president without endorsing any of the centre-left parties. This contrasted with the League’s Borgonzoni, whose election rallies were instead dominated by Salvini personally.

The Democratic leaders’ celebratory tone was striking since the region has historically been the most impregnable of all red fortresses. Italy’s first socialist party (the Italian Revolutionary Socialist Party), founded in 1881, was entirely centred on Romagna and since the creation of regional governments in 1970 it has been under the permanent control of the Communist Party and its post-1991 successors. The party rooted its authority in an associative web linking it to trade unions, cooperatives, municipally-owned companies, and mutual funds. Yet in the last few decades these structures have waned, and in recent years the League has begun building a base in towns across the region, in 2019 capturing the mayoralties in well-heeled Ferrara and Forlì.

In this sense, the biggest danger for Bonaccini was not so much that disgruntled working-class Italians would shift directly from the left to the League (a widely-exaggerated phenomenon), but that a deeper sense of disillusionment and alienation might depress turnout, as in 2014, when it slumped to just 37.8 per cent. This time, however, the climate of polarisation really did mobilise voters, as turnout nearly doubled – clearly a reflection of the importance that both the Sardines movement and Salvini attributed to this contest. Yet even this 67.7 per cent turnout was still the second-lowest ever – the one million votes won by the League-led centre-right in fact totalled less than the right-wing coalition achieved in 2000. 

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What has occurred under Salvini’s leadership is a radicalisation of the right-wing bloc, increasingly cohered around the League. Only in a few southern regions such as Calabria, where Silvio Berlusconi’s candidate Jole Santelli emerged victorious in a second contest on Sunday, has the League failed to become the foremost right-wing party. Both elections also showed that the politics of “neither left nor right” is on the decline. In the 2018 general election, the largest single party in Emilia-Romagna was the Five Star Movement (M5s), with 27.5 per cent of the vote; but in this regional contest it slumped to just 4.7 per cent, a dismal share mirrored by its performance in Calabria, where it won 6.2 per cent.

Launched amid much hubbub in Bologna on “Vaffanculo Day” (Fuck-off Day) in 2007, and still today the largest party in both houses of parliament, M5s is now immersed in a possibly fatal crisis. Though its 32.7 per cent share in the March 2018 general election granted it the dominant say in coalition talks, it has proven to be the weaker partner to two opposing parties: in June 2018 it provided the numbers for a government dominated by Salvini and then, after the League tried and failed to force an early general election in August 2019, it formed a coalition with the Democrats. The M5s has been hamstrung by its lack of a clear political identity or programmatic aims: an attempt to join the centre-left bloc in the regional elections in Umbria last October ended in a derisory 7.4 per cent score, and the movement is also losing dissident senators to the League.

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Ahead of Sunday’s contest, Salvini promised that after he won the region he would be buzzing the president’s office to demand the government’s resignation. A League victory in Emilia-Romagna would doubtless have been a significant blow to the M5s-Democratic coalition nationally, if not one likely to persuade them of the merits of an early election. But while Zingaretti proclaimed last night that the government has emerged strengthened, the setbacks for M5s also represent a significant destabilising factor. Only last Wednesday, foreign minister Luigi di Maio resigned as M5s leader, triggering a still-unclear succession process. Italian politics is polarising between the centre-left and a strengthened far right – and a party no longer able to boast of its “anti-establishment” credentials is feeling the squeeze.

David Broder is Europe editor of Jacobin magazine