The Long and Winding Road – Giovanni Toro reports from Italy

Endlessly fascinating, constantly turbulent, shapeshifting and surprising, Italian politics is entertaining and frustrating in equal measure.  The next general election is due no later than 1st June 2023, but by what tortuous path we will get there, or indeed whether we will get there, and if we do what Italian politics will even look like then, are all questions which would tax the most gifted political seer.  You might imagine that the country-wide municipal elections held on the 3rd and 4th of October might have lifted the veil of confusion a little, but this is Italy, so rein in those expectations!  This was merely the first round of elections and in those seats where no mayoral candidate got over 50% of the vote there will be a second round on the 17th and 18th of the month. 

The elections were held in 1,153 municipalities, together with a parliamentary by-election in the historic city of Sienna and an election in the region of Calabria (the ‘toe’ of Italy) for a new regional President, due to the sad death from cancer of the incumbent, elected just last year.  With an electorate of around 12 million (out of a total of about 43 million Italian voters, plus another 4 million abroad), even the mathematically-challenged will therefore immediately realise that we are talking of barely more than a quarter of the total electorate, and city dwellers often vote differently to their country cousins.  Nevertheless, the election data has provided a feast of information to be analysed, so pull up a chair and let’s tuck in.

Enrico Letta, leader of today’s Italian left

In order to make any sense of the results, let alone the analysis, you will first need a basic understanding of the main players in terms of both parties and leaders.  So using the traditional Left/Right spectrum, together with the most recent (17th September, and hence pre-municipal elections) opinion poll, here is a quick primer on Italy’s five largest parties:

i.  The Democratic Party (PD).  The latest incarnation of Italy’s centre-left, the PD was founded in 2007 and is best considered as a ‘Starmerite’ Labour Party.  It is led by former prime minister Enrico Letta (whom we shall come back to later).  At 19% in the polls it is at exactly the same level of support it received in the last general election in 2018 and although it is unlikely to ever again reach its 2014 peak of 41%, it is Italy’s undisputed leader in all centre-left electoral alliances. 

ii.  5 Stars Movement (M5S). The jokers in the political pack, founded by a literal joker, the comic Beppe Grillo.  Originally defiantly anti-establishment, it received a wave of support which all new, exciting parties – especially with a charismatic leader – get.  Remember Britain’s SDP in the early 1980s?  M5S rode its wave of popularity to brilliantly time the peak with the 2018 general election, getting 32.5% of the vote and becoming the largest single party in parliament.  At that time M5S was considered radical, populist and Eurosceptic, and it was even willing to form a government coalition with Salvini’s Lega (see below), but it has gradually morphed into an increasingly left-wing party, and it shifted its governing alliance to the PD.  In August this year the leadership transferred to another former (and unelected) prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, confirming its change into a standard centre-left establishment party, and its poll rating has fallen to 16% (although even that is now questionable, as we shall see!). 

(above left) Giuseppe Conte, now leader of the formerly anti-establishment 5 Stars Movement, alongside the Movement’s founder Beppe Grillo

iii.  Forza Italia (FI – meaning ‘Come on Italy’). The equivalent of Britain’s Conservative Party (but very Europhile), FI is the oldest of Italy’s main parties and is led by the oldest leader, billionaire ex-businessman and ex-three times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – popularly known in Italy as ‘Il Cavaliere’ (the knight).  For long the ‘daddy’ of Italian politics, at 85 he should now perhaps be considered the ‘granddaddy’, but still this ever-controversial, ever-ebullient and ever-youthful (the plastic surgery and hair transplants help) former cruise ship crooner refuses to take his final bow.  FI has fallen from the 14% it got in 2018 (let alone its original popularity of 30%) but has stabilised at 7% and is an essential component of the centre-right alliance. 

iv.  The League (Lega).  Formerly (and legally still) known as the Northern League, the party originally proposed independence for the North from the less productive South.  When Matteo Salvini took over the leadership in December 2013 he realised the futility of this approach and the Lega has now become a national party.  The equivalent of Britain’s Reform UK, in the 2018 election it is the main party of the three-party centre-right alliance (with FI and FdI – see below) and currently its support stands at 20%, up a little from its 2018 result of 17.5%.  Although Salvini is at heart a populist (and was quite a radical Home Secretary) he has shown a willingness to tone down policies (such as his Euroscepticism or opposition to Covid passports) in return for ministerial office. 

Colleagues and /or rivals on the right: Silvio Berlusconi (above left) of Forza Italia, and Matteo Salvini of Lega

v.  Brothers of Italy (FdI). Politically very similar to the Lega, but with more attitude, FdI is led by Giorgia Meloni who cut her political teeth as the leader of Student Action, the youth movement of the (now defunct) National Alliance, the much more moderate successor of the Italian Social Movement which was itself the more moderate but spiritual successor of Mussolini’s Republican Fascist Party.  I set out the political genealogy to explain the Left’s kneejerk opposition to FdI, not to suggest any genuine political inheritance.  FdI is the only party that has refused to join Italy’s current government of national unity, led by the unelected prime minister Mario Draghi, explaining that good government needs an opposition, and this stance has been well received – with FdI growing from the 4% it got in 2018 to 20% now, level with the Lega.  The question of which party – the Lega or FdI – is the centre-right coalition’s leading force is a major issue which will need to be resolved. 

If you enjoyed that introductory antipasto let me whet your appetite a little more with an aperitivo of scandal – indeed, two scandals, both involving the centre-right.  The first involved a young Lega party worker, with sordid stories linking him to rent boys and drugs.  Given that nothing has been proven in court I shall make no further comment except to note, with a Roger Moore-style arched eyebrow, how quickly supposedly tolerant and ‘inclusive’ left-wing politicians can resort to homophobic innuendo when they think political capital is to be gained. 

Roberto Jonghi Lavarini (above left), known as ‘The Black Baron’, with Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia

The second scandal involved the infiltration by a left-wing news website into an organisation led by a colourful character who likes to be called the ‘Black Baron’.  This organisation, though independent, has close links to FdI, and consists of hardline rightwingers, retired senior military officers and of course, this being Italy, masons.  Well, what did you expect all those P2 (look it up if you don’t know the story) members to do – go home, put their slippers on and drink cocoa?  After an astonishingly long three-year undercover operation the website finally deliberately broke their story a few days before the elections.  Mainly centred on Milan politics, the story involved the inevitable allegations of ‘far-right’ extremism, but with an added element of potentially illegal political funding.  One of those involved, the FdI leader in the European parliament, voluntarily stood down from his position, but Meloni herself responded with an admirably phlegmatic “all told, it seems that we are upsetting the establishment powers”.  It is not her wont to indulge in craven apologies, and if current trends continue Meloni could well, after the next general election, become our very own ‘Iron Lady’ prime minister.  I suspect that the website has more titbits to reveal (they apparently have 100 hours of secret videotape, and there has been talk of ‘links to foreign politicians’), but the truth is that political scandals are ten a penny in Italy and the public are inured to them, so neither of these stories had much traction or noticeable effect on the election results. 

If you have digested all that, here is your main course – the election results. If you listen to the mass media you will believe that the elections were a terrible defeat for the tripartite centre-right coalition of Lega, FdI and FI,  and a spectacular victory for the PD and the Left in general.  But why would you listen to the mass media?  They are not only infected by left-wing bias, but are also very stupid.  In Britain the media is well-known for being London-centric, believing that nothing important exists outside the M25, and the Italian media suffers from a similarly-blinkered outlook.  The media have obsessed over, and sought to frame the result exclusively around, the five big cities of Rome, Milan, Naples, Turin and Bologna.  To the media, these cities are all that matters.  And the Left have won three of them, and are in the run-offs in the other two, so that’s obviously it, they’ve wiped the floor with the Right.  Except … that isn’t it, and it’s completely misleading. 

Before the elections Salvini was asked how he would measure success or failure for the Right.  Instead of engaging in the usual political game of expectation management, he answered in a very honest and straightforward fashion: “success means having more seats than we have now”.  How could anybody gainsay that?  So, by that clear yardstick, how did he do?  Well, at the last count he already has an extra 63 mayors and some 500 more councillors, and that’s before all the second round votes when more will undoubtedly be added.  And that is on top of the very good results the Right obtained in the last municipal elections in 2016.  So claiming that either the Lega, or the centre-right coalition, has suffered a failure is completely untrue.  The national media dismiss such gains as being in ‘small and unimportant towns that do not represent Italy’.  Such an attitude is not just appallingly snobbish but also very stupid: in politics every vote counts the same, be it in a major city or a small village.  After all, Boris Johnson won an 80 seat majority despite losing most of the main cities.  In my area of Italy (the north-east) the Right have won a string of crushing victories over both the Left and M5S, but only the local papers have mentioned this, with the national media exclusively reporting the five big cities they are obsessed with. 

Roberto Gualtieri (above centre) celebrates his election as Mayor of Rome alongside leftist leaders Enrico Letta and Nicola Zingaretti

But even if we accept the Left’s focus on the big cities, the facts are not as they represent them.  Yes, the PD has made some gains, but not from the centre-right coalition of Lega, FdI and FI, but from M5S.  The truth is that the centre-right did not control any of these five cities before, but is now in the run-offs for two of them, so that is in fact progress – although I will be the first to admit that the probability is that the PD will eventually, narrowly, win both.  But even that is not the whole picture.  The first important story is the reduction in the turnout, which has fallen to below 50%, a record low.  I realise that this is still significantly higher than in UK local elections, where turnout is around 35%, but in Italy all election turnouts are higher than they are in the UK, so this reduction needs explaining.  The second point which needs to be borne in mind is the truism that ‘all politics is local’.  And in each of the five big cities local factors were all-important. 

Let’s begin with Rome.  This was previously held by a mayor from the M5S, but she came third in the election this year and the run-off will be between the centre-right candidate on 30.1% of the vote in the first round and the centre-left candidate slightly behind with 27%.  Far from improving since the last election in 2016, the PD’s vote has actually fallen slightly, from 17.2% to 16.4%.  And the centre-right coalition’s vote has increased, with the FdI going from 12.3% to 17.4%, the Lega from 2.7% to 5.9% and only FI dropping slightly from 4.3% to 3.6%.  As those numbers indicate, the Right has never been particularly strong in Rome, and yet still they have made progress, and taken the election to a second round.  And yes, the other candidates – M5S and a very popular independent called Carlo Calenda (of whom more later) – are on the Left, so their voters will probably end up backing the PD candidate next time, but this cannot be taken for granted, as neither of these two left-wing candidates ran a left-wing campaign, with both trying to attract voters from across the spectrum.  Whatever happens in the second round of voting, any way you look at it Rome represents a serious defeat for the M5S, who went from 35.3% in 2016 to 11% this year, and progress for the Right. 

If Rome does not represent the glorious triumph for the Left that the papers are talking about, maybe this occurred in Milan.  Certainly, the PD have more to crow about here, with their candidate’s coalition winning 57.7% and getting him elected in the first round.  But he was the sitting mayor, and a generally-agreed fairly effective one.  So the incumbency effect was at play here, and even so the PD’s vote only increased modestly from 28.9% to 33.7%.  The Right were never going to win in Milan, but yes, they could have done a bit better, and have readily admitted to making a mistake in selecting their candidate – an unknown doctor – so late in the day (only a month before the election, giving him no time to become known).  Had they selected a better-known candidate (as had been expected) no doubt he would have done marginally better, but the choice of candidate and the delay in selecting him was due to the inevitable horse-trading that takes place within coalitions. 

Rachele Mussolini, granddaughter of Italy’s ‘Duce’ from 1922-45, won more votes than any other candidate in the Rome city council elections and was elected to a second term

The Left’s share of the vote therefore only increased in Milan because their supporters were motivated to go out and vote for their man, while the Right’s voters abstained.  This can be seen both from the fact that the turnout in Milan fell from 54.6% to 47.7%, with the greatest falls being in those areas where the Right is strongest, and from the fact that the share of the vote of FI fell the most, from 20.2% to 7.2%.  FI supporters are the least politically motivated, being the most moderate, and will want to see a good candidate before casting their vote for him.  So the squabbles over the Right’s candidate, and his last-minute selection put them off.  This was a local success for the PD, due to local factors, and not an indicator of any increase in their national support.  And one final point: I have read left-wing journalists trying to say that the Lega’s vote collapsed from 27.4% to 10.7%, but this is comparing bananas and boomerangs.  At the last local election the Lega got 11.7%, so their vote share dipped just marginally.  That 27.4% refers to their vote in the European election, but as you will know in Britain, EU elections are completely different to national ones; you just need to look at UKIP’s performance in both to confirm this.  That’s why I was too honest to mention in my report of the vote in Rome that, in the EU elections, the PD got 30.6% there, compared to the 16.4% in this year’s local elections.  Do not believe everything – or indeed anything – you read in the papers! 

So if Milan represents only a very modest success for the Left, due entirely to local factors, what about Naples?  Here too the centre-left candidate won outright in the first round, with an extremely impressive coalition vote share of 64.1%.  But hold your horses – their candidate was not a politician at all, but an independent university professor and rector who was supported by a coalition of the PD and the M5S.  Yes, that’s right: the two parties that fought each other in Rome and Milan stood together here.  As I said before, all politics is local – especially in Italy!  Naples is such a left-wing city that the Lega did not even stand here – just as they didn’t stand last time around either.  So no, this was not a defeat for the Right in any way, shape or form. 

Well, what about Bologna then, the only other major town where the centre-left coalition won outright.  Surely they can claim a famous victory here?  Well, at least on this occasion the victor was actually a member of the PD, but their vote share went up just one percentage point, from 35.5% to 36.5% – and again they formed a coalition with their former enemies the M5S.  So a victory, yes, but not one to write home about.  And no tears shed by the Right, either. 

Paolo Damilano, leader of the combined right-wing slate in Turin

As for Turin, the last in our review of the ‘big 5’ cities (but the 4th in terms of population), this, like Rome, represents a major defeat for the M5S, and progress for the Right – not the Left.  Turin was held by an M5S mayor who has stood down this time around ostensibly – and possibly genuinely! – because she is about to give birth and wants to dedicate herself to her new baby.  That’s a perfectly honourable choice and I congratulate her for it. But the politics were clearly not on her side, and she would have lost anyway, with the M5S share of the vote falling from 30% to just 8%.  The PD’s vote also fell, albeit more marginally, from 29.8% to 28.5%.  On the Right, on the other hand, the Lega have gone from 5.8% to 9.8%, the FdI from 1.5% to 10.5% and FI from 4.7% to 5.4% this time.  So although the centre-left candidate is ahead by 43.8% to the centre-right’s 38.9%, and will probably win the run-off, the Right are the ones who will be celebrating the greatest advance, come what may. 

Apart from these municipal elections, there were two other important votes.  As I mentioned earlier, the region of Calabria needed a new president.  FI got to choose the candidate of the centre-right coalition given that the woman who died was one of theirs, and they selected the strongest one they had – their best known parliamentarian.  He won easily, with 56.1% and a very strong sympathy vote, taking vote share not only from the Left but also his centre-right coalition colleagues.  This result was entirely predictable.  As was the by-election in Sienna, where Enrico Letta, the leader of the PD, stood in order to re-enter parliament.  The previous incumbent (who stood down to take a different job) was also a PD representative and so this should have been a shoo-in.  However, although of course he won, Letta fell just short of 50% of the vote – despite standing with the support of M5S.  Last time around, in 2018, the combined PD and M5S vote was 58.5%, and the Lega got 32.3%, compared to 37.8% this year, so this was clearly a poor result for the centre-left, despite their win. 

So, pulling all the threads together, let us end by savouring our dessert of conclusions.  The first is that there will be tensions in the coalition on the Right.  Although the smallest of the three parties, FI have already claimed that their men performed best and that this shows that the public want more centrist candidates.  They have prayed-in-aid Calabria as if this was typical, but of course it wasn’t. If FI candidates tend to perform better it is partly because they are generally incumbents, and also because FI voters are the least loyal to the Right, and the most willing to abstain or vote for an opponent they find attractive.  The main friction among the coalition will however come from the battle between Lega and FdI to be top dog.  The incontrovertible truth is, however, that the three parties need each other and the coalition will adapt and not just survive, but thrive.

There is, however, the question of why the turnout was reduced, and why this disproportionately affected the Right.  Some believe that it was caused by the controversy over the covid passport introduced by the government, and known as the Green Pass – no, that’s not a translation: they use the English.  The Green Pass is needed to go into any restaurant, bar, museum, cinema, or even workplace.  Yes, that’s right: you can’t go to work if you have not been vaccinated.  Although most people accept this, there is a very angry minority.  The Lega, in particular, have tried to ride both horses and fallen down the middle, and maybe voters have punished them for this.  If so, will this be forgotten by the next general election?  Probably.  Or maybe the fall in turnout was because the public see little difference between the parties now that they are all together in a government of national unity.  This would explain the particularly and impressively good performance of the FdI, the one party that has refused the spider’s invitation into his parlour.  The fact is that nobody is certain of the answer to this question, and the Right need to try and solve the riddle. Nevertheless, they have made advances from their results in 2016, which themselves came before the excellent parliamentary results in 2018, so this augurs well for the next general election.

The Left face much bigger problems.  Mr Letta has already said he now wants a formal centre-left coalition to rival that of the centre-right.  He therefore wants both M5S and the independent Mr Calenda in Rome (remember him?) to join with the PD.  I have no doubt this will happen.  The new M5S leader, Mr Conte, has made it clear he has nothing in common with the Right, and Mr Calenda is also a natural fit.  But the issue will be, as it always is in such coalitions, the jostling for power within it.  The PD clearly see themselves as the head honchos, but their potential colleagues will not want to be dominated.  Nevertheless, M5S’s haemorrhaging of votes in these elections means that, while it is not going to disappear any time soon, it is inevitable that it will now end up as a junior partner to the PD in a future coalition.  Although Mr Letta believes that such a coalition will beat the Right, and for all his bluster that “2023 will belong to the PD”, I am far from convinced.  Neither Mr Conte nor Mr Calenda speak for all their supporters – indeed, Mr Conte can barely control his own MPs, let alone his extremely disparate voters. 

Carlo Calenda, one of many competing faction leaders in an unstable coalition of leftists and liberals

If Mr Calenda or M5S formally tie-up with the PD then I believe that many of their voters will desert them and switch to the centre-right.  Consider, for instance, the growth of the FdI since the last election: they have added 16 percentage points.  Conventional wisdom would say that this must have come from the Lega, who are most similar to them, and they must therefore both be fishing in the same pool.  But as I have pointed out the Lega have also increased in popularity.  I suspect that as M5S have lost their radicalism and become more left-wing, many of their supporters have switched to the new rebels on the block.  And if M5S enter a formal coalition with the PD this trend will accelerate.  Their supporters want to change the system, not suck up to it.

The road to the next election has many more twists and turns, and there are several huge imponderables on the horizon:  Will the current prime minister, Mr Draghi, want to become President when the term of office of the current incumbent (Mr Sergio Mattarella) ends in January 2022?  And if he does, will that prompt an early general election?  I doubt it, as M5S will almost certainly resist this.  And what will be the impact of the cut in the number of MPs and senators (members of the upper chamber) to be elected next time round?  The number of MPs will be reduced from 630 to 400, and the number of senators from 315 to 200.  And will the voting system itself be changed, yet again?  It seems unlikely, but some MPs are suggesting this, and if this happens then all bets on the outcome of the next election are off. 

Yes, Italian politics is never dull, but that’s enough for today or we will all get indigestion.  I’m off now for a caffè with a shot of Sambuca.  Salute! 

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