A few years ago, Vittorio Zucconi, a former La Repubblica correspondent in the US, invited onto an American talk-show and asked how Italians would react to a sex scandal such as the one that hit Bill Clinton in the ’90s, candidly answered that his fellow citizens would have probably have identified with the President. The producers’ reaction was less than sympathetic to such a declaration in the midst of athe Lewinsky-gate scandal, and the Italian journalist was no longer to show up at the talk-show.
But Zucconi was not wrong. Despite the expectations of a consensus collapse for the centre-right coalition amidst sex and judiciary scandals and clumsy non-institutional behaviours of the Prime Minister, the regional elections that took place only a few days ago in 13 of the 20 Italian regions cannot but legitimise Berlusconi and his government after two years of tenure. To be sure, this electoral round was extremely politicised in the campaign that preceded it, no matter its regional character: both sides attempted to make of it a referendum on Berlusconi’s government.
Its result has not left a doubt on the current positioning of the Italians: they do not care about the personal life and the misdeeds of their President, they feel identified in the values articulated by the centre-right coalition, which is the expression of the collective imaginary. A mix of egoism, racism, indifference, sexism, superficiality, and sly inventiveness which are culturally hegemonic in the Italian society and find their political reflection in the alliance between the PDL (The People of Freedom, in the Italian acronym – the party led by Berlusconi, combining his old party Forza Italia and the ex-Fascists of Gianfranco Fini) and the Northern League.
Nevertheless, many political commentators have asserted that the real loser in these elections is Italian politics itself, given the turn-out at the ballot box, one of the lowest in Italian history. That as a result of the permanent climate of tension between contending political parties, in turn reflected in a culture of verbal aggression towards the opponent. This continuously violent confrontation has removed the debate on real issues from the political arena, transformed instead into a chaotic forum of mutual accusations and discredit and big ideological assertions (though without ideology).
But beyond the disaffection of the Italian electorate, a trend which has grown steadily over the years in a country where participation has traditionally been quite high, the elections have delivered a clear picture of today’s Italy, confirming most of the trends emerged in the general and European elections held in 2008 and 2009 respectively. In fact, the 7-6 regions win for the centre-left should not lead us to misread the result (as the Spanish newspaper El PaÃs, which talked of a narrow victor for the left, appears to have done): not only did the centre-left control 11 of these regions before the vote, but also the most populous ones have fallen into the hands of Berlusconi’s coalition, with over 32 million people now administered by his governors, against the 17 million inhabitants of the regions where the opposition has won. The loss of key regions such as Lazio and Piedmont where, despite the difficulties, the centre-left still hoped to maintain control, has been an extremely disappointing result for the Democratic Party (PD, in its Italian acronym), which draws together ex-Communists and left-of-centre Christian Democrats.
However, the most striking outcome is the advancement of the once-secessionist Northern League, a key ally of Berlusconi in the North. The growth of consensus of this party has been unstoppable in recent years: from the 4.6% in 2006, the Northern League now enjoys the 12.6% nationally only by standing as a candidate in northern regions, with a peak of 35% in Veneto, where it is the most voted-for party. In centre-northern regions, such as Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, the ‘red core’ of the country, where this party had traditionally been little popular, it has increased its vote consistently. Its candidates Luca Zaia and Roberto Cota, two mediocre characters that differentiate themselves from previous leaders only for a less extremist verbal repertoire, have been elected governors in Veneto and Piedmont respectively, strengthening the influence of the party on the centre-right coalition in the north. The triumph of the Northern League is the product of a mixture of capillary rooting in the territory through a cynical use of local symbolism and populist rhetoric, as well as the cunning employment of a tactic combining threat and rapprochement with PDL to exercise pressure on the Prime Minister for the realisation of key issues dear to its base.
On the left, the panorama remains depressing. The party’s 26% vote seems far from being a good result; as well as the conquest of only 7 regions, of which 4 have historically been leftist bastions. The phenomenon of Beppe Grillo, an ill-tempered professional polemicist and showman of lefty leanings, and his newly born movement has left the PD in disarray, by independently gaining 7% of the consensus in Emilia-Romagna and a decisive 3% in Piedmont, ushering the victory to Cota.
The crisis of the PD resides in its leadership, ever more distant from the rest of society and composed of uninspiring characters that seem to be constantly in competition to display the most moderation, and unable to connect with the population. Moreover, its political line is far from clear, the result of an uneasy coexistence of different political currents, and empty slogans such as ’employment, medium firms and reforms’ are often brandished, though the ‘how’ is completely discarded.
The only good news for the left is the second consecutive victory of Nichi Vendola, re-elected as governor of Apulia. Despite coming from the radical left, Vendola has managed to impose his candidacy on a reluctant PD through a process of primary elections, and subsequently to maintain the support of the local population. He owes his victory to his elegant and convincing rhetoric, which many define as poetic, but also to a stunning capacity to innovate the political jargon and practice (the invention of the ‘factories of Nichi’, places for debate and construction of proposals from below, has been a success), as well as a good internet marketing and the employment of effective slogans. Many are ready to bet on him as the future national leader of the centre-left.
However, his constituencies do not fare very well and this will prove to be a problem. A former member of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), Vendola quit the party a year ago, and founded a new movement, Sinistra Ecologia e LibertÃ (Left Ecology and Freedom). Both Rifondazione and Sinistra have gathered a meagre 3% each, which if put together are still an improvement on the weak performance of the radical left electoral cartel in 2008 which excluded it from any parliamentary representation. However, the hopes of a unification between the various radical lefts are still faint. A common radical and yet innovative project, and the enlargement of the agreements in the attempt to move the barycentre of PD to the left, are the minimum requirements to hope see Vendola as the new leader of the Italian left.
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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini