Listening to Italy
This is being written on the eve of the Italian General Election held on Sunday 4 March.
The electoral system, referred to as Rosatellum bis, was new. By the time you read this 37% of the 630 deputati in the Lower House will have been elected by the first past the post system and 63% by the proportional largest remainder method. 12 seats will have been elected by Italians living abroad.
The final result might suffer from being no clearer AFTER the count than before. The publication of opinion polls stops two weeks before polling day. However, the relative positions of the parties remained nearly static and an outright win, where a party or coalition nets over 50%, was not predicted at any stage in the campaign.
Looking at the last opinion polls (and different ones vary) the Five Star Movement (M5S) was the largest single party with between 27.4% and 29.4% . The centre right coalition was listed as between 34.7% and 36.8%, while the centre left was running at 27.4%. Small parties accounted for 10%. The detail is the interesting part and that could point to which groups might be comfortable partnering up to form a government.
M5S say that they will not go into coalition. They regard the other parties as corrupt, while they see themselves as the only honest, anti-establishment alternative. Beppe Grillo, founder and leader before 31 year old Luigi De Maio took over, had heard that many Italian voters couldn’t make up their minds and were going to hold their noses while voting for the least bad option. Grillo, a comedian by profession, made a characteristically ironic speech, which could only have caused confusion: ”we have the opportunity..to change this country….. enough of voting for the least bad but vote for the worst, that’s us….” Odd. He stepped into the background after that.
The centre right coalition’s two largest parties were the 81 year old Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Fi) and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, formerly Lega Nord. In short: the two men were so desperate to get into government for their own, individual selves, that they called themselves a coalition, while actively arm-wrestling in the background. They dislike and distrust each other, would not work comfortably together and are unable to share. Salvini, at 45 years old, has cunning and youth on his side.
The campaign started with Berlusconi leading Salvini in both bombast and the centre right’s polls. Berlusconi can’t take up the prime ministerial role because of his conviction for fraud and was at one point suggesting substitute appointments, if he were to be the leading coalition winner after the election. He mentioned Salvini’s fellow Lega Nord (Liga Veneta) politician and President of the Veneto, Luca Zaia, as possible Prime Minister. Obviously a suggestion that would have profoundly enraged Salvini. A late poll put Salvini only 0.3% behind Berlusconi and he (Salvini) was publicising himself as the indisputable centre right front runner in the last couple of weeks before the poll. Both Salvini, and to a lesser extent Berlusconi, increased their percentages in the polls during the campaign.
Georgia Meloni of Fratelli d’Italia was the third member of the coalition. She, like Salvini, has fascist leanings. but she only brought around 4% to the group. The fourth coalition member was insignificantly small at below the 3% limit to be eligibile for a parliamentary seat. Meloni and Berlusconi have worked together in the past. But he dismissed the pregnant Meloni during the last election saying that “a mother’s place is in the home”. Strangely, Meloni can be seen making a caprese salad (tomato and mozzarella) on YouTube. Could she team up with Salvini to beat Berlusconi, enabling him to be the centre right’s “capo di capi”? This would only be of significance if this ill-matched coalition achieved their 50%+. However, her party did join Salvini for a demonstration in 2015, so the precedent for some liaison exists.
Matteo Renzi, ex Prime Minister leads the Partito Democratico (Pd), and this was the second largest single party with between 21% and 23%. Renzi clung to the leadership for several years while his popularity plummeted. Understandably, his party lost support. Renzi developed a dictatorial manner while he was in government. The introduction of ‘reforms’ such as the raising of the pensionable age and the Jobs Act, which reduced workers rights, split and damaged the party. He also alienated both the party, and many voters, with his long-lasting and secretive pact Patto del Nazareno with Berlusconi. They used this to force through unpopular legislation. So, incongruously, these two men with driving self-belief and ambition in common, could try to revive their relationship in the increasingly unlikely circumstance of the numbers adding up. (Fi had around 16%).
One of the significant aspects of this election is the rise of the extreme right. Roberto Saviano (author of the Mafia exposè, Gomorrah) claimed in La Repubblica that the Pd and M5S were deliberately downplaying the jubilant reactions of the neo-fascists to a racist incident in Macerata, in the Marche. By doing this, he said, Renzi and Di Maio were attempting to prevent the backlash which would help the right, at the same time as increasing anti-migrant feeling in the country. The Guardian ran Saviano’s article plus almost daily articles in the run up to the election. These highlighted the rise of the right and the increasing clamour from fascist groups such as CasaPound.
This leads back to Matteo Salvini who, more than any leader, effectively used the media to increase his profile and his party’s vote share in the opinion polls. As long ago as December 2014 the FT had called him “Italy’s new political star”. Salvini had been a member of both right wing and communist organisations. He took over the leadership of the Lega Nord in 2013 after Umberto Bossi was indicted for the embezzlement of party funds. Previously Lega Nord‘s primary aim was to make the large, prosperous northern Po Valley region autonomous under the name Padania.
Salvini had worked while a Euro MP with Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Later, in successive North Italian regional elections he saw his party beating Berlusconi’s Fi. He grasped an opportunity and worked to develop a strategy to become the leader of the Italian right. It was obvious that he would have to organise in other parts of the country, including the islands so the word Nord was dropped from the party’s title. He supported and visited Donald Trump and Salvini’s election symbol closely resembles that of Trump’s election campaign. Like Trump he has a strong on-line presence.
Salvini is divorced with a child, has one child with a partner, and is now living with another different partner, yet supports family values. He also supports: flat tax, tax cuts, fiscal federalism, the legalisation of prostitution and opposes same-sex marriage. He offers “order, rules and cleanliness”. While on Milan Council he proposed that a number of metro seats should be reserved for residents only.
Salvini was openly controversial during the election, provocatively calling for all immigrants to be sent back: “mass cleaning” after a “migrant invasion”. He avoided condemning racist incidents that occurred during the campaign. For example: February’s incident in Macerata (mentioned earlier) followed the murder and dismemberment of an Italian woman by a black immigrant. A Lega candidate for a local election, Luca Traini, drove through the city shooting at anyone black. Several were injured but none were killed.
Many right wing anti-migrant and anti-right demonstrations took place on the Sunday before the election. Neo-fascist CasaPound and Forza Nova, who both stand for elections, organised some of them. The press reported that CasaPound were ready to support a Salvini government but Salvini stepped non-committally around this, neither confirming nor denying. Other members of the centre right coalition, members of Fi expressed their alarm. Berlusconi kept his mouth shut.
The unknown factor on this, the eve of the election, is the estimated 36% – 40% of voters who haven’t decided who to vote for or even whether to vote at all. You may know the result, Orecchiette can’t even guess.