The results of the regional and local elections of 31 May, in which about twenty five million Italians, in seven out of twenty regions, had a vote, reflect the end of the so-called honeymoon of prime minister Renzi with the electorate. In one year the Democratic Party (PD) has lost about two million votes, it has handed one of its strongholds, Liguria, where there has been a mini-split by the `PD left’, to Berlusconi and the Lega Nord and has only just avoided losing in another `red region’, Umbria.
The two Renzi candidates in Liguria and Veneto - two young `beautiful women’ and perfect representatives of the cliches of Renzism - were overwhelmingly defeated, while in the regions where the PD won, old members of the party machine were elected. Thus, the `trade-in’ Prime Minister has also suffered a heavy blow to his image - an image in ever greater crisis, day after day, owing also to the failures of the government in economic matters. In spite of the propaganda about economic ’recovery’, unemployment remains high and cuts and lay-offs continue. And then there is the controversial EXPO in Milan; after the publication of the first data on attendance, it risks being the failure that was foreseen! In the first month, the number of visitors was 2.7 million, which makes it highly improbable that the target of 20 million in six months will be reached.
The reasons for this sudden change in fortune are various. On the one hand there are a number of judicial matters. A few weeks before the elections, a media debate exploded over the ‘unpresentables’ - the candidates with prosecutions or convictions for corruption or abuse of office. The two PD candidates for Governor in Liguria and Campania, Paita and De Luca, are among them.
Raffaella Paita has, for a number of months now, been under investigation for negligence, homicide and culpable disaster for the flood of last October in Genoa. De Luca has been convicted primarily for abuse of office and is someone who has been accused of relations with the centre-right and organised crime. Precisely because of the conviction, De Luca is legally `unelectable’, but he put himself forward in the primaries and won them. On 31 May he defeated the candidate of the centre-right, the former governor Caldoro, in spite of the fact that on the eve of the vote, the parliamentary anti-mafia commission, chaired by a member of the `PD left’, named him in the list of `unpresentables’, causing endless polemics deep inside Renzi’s party. By law, the government should annul the election of De Luca, unless it manages to intervene with a tailored law to remedy his unelectability, and thereby suffering the inevitable criticisms.
But the deeper reason for the PD defeat lies in the failure of government policies and in the social anger which it has created, in particular among workers and middle class people. In May two episodes in particular unleashed this anger. On the one hand was the `good school’ reform which completes the transformation of the public school along the lines of commercial logic in which the head teachers can decide on hiring and on teachers’ salaries and which concedes new freedoms to private schools. Furthermore, the government, forced by the EU to take on 150,000 temporary teachers, has decided to give permanent contracts to 100,000. On 5 May, hundreds of thousands of students and school workers took to the streets to protest. Teachers are a sector traditionally on the left and in recent years have continued to vote massively for the PD.
The second scandal followed a ruling by the Constitutional Court which declared illegitimate the block put on pension re-evaluations above €1,450 (decided in 2012 by the Monti government). A few days later, Renzi announced that of the €18bn stolen from the pensioners, only €2bn would be handed back for budgetary reasons. In a region such as Liguria, where one voter in three is a pensioner (and the majority of PD voters are over 55), this decision could only produce disastrous results. The primary elections in January had already been controversial when the ex-CGIL leader Cofferati, candidate of the PD left, had made allegations of corruption and Mafia infiltration and left the party, causing a small split.
The other issue behind the defeat of Renzi and the advance of Salvini’s Lega Nord is immigration. The entry of thousands of refugees from Syria, in particular, from Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa and the tragedy of 800 immigrants drowned a few weeks before the vote, have placed this theme at the centre of political debate. Salvini based his electoral campaign on the fear of broad sectors of the working and middle classes with regard to what he calls the `invasion’ of undocumented immigrants. He proposed to give aid to them at sea, but at the same time to turn back to Libya those without a recognised right to asylum. The government answered with the proposal to sink the immigrant vessels in the Libyan ports, before the immigrants boarded them: an unworkable proposal from a military point of view and impractical from the point of view of international law (unless war was declared on Libya).
The proposal to divide the refugees between European countries provoked a reaction from member-states such as France and the UK and seemed to have stalled in the shifting sands of the Brussels bureaucracy. Furthermore this happened against the backdrop of a judicial inquiry (’Mafia Capitale’) which showed how cooperatives and associations linked to the centre-right and `centre-left’ and to organised crime, with the assistance of politicians from the PD and Forza Italia in local government in Rome, had earned tens of millions of euros sharing out tenders for refugee reception centres. A few days after the elections there were another 44 arrests of politicians and civil servants and the press published the phone taps of one of those arrested - the right hand man of the former mayor of Rome (and first secretary of the PD) Veltroni. He had been asking the winners of the tenders for `one euro a day per immigrant’!
This new wave of immigration is happening while unemployment, and especially youth unemployment, is sky high. Mass redundancies in factories are continuing and small businesses continue to close. Repossessions are becoming a true social emergency. The Lega is utilising the fear that the arrival of thousands of refugees will bring a new low wage workforce, new taxes to pay for the reception centres and further crime problems. This fear is vastly out of proportion to the number of foreigners who stay in Italy (most in fact continue towards Northern Europe). But it is widespread in society.
On this issue, in both Rome and Brussels, there is a conflict between the capitalist establishment and the politicians. From the economic point of view, numerous studies in fact attest that in the period before the crisis in countries such as the UK and Spain, immigration contributed to reducing the rate of unemployment, controlling inflation, and, in particular, wages.(See for example, Blanchflower and Shadforth, ’Fear, Unemployment and Migration’, 2009 and Ordonez’ ’Immigration and inflation moderation debate’, 2007). But governments and political parties find themselves forced to deal with the social and electoral consequences of this situation and the advance of the anti-European and anti-immigration right.
This contradiction leads to a fundamental ambiguity in government policies and leaves the field open to right-wing demagogy. In Italy a force like the Lega, even though it is not capable of offering realistic solutions to the problem, having at least a clear slogan - `we want no more immigrants’ - can take advantage of the government’s uncertainties and win mass support even in the faraway areas of the North (in Tuscany the candidate of Salvini reached 20%, in the Marche 13%). This is thanks in part to the support of neo-fascist organisations such as ’Casa Pound’. Also, in a similar way, recent episodes reported in the crime pages of the press have aided the Lega leader in demanding that the Roma camps be flattened with bulldozers.
Rejection of parties
The 31 May election results have not come out of the blue for Renzi and the PD. The unprecedented abstention (about 50%) reflects a general rejection of all political parties. Other than the Lega, all, including the 5-Star movement (M5S) of Beppe Grillo, who many considered among the winners of these elections, lost votes (many to Salvini). They suffered heavy losses in the cities they governed due to their policies of cuts and privatisation.
Berlusconi unexpectedly won in Liguria (the new governor is one of his closest collaborators), but in Puglia it lost to the challenge of the splitter, Fitto, his main `internal’ opponent. The relationship of forces was overturned in favour of Salvini, who moved from one third to two thirds of the centre-right votes and is the candidate to succeed Berlusconi as leader of the right. On the other hand, it was not a bed of roses for Salvini. The results show that in every case, without Berlusconi, the Lega does not have the numbers to beat the `centre-left’.
In Liguria, Salvini was forced to ally himself with Alfano, his sworn enemy and the successor to Berlusconi. He is now in government with Renzi. His party, after the elections, made it clear that he could break the alliance with the PD to return to a centre-right coalition. But, in Veneto, the elections marked the triumph of the Lega governor, Zaia, (winner with more than 50% of the votes) - a representative of the `centrist’ and ex-Christian Democrat spirit of the Lega. In five years of government in Veneto he and the Lega have given life to a phase of social peace, drawing into its policies even the CGIL. Together with the Lega governor of Lombardy, Maroni, Zaia, who has, in recent months, exploited the propaganda of Salvini for electoral purposes, could limit the power of Salvini. In particular this could show itself at the moment of the inevitable deal with Berlusconi, which will require compromises and could damage the `straight and narrow’ image of the Lega chief.
All of this reflects an underlying tendency which touches both right and left, called a `feudalisation’ of political parties. The largest Italian political forces have been led by personalities of great charisma and media presence, but without the social roots necessary to win elections. Given the crisis of consent and the weakening of parties, as such, throughout the country, votes are controlled by mayors and governors. This forces national leaders to base themselves on the latter in order to exercise their role.
Renzi would not have wanted Paita and De Luca as candidates, but he was forced to support them, even knowing that he would pay a high price and risked losing both regions. In Puglia - as we have seen – the Forza Italia candidate who was imposed by Berlusconi took half the votes of the candidate of the internal opposition (and former governor of Puglia) Fitto. Grillo himself, after the negative result in the European elections, entrusted more responsibility in running the M5S to the leaders of the movement in parliament (the Genovese comedian is not an MP).
This widespread weakening of Renzi, of his government and of the whole political system represents an opportunity for forces of the left. But the current left parties have not drawn any electoral advantage. The followers of Tsipras today (and of Podemos tomorrow) have put up regional candidates obtaining a handful of votes. In Liguria they supported the candidate of Cofferati and of Civati (member of the PD left who resigned from the party a few days before the election) winning less than 10% of the vote and a regional councillor - little enough for those who say they want to build an `Italian Syriza’.
Furthermore the ending of the myth of Renzi’s invincibility in recent months, and in particular since September, could encourage sectors of workers and youth and the unions themselves to enter the battle against the government with more decisiveness than they have up to now. And some sectors of the establishment could take advantage to dump Renzi and find an alternative. Exactly such a result could be the most interesting to come out of these elections.
For us, who operate on the field of class struggle, having ever weaker political opponents represents a definite advantage. At the same time the discussion on how to fill the political void that has opened up to the left of the PD continues. The idea of the necessity of a party which represents those hard hit by cuts - workers, students, unemployed youth and pensioners - has been confirmed as the only realistic solution to the Italian crisis.