Italy: Prime Minister Renzi’s party routed

Five Star mayors elected in Rome and Turin

The local and mayoral elections in Italy have exploded the myth of “Renzi the invincible”. His Democratic Party (PD) in 2014 bucked the anti-establishment trend by gaining over 40% of the vote in the European elections. This summer it has been crushed in the capital Rome by the Five Star Movement (M5S), whose candidate Virginia Raggi won 67% of the vote to the PD’s 32%. The M5S also routed the PD in its former stronghold of Turin, home to FIAT and historic workers’ movements. Another female candidate for them, Chiara Appendino, took 54.5%.

Overall the PD lost half of its councils while the M5S won 19 out of 20 of the second round run-offs which it contested. Renzi tried to dismiss these elections as a purely local affair with no national relevance. But with six major cities up for grabs this was a mini general election in which the PD won only two – Bologna and Milan – both against a candidate from the Right. Naples in the south was won convincingly by Luigi de Magistris, the “orange” political “outsider” with strong local support to the left of the PD, re-elected with 67% of the vote.

Leaving aside the high level of abstention (almost 50%), the M5S was the main beneficiary of a huge anti-Renzi vote. This was fuelled by an economy which has been stagnant for almost a decade and is projected to grow by just 1% this year. There has also been deep disgust at massive corruption involving all the traditional establishment parties.

The “centre-right” were also losers. Former Prime Minister Berlusconi was hospitalised after the elections for a heart operation but no amount of emergency intervention can help his party Forza Italia from its terminal decline, winning less than 10% of the vote in many areas.

The “lepenismo” of Salvini, leader of the right-wing populist Lega party, was also defeated. His strategy of going it alone (rather than in alliance with Forza Italia) and attempting to emulate Marine Le Pen in France failed dismally with the Lega losing out in Lombardy, including Varese a symbolic stronghold, and in Rome. In the second round hundreds of thousands of right-wing voters switched to the M5S to defeat the PD. In Torino, for example, the votes for the PD’s candidate Fassino remained almost unchanged while Appendino’s votes increased by nearly 100,000.

With the exception of De Magistris (who says he is considering launching a national movement), the Left in its various electoral permutations was almost an irrelevance, losing around a third of its vote in the five main cities compared to the last local elections in 2011. The Left’s candidate in Turin, one of the few with national name recognition, got just 4% of the vote in the first round. These purely opportunist electoral groupings with no real roots in local areas are incapable of filling the political void to the left of the PD.

Test for M5S

These elections represent a crucial turning point for the M5S which has undergone a radical make-over, rebranding itself as a respectable, credible political alternative. Its co-founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, has taken a step back. The “anti-party”, “anti-establishment” movement, sometimes known as “vaffa” or “fuck off” from one of its early slogans, has effectively transformed itself into a structured, institutional political party. It wants to show that it is not just a protest movement but is capable of governing and therefore using these elections as a spring-board for parliamentary elections due in 2018.

But, faced with running two major cities, the M5S is about to undergo its toughest test so far. It is one thing to have the mayor of small cities like Parma and Livorno, both of which have presented the movement with huge headaches (the mayor of Parma, Pizzarotti was recently expelled). It is quite another thing to govern the country’s capital with its major transport and rubbish collection problems, a debt which is twice its annual budget and a political system infested with mafia, lobby and vested interests.

Raggi’s electoral programme was deliberately vague on details, concentrating on “trust” and “transparency”. During her campaign she tried to reassure worried local authority workers and taxi drivers and has said she will try to renegotiate the city’s budget and expects “maximum loyalty” from the Renzi government . But what will happen when the central government refuses and insists that public services be cut? How will Raggi be able to govern for “all Romans” when faced with irreconcilable economic interests and a political system that is rotten to the core? The experience of Parma, where cuts to local services have been carried out under a M5S mayor are not encouraging.

It has always been inevitable that the contradictions inherent in a cross-class populist movement like the M5S would at some point explode to the surface. While the M5S has emerged relatively unscathed from its local problems in Parma and in Livorno, its political management of Turin and especially Rome will be under close national scrutiny.

Fighting back

In Turin, where ControCorrente (CWI Italy) has a certain base amongst the 5,000 workers employed by the local transport company, GTT, we will be fighting to defend the transport workers against any attempts at cuts and privatisation or attacks on working conditions. In doing so, we will seek to expose the M5S fallacy of representing all “citizens”, to bring about a class differentiation and to promote the need for a political party which represents the class interests of workers. In Genova we have already publicly challenged the M5S on the issue of the crisis at ILVA – the biggest steel plant in Italy – posing the question: Are you with or against the working class?

Parliamentary elections are not due until 2018, by which time the weaknesses of the M5S could be exposed. But Renzi has called a referendum for October on constitutional changes which, he says, is the election that really matters; if he loses he will resign. If the broad opposition to Renzi that emerged in these elections is replicated in October, which is quite possible, especially given the way in which he has personalised the referendum, he is likely to lose. This could mean a general election much sooner with the possibility of the M5S emerging with an even greater share of the vote than the 25% it received in 2013.

ControCorrente is discussing calling for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum but this would clearly have to be linked to the question of workers organising independently for struggle and for the building of a left political alternative to both the PD and the M5S.

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June 2016