Five lessons from the Italian local elections

Dave Kellaway considers;

  1. Renzi Prime minister and leader of the PD (Democratic Party) took a kicking from the voters.

The PD lost Rome’s mayoral election to Virginia Raggi of the Five Star Movement (M5S – led by Beppe Grillo who is also a stand-up comic).  On top of that they also unexpectedly lost Turin to another M5S woman Chiara Appendino and the failed abysmally to recover Naples council and its mayor from a left of PD movement led by De Magistris.  Worse than this was the total erosion of the PD vote in what should have been strongholds for a party that originated in the workers movement and still considers it represents working people in some way. The PD only held on in Rome in the central historical area where the bourgeois and petty bourgeois better-off live.  On TV after the results Renzi explained that it was a setback but it was not necessarily a vote of no confidence is his government.


In recent months Renzi had been elaborating his project of transforming the PD into becoming a party of the whole nation, believing he would be able to soak up votes from the centre and the right while maintaining the PD’s core vote.  His modernising , digital mantra, his dumping  of the older PD leadership into the ‘scrapyard’ as well as his tactical alliance with Berlusconi to form his present government were all supposed to contribute to this project.  At the same time this new brand, echoing some of the M5S’s diatribes about the inefficiency and costs of the political system, aimed to cut into Beppe Grillo ‘s electorate. In the 2014 European elections it seemed to be working to some degree as the PD soared to just over 40% of the vote.  Renzi hoped that the opposition would be divided into warring factions and indeed Berlusconi’s forces have been split not just once but twice in the last two years. The rise of the Lega Nord with its open racism was also seen as a useful tool to eat into the M5S protest vote and the hard right. Today it looks like the M5S could be a serious competitor and the irony is that Renzi’s anti-democratic Italcum electoral changes will give a serious bonus to the party which comes top… and if present trends continue that could be Beppe Grillo’s people.


  1. The big constitutional referendum in October over abolishing the senate supported by Renzi is not a foregone conclusion


Renzi’s proposals to abolish the Senate in the name of saving money and streamlining decision-making actually shifts a lot of power into the hands of…’ve guessed… the prime minister.  He has cleverly exploited people’s disgust at the huge costs of the Italian political system.  The pensions elected representatives got for just serving one term were very high and you could accumulate more than one if you were also a regional MP or a mayor, as many did. A real frustration with slow decision making was exaggerated by Renzi to win support for his changes. The new proposed Senate will be made up of regional representatives so in the end it is not clear how much money will be saved. These proposals followed the forcing through of new labour laws which make it easier to hire and fire called the Jobs Act (Renzi thinks it is terribly modern and hip to name his legislation in English!).   This has resulted in a number of PD MPs on the left splitting to form Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left) and a significant minority still inside the PD are opposed to these changes. They include many of the old guard. Former leader D’Alema actually called for a vote for the M5S in Rome and Bersani, last leader but one promises to continue the fight on the constitutional changes.


A broad array of mainstream and left forces is lined up against Renzi on the referendum. His tactics of blocking here with M5S or there with the Berlusconi people on different bits of legislation (gay unions, electoral changes) is not really working out too well here.  Renzi has said he will leave politics if the proposals do not pass and he will play the card of his personal prestige, which is amplified by a lot of the media who portray him as modernising figure who is getting things done.


  1. Those political forces to the left of the PD mostly made little impact

In a number of places the Sinistra Italia (SI) group put up candidates such as Stefano Fassina in Rome but in general they did not even get 5% of the vote – mostly between 2 and 4%.  This represents little progress from the scores obtained in the European elections where similar forces stood on the bizarrely named Tsipras for Europe slate. Apart from the  SI group these candidatures were supported by the remnants of Rifondazione Communista (Communist Refoundation) , Italian Communists and the SEL (Socialism, Ecology and Liberta) – which was in a satellite alliance with the PD which guaranteed them parliamentary representation in pre-Renzi times but are now  more independent of the PD.  One of the problems is that these formations still obsess with internal divisions inside the PD, won’t really challenge trade union leaders and are still in alliances with the PD in many localities si.  They shy away from putting themselves forward as a clear alternative to a completely social liberal PD.


Nevertheless the De Magistris phenomenon in Naples continues with his re-confirmation as mayor. This was achieved against the official PD candidate.  He was one of the ‘orange’ candidates who won primaries against PD people a few years ago.  There has been a real attempt to link up with campaigning grass roots bodies and to take a stand on a number of key local issues e.g. the redevelopment of the former iron works at Bagnoli. In Cagliari too the ex-orange candidate was reconfirmed, he is a SEL member.


The radical left is still suffering from the fallout of the Rifondazione Communista project which at one stage regrouped the whole of the revolutionary left with a big split of the old communist party.  Some focus on building local self-organisation, restarting production in bankrupt factories as cooperatives, sometimes  linked to an analysis which suggests the whole workers movement as it developed in the twentieth century has to be re-established and that the manoeuvring of the small left apparatuses like SEL or Rifondazione is going nowhere fast.(see the  site) Others  believe it is still  possible to build a left inside the unions and movements and to get involved in regroupment initiatives (see Sinistra Anticapitalista).


  1. Matteo Salvini’s project to claim the leadership of the right around his anti-Euro and anti-migrant rhetoric has hit a wall

The Lega Nord originated as a regional nationalist grouping in Lombardy demanding self-determination for Padania and liberation from the robbers of Rome. From the start it based itself on the small and medium sized business people and working class layers particularly in the smaller towns – often working in small poorly unionised workplaces.  Originally it too railed against the corruption of the political system and lodged urs MPs in cheap hostels in Rome to differentiate itself from with the mainstream parties caught up in the bribesville (Tangentopoli) scandal.  After corruption scandals involving the founder Bossi’s family and some bitter internal conflict Salvini emerged as the new demagogue. He has directly confronted Romanies and other migrants and continually condemned the humanitarian efforts of the Italian government to save lives in the Mediterranean.  In these elections he supported the right wing candidate in Rome who did not even make the second round.  The Lega also lost its historic strongholds in Varese and Latina, where a left coalition won 75% of the vote.  Votes were also lost in Turin where it has done well before.  While Berlusconi both politically and physically is in full decline Salvini is not only failing to replace him but  losing out on the protest vote to the M5S.


  1. Grillo’s M5S movement, written off several times, is polling around a quarter of the electorate.  Its resilience is due to its nature as an interclass force able to position itself to win a protest vote from disillusioned left and right wing voters.

The second round scores in Rome where Raggi almost doubled her vote and the huge increase in the Turin race shows that the neither right nor left brand does in fact allow it to prosper. It policies and character are not fascist as some have claimed.  The racist Lega Nord and the real fascists in Italy occupy that space.  However Grillo and others will borrow demagogy from fascists like Casa Pound about migrants while at the same time taking positions  attractive to the left such as the campaign against high speed rail  in the Val Susa The success of the M5S is directly proportional to both the rightward direction of the PD and the failure of the class struggle left to build an alternative.


Governing Rome and Turin will put their policies under the spotlight.  Will these councils make a difference to working people?  Have they got the cadre to run them?  Left campaigners in these towns say it is important to have independent movements that can hold the M5S to their promises.


The fundamental political weakness of the M5S is that they locate all evil in the occupation of the political system by a corrupt political caste. They do not link this caste to any systematic economic powers or exploitation of working people.  In the final analysis they create the illusion that purely by having honest people occupying these structures then things can change.  Their voters delegate change to these representatives monitoring them through some nebulous online democracy.  However given the absolute distrust and contempt millions of Italians have of the political system you can see how they have managed to grow and sustain the movement.


On a visit to Italy during the first round of these elections I was struck by how demoralised and angry people were with the politicians, how anti- migrant comments were voiced more openly and a sort of weary resignation expressed by people on the left.  It was noticeable how, at least in this southern town, the local church led by a dynamic Franciscan priest was mobilising and organising the local parish in a way that the local left parties used to be able to compete with.  Today only the M5S put their party symbol and name on the electoral materials.  The mainstream parties are hidden behind thousands of so-called citizen slates.  Needless to say abstention rates, while still lower than in Britain,  are creeping up in each election to up to 40%.


  1. Cinque Stelle is a problematic formation as an understatement. While insisting that they are neither left nor right; they still refuse to say whether they are anti-fascist. Anyone with an ounce of sense on the left would refuse to work with them. I have also heard that there is a relationship between the leaders of Cinque Stelle and Casapound (see. e.g., Writing 5 Stelle off is not the issue, supporting them instead is a gross error.

    The argument that “this is all that is there” just doesn’t wash. We need to call them out for what they are. Their lack of class analysis, their “borrowing” racist and xenophobic ideology from Casapound and the fact that they are not anti-private property puts them squarely in the right.

    I am not implying that you are supporting them, just that you are brushing away serious concerns about the 5 stelle movement rather than fully criticising them.

  2. They are not fascist and it is not a case of supporting them. However if the new mayor is against the olympic bid and so are we then we don’t condemn her for that. Not a question of working with them but on a case by case basis you may be in the same campaigns e.g.TAV. The M5s don’t rreally relate to other parties in thsi way either. I thought i made clear that they are not a part of the left or workers movement but an interclass movement which has some new features, populist might be another term. It is not true that they never take progressive positons e.g. no tav or on gay unions etc.

  3. I didn’t call them fascist. What I said is that they refuse to say that they are anti-fascist. Their neither right nor left combined with no class analysis and their borrowed demagoguery in a country where xenophobia (and racism) is quite common makes them a dangerous group to the left and are spreading an ideology which is dangerous.

    The article made it clear that they are not part of the left or workers movement. Yes, populist is a good term, and a right-wing populist at that. Not a group that we should ever remain uncritical and they are dangerous to working class movements and the left. Without a doubt, they are drawing people to a right-wing populist programme.

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