🇪🇺 The Italian local elections should not make the left lower its guard
The left has shown that a united progressive front can compete with the right, but their failure to attract votes from the traditional electorate and non-voters is of major concern
A great euphoria seems to have been unleashed in the Italian left, especially in the media, after the recent local elections. Elections that saw centre-left coalitions win five of the major Italian urban centres with good results. Milan, Naples and Bologna were won in the first round, and after the ballot, Rome and Turin were also conquered.
More generally, the centre-left won in fifteen of the twenty municipalities in question, and the centre-right in only 4, while in the province of Benevento, Clemente Mastella (centre) was re-elected, albeit by a small margin in a city that in recent years has become his personal fiefdom.
The next national elections are expected in 2023, unless Mario Draghi’s government should fall unexpectedly. Until these local results, it seemed that the centre-right, led by Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, was cruising toward a landslide victory, but now the game is more open than ever. Nevertheless, the progressives must not rest on their laurels. For progressives to have a chance of governing, a coalition that is open to civic movements and the social left is needed. Leaders will also need to take seriously the needs of the working class and peripheries, and dialogue with these groups that are still suffering from increasing inequality over the past 30 years.
The vote in pills
Speaking only of percentages, the results were excellent. In the three municipalities conquered in the first round, there was no match. All candidates reached a comfortable majority of votes, with Giuseppe Sala in Milan winning with 57.7%, Matteo Lepore in Bologna with 61.9%, and Gaetano Manfredi in Naples with 62%. Even if different factors contributed to these candidates’ victories, the progressives clearly have control in the major cities. In Milan, Sala was reconfirmed after years of popular administration, following on from Giuliano Pisapia before him. In Naples, the centre-left has taken up the legacy of Luigi De Magistris who had been in office for two consecutive terms. In reality, Manfredi's result is remarkable given that De Magistris himself had never managed to win in the first round. The results were less surprising in Bologna, a city that has almost always been on the left since the Second World War (the only exception being from 1999 to 2004 under Giorgio Guazzaloca). Regardless, it is a pleasant confirmation given that, in recent years, there was a fear that the Lega could also advance in Emilia Romagna. Moreover, excellent signs are coming from the new council, which seems to be heading in a similar direction of renewal to that which Elly Schlein is already promoting as president of the region. First of all, the average age of council members is considerably younger than usual. Of course, this is no guarantee of change, but in a country that suffers heavily from gerontocratic legacies, it is a good sign. Furthermore, the presence of individuals such as Emily Clancy, a 30-year-old councillor who got the most votes of all (3,541) and calls herself a transfeminist and communist ecologist, suggests that the European wave of transfeminism is finally arriving in Italy. The presence of Patrick Zaki's teacher, Rita Monticelli (Democratic Party), should also be noted as a positive sign.
In the other two major cities, Rome and Turin, a second round was necessary to decide the winner, and we went from a Five Star mayor to a centre-left one. In Rome, Roberto Gualtieri threw out right-wing incumbent Virginia Raggi in the first round to win in the second with 60%. This despite the fact that in the first round the centre-right candidate Enrico Michetti was ahead. The indication is that large parts of Carlo Calenda’s (centre) constituency and also of the Five Star Movement are now shifting towards more progressive candidates. This is important to keep in mind in view of the national elections, where healthy competition between the progressive political forces must however be followed by unity when it comes to facing the right. In Turin, Stefano Lo Russo was already in the lead in the first round, but he still managed to bring home a good 59.23% in the second round by collecting votes from the Five Stars. Unlike in Rome, where a right-wing leader was ousted, the outgoing Five Star mayor, Chiara Appedino, was rather close to the left. The result in Turin can therefore be read more as a kind of continuity.
Even in the smaller towns, the progressives achieved good results from north to south, reconfirming themselves everywhere and conquering Cosenza, Latina, Savona and Carbonia. It was a clear defeat for the centre-right that won only in Pordenone, Trieste, Novara and Grosseto, where they already ruled.
Even looking at the results of the individual parties, there is a clear reversal of recent trends. The Democratic Party was rewarded for its greater openness in recent years, becoming the largest party in Milan, Turin, Trieste and Bologna. In the heartland of Milan, Lega did not even reach 13 per cent (at the European Parliament election in 2019, it attracted 27 per cent of the vote). The Five Star Movement, punished especially in Rome for inadequate administration, is in sharp decline. But even if Five Star has seen unexpected results on other occasions, the administrative elections are not the main arena to judge the strength of what has become a stable presence in the Italian political panorama.
The centre-left must not rest on its laurels
All fun and games then? Unfortunately not. There are several facts that need to be considered and the progressives must not rest on their laurels.
1️⃣ The first is definitely the turnout figure. For years now the largest party in Italy has been that of non-voters and the number of those who do not feel represented in party politics continues to increase. In the first round of local elections, only 54.69% turned out to vote - about one in two people. This was a record low for voter participation, down by almost 6 points from the previous low of 60.07% in 2017. The fact that not even the right managed to capture these votes is not a good sign. Discontentment and anti-political sentiment are all too often breeding grounds for more radicalised movements.
2️⃣ The cities at stake in these elections were mainly cities where progressives have often been in control in recent years. This is certainly the case in Bologna, and in Naples too, where the centre-left has been governing consistently since the 1990s. With a couple of exceptions, the left has also controlled the city of Rome since the late 1980s. In Milan and Turin, mayors who could be considered centre-left governed respectively from 2011 and 1993.
3️⃣ The left is winning in the cities where the elites live but struggling to speak to its historical electorate and to the people who are suffering most from increasing inequality. The suburbs do not vote left. In Milan, Sala struggled in the working-class districts and in some cases was outclassed by his rival Bernardo, for instance in the 1062 section of San Siro and in the nearby section 1491. Similar patterns were seen in working-class areas from Bovisasca to Ponte Lambro, from San Leonardo to Forlanini, and to the Corvetto. The trend continued in Rome and Turin.
4️⃣ All the mayors elected by the PD were men. Even in the primary, no female candidates emerged. In a country that has never had a female prime minister, the Democratic Party and the rest of the left have never seen a female party secretary. There seems to be more resistance on the left than on the right, where figures like Giorgia Meloni and Mara Carfagna have managed to impose their own visions. While we might strongly disagree with Carfagna’s politics, and even more with that of Meloni, we cannot but admit that the centre-right seems capable of giving more space to women in leadership positions.
The key to the victory of progressivism
Progressives must therefore celebrate the victory but be aware of the challenges they face. Regaining the vote of the working-class districts and of those who no longer vote is imperative for success in the national political elections. There are good signs that, thanks to European policies and in particular to the Recovery Fund, there seems to be a change of direction from the policies of the first decade of the 2000s. This is also demonstrated by the recent results of the Social Democratic Party and the Greens in Germany, which confirms a general revival of progressivism in Europe. But beware that this may not be enough. If European funds are not used to reduce inequality and respond to the environmental crisis, the eventual collapse of the centre-left is inevitable.
And after all, how can we blame the voters? The main centre-left party, the Democratic Party (PD), has governed Italy, albeit in coalition, for the majority of years since its inception. The only significant social welfare measure introduced in the last 20 years has been the citizenship income, implemented under pressure from the Five Star Movement and in coalition with Lega. The PD and progressives have not been able to impose necessary social reforms on the country and the result is that inequality has risen inexorably since 2000. Italy is the only country where average wages are lower now than in the 1990s. The top 10% (in terms of assets) of the Italian population already owned more than 6 times the wealth of the poorest half of the population before the pandemic. Since, the situation has worsened even further. According to a recent Oxfam survey, about 10 million Italians, with an average value of savings not exceeding 400 euros, had no financial buffer to independently resist the economic shock of the pandemic.
The time of vain promises is over. We need social action and policies, redistribution, integration, and investment in green energy. The Italian and European progressives have an opportunity, but if they do not answer the call then the little confidence left among voters will be definitively lost. At the national level, the PD was also rewarded for its greater openness to civic movements and to the social left, as well as for greater attention to social issues. It is necessary for the left to extend an olive branch to the different strands of progressive politics, and unite to represent not only the elites but also give voice to the working class and peripheries that feel abandoned. It is also necessary to be open to dialogue and, why not, to a government with the Five Star Movement which manages to connect with that discontentment and which, with Giuseppe Conte, seems to give adequate political guarantees. Finally, it is also necessary that within the Draghi government, social goals be prioritised and welfare and employment policies relaunched. If not, I myself would no longer see the reason to vote for the centre-left.