SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

Italy’s election shake-up

The March general election has caused the biggest shake-up of the Italian political landscape in over 20 years. Not since the ‘clean hands’ corruption scandal of the early 1990s have the establishment parties been so severely wounded. Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) suffered a humiliating defeat coming a poor second to the populist Five Star Movement. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was outpolled by the right-wing populist Lega led by Matteo Salvini.

On a turnout of 73%, over 50% of votes went to perceived anti-establishment parties reflecting a clear rejection of traditional politics and a desperate desire for change after years of corruption, austerity and economic devastation for ordinary people. With no clear victor, weeks and possibly months of uncertainty are likely as parties struggle to form a government.

The collapse in the vote for the PD, the main party in the outgoing coalition and favourite of the Italian capitalist class, was even greater than the polls had predicted. In the Camera (lower house) the PD on 19% was only just ahead of the Lega, a far cry from the 40% polled in the European elections less than four years ago. Even its dominance in the ‘red regions’ (former Communist Party strongholds) in central Italy has been shattered, with the PD losing the Emilia Romagna region to the ‘centre-right’ for the first time since the second world war. It held on in just a few cities like Bologna and Imola. Following such a crushing defeat, Renzi has been forced to resign as leader.

Even though there has been a slight upturn in the economy, after nearly a decade of recession, the PD was never going to benefit from an economic electoral bounce. Growth is still lower and unemployment higher than before the crisis. Most working-class and many middle-class people have felt no improvement in their daily lives. During the election campaign, Embraco (part of Whirlpool) announced the transfer of production from Turin to Slovakia with the loss of 500 jobs.

The split off from the PD, Liberi e Uguali (LeU – the Free and Equal party), which was supposed to offer a new ‘left’ alternative, only just reached the 3% threshold for having candidates elected. This is not surprising when its leaders are associated with all the PD’s anti-working class attacks. These included labour and pension changes which makes it easier to sack workers and forces them to work longer. On the eve of the election, Pietro Grasso, leader of LeU, showed his party’s true colours by announcing LeU’s willingness to form a post-electoral coalition with the PD.

With over 32% of the vote nationally, the Five Star Movement (M5S) is by far the biggest party. It swept the board in the south which has been hardest hit by the economic crisis, getting 40% of the vote in Puglia and Sicily and over 50% in some parts of Campania, such as Naples. M5S did particularly well among young people – 35% of the under 35s who voted. The M5S promise of a ‘reditto di cittadinanza’ (guaranteed minimum income) had a big impact on the impoverished south.

The support for M5S has come from both former left-leaning and right-leaning voters. Thoroughly sick of traditional politics, they were prepared to overlook the party’s internal problems and chaotic governance of Rome to ‘try something different’. However, despite its success the M5S will not be able to form a majority government on its own. Terrified of the possibility of a M5S government, the Italian ruling class had pushed for a change in the electoral law aimed precisely at denying it a majority. Now that same electoral law has resulted in the ruling class having no stable political reference point.

Luigi Di Maio, leader of the M5S, has spent the past few months courting big business and trying to present himself as a viable future prime minister and the M5S as a reliable capitalist party. This included backing away from the movement’s former anti-euro/EU stance and from its opposition to a wealth tax.

Immediately after the elections Vincenzo Boccia, leader of Confindustria, the main bosses’ organisation, declared that he was "not afraid" of the M5S. This is a sign that big business is reluctantly coming to terms with the possibility of a government involving a ‘reformed’ M5S, miles removed from the ‘fuck off’ days when comedian Beppe Grillo first launched the movement ten years ago. Nevertheless, any government involving the M5S is likely to be very unstable.

Di Maio has declared that he is open to the idea of alliances with other parties. How far he will be able to go along that road is an open question as it flies in the face of the original raison d’être of the M5S – forged in complete opposition to the rotten political ‘caste’ and traditional parties. If the M5S decides to go into a coalition it would most likely result in the movement shattering, with one part attempting to move back to its anti-establishment origins.

The ‘centre-right’ has emerged as the biggest coalition but, with 37% of the vote, it is also short of a majority. The significant change is that the virulently anti-immigrant Lega is now the biggest party on the right overturning the balance of forces within the coalition away from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

In the media, the question of immigration dominated the electoral campaign with all the major parties adopting a hard-line position. In the north and increasingly in parts of central Italy it has been the Lega which has reaped the electoral benefits. It also made a certain breakthrough in some parts of the south. Although the vote percentages are still modest this indicates that, despite its anti-southerner

history, the Lega might be able to transform itself into a national right-wing populist party. It could do that with a combination of an anti-immigrant and pro-social reform programme – it pledged to scrap the pensions law, for example – especially if it finds itself in opposition to a M5S in government.

The Lega’s vote increased nationally from 4% at the last election to 18% – a third of those voters having previously abstained and a quarter switching from Forza Italia. Also, Fratelli d’Italia, which is part of the coalition and has its roots in the fascist MSI, tripled its vote to 4.35%. The ‘centre-right’ will undoubtedly attempt to win over MPs from other parties in order to form a majority. But it will be extremely difficult to find the necessary numbers (over 50 seats), especially with Salvini as the candidate for prime minister.

Despite the anti-immigration political discourse and unprecedented media publicity for the neo-fascist Casapound, it only managed to get 0.9% of the vote. However, the success of the Lega and the shooting of six immigrants by a right-wing terrorist in the course of the campaign showed the dangers that anti-immigrant politics are fuelling. The question of anti-racism and anti-fascism will continue to be a central one whichever government emerges.

The newly established left-wing Potere al Popolo (PaP – Power to the People) failed to reach the 3% threshold. It got 370,000 votes, just over 1% nationally (compared with 3% in 2013 for the ‘radical’ left forces). This was in part a consequence of the ‘useful vote’ mood which prevailed affecting all the smaller lists.

For a movement set up only a few weeks before the election and without the media coverage given to the other parties (including Casapound), getting candidates elected was never the main aim. Potere al Popolo was formed from below as a fighting, campaigning organisation of and for ordinary people, uniting the main left parties and social movements in the country. Hundreds of meetings held in over 100 cities up and down the country attracted thousands of people, especially youth (PaP secured 2.8% of the youth vote).

It was because of the potential that Potere al Popolo represents for building a fighting anti-capitalist force that Resistenze Internazionali (CWI Italy) affiliated to it, participated in its electoral campaign, and stood a candidate on its list in Genova. Whether this organisation will realise its potential is not certain but we will continue to play a role at a local and national level.

At this early stage it is impossible to say what kind of government (if any) will result from this election: a ‘centre-right’ coalition dominated by the Lega, a M5S/PD coalition, an alliance between the M5S and the Lega, an extended ‘grand coalition’, a technocratic government, a government of the president with the sole aim of changing (yet again) the electoral law, or maybe new elections. All are possible outcomes. What is certain is that none will be able to solve any of the problems facing working- and middle-class people. Italian capitalism’s economic, political and social crisis will continue and the building of an anti-capitalist alternative through struggle is now more vital than ever.

Christine Thomas

Resistenze Internazionali

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