Beppe Grillo: negotiations with Ukip

Renzi's rightward march

Last week’s elections have confirmed the trajectory of ‘Italy’s Tony Blair’, writes Toby Abse

The European, local and regional elections of May 25 have given an enormous boost to Matteo Renzi and the centre-left Partito Democratico. The PD exceeded its own highest expectations, obtaining 40.8% of the vote in the European election - an extremely dramatic increase of 15.2% from the party’s disappointing 25.6% score under the leadership of Pierluigi Bersani in the February 2013 general election.1

The elections also represented a very severe setback for Beppe Grillo and his Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement), which only got 21.1% - down from its 25.6% in the 2013 general election and, much more significantly, only about half the PD’s vote last week. This completely undermined Grillo’s publicly expressed hope of either overtaking the PD or coming very close to doing so.

The results also suggest that the political decline of Silvio Berlusconi and his revived Forza Italia may well be irreversible. Forza Italia’s score was 16.8%, compared with the 21.6% for its predecessor, Popolo della Libertà (PdL), in 2013. The Lega Nord - now allied at the European level with Marine Le Pen’s Front National2 - got 6.2%, compared with 4.1% last year, and the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia went up from 2% to 3.7% (below the 4% quorum for representation). The slight increase in the level of support for racist and fascist forces on the far right is only a marginal feature of the Italian result and one generally attributed to the splintering of Berlusconi’s electorate rather than any major change in the popular mood of the kind that has been seen in France or Denmark.

The PD’s score is an unprecedented one for the Italian centre-left and if one excludes the atypical French-speaking province of Aosta and the German-speaking Bolzano, the PD came first in 106 provinces out of 108, coming second in the remainder. So the political geography of Italy has changed out of all recognition. The electoral heartlands of the PD/Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS)/Democratici di Sinistra (DS) had until last week to a very large extent remained exactly the same as those of the old Partito Comunista Italiano during the cold war years - in other words the ‘red regions’ of central Italy. In the five huge constituencies into which Italy is divided for European elections, whilst the PD, as always, did best in the Centre (46.57%), its second highest score was in the North East (43.52%) - a region that had been a stronghold of first Democrazia Cristiana (DC - Christian Democracy) and then, more recently, the Lega Nord. To a limited extent it is still possible to claim that the PD remains weak in the South constituency by comparison with the North and Centre, but 35.05% in the mainland South and 34.8% in the Islands (Sicily and Sardinia) are by historic standards very impressive results indeed.

Whilst the PD under Renzi got fewer votes in absolute terms than it had done in the 2008 general election under the leadership of Walter Veltroni, the turnout this year was markedly lower (only 58.7%) and about seven million of those who had voted in the general election last year did not vote in last week’s European election. Whilst the headline given by Repubblica to an article summarising this survey - ‘One and a half million voters from the centre-right to the PD’ - seems slightly inaccurate, nonetheless a large number of the new PD voters came from the centre, even if not so many came directly from the centre-right strictly defined (750,00 came from M5S)3. The fact that such voters are now prepared to back Renzi is an indication of the way he has shifted the PD further to the right.4

Renzi is now in a position to say that he has a mandate from the Italian electorate and not just from PD members (who voted for him by a large majority in the primary contest that eventually followed Bersani’s resignation). This means that he will take even less notice of the minority within the party - a minority which in broad terms is to his left, even if some of them might be dismissed as ageing apparatchiks - and carry on with the aggressively neoliberal line that he has been pushing ever since he became party secretary (and to an even greater extent since he became prime minister).

It will also confirm him in his anti-trade union line, which was exemplified by his conspicuous absence from the recent congress of the CGIL, the trade union confederation traditionally close to the PCI and its successors, as well as by what he called his “Jobs Act”,5 which further eroded the job security of those who do not already have permanent contracts of the kind that some older workers still possess. The extent to which he has ingratiated himself with Italy’s bankers and industrialists was shown in the 3.6% rise on the Milan stock exchange on the day after his European election victory and the fall in ‘the spread’ - the difference in interest rates between Italian and German 10-year bonds, which fell by nearly 20 points.

The size of his electoral victory also makes it easier for him to postpone going to the country for a general election mandate and thus gives him more time to bring in both his planned electoral reform - the so-called Italicum - and his proposed replacement of the popularly elected Senate with an indirectly elected regional chamber (assuming that Berlusconi continues to cooperate with him).

‘Blame the voters’

Grillo’s initial reaction was to regard the outcome of the European election as a complete disaster, despite the election of 17 M5S MEPs, even if he is very unlikely to carry out his earlier threat to retire from politics in the event that he lost. Gianroberto Casaleggio, Grillo’s social media guru and the movement’s real organiser, spent nine hours in a Milan office with Grillo in the immediate aftermath of the defeat in a bid to dissuade him from quitting.

Grillo, as one might expect, blames the voters and has ranted about “the Italy of pensioners, who perhaps have no will to change” - which is somewhat ironic, coming from a 65-year-old defeated by a much younger man. Casaleggio, repeating a widespread criticism of Grillo’s speeches in the last week or so of the campaign, suggested that the comedian’s extremely angry and aggressive tone alienated many potential voters, but Grillo responded by claiming that he knows no other way of getting his points across.

It was perhaps significant that Berlusconi, in the last days of the campaign, fearing Grillo was advancing in the polls and annoyed at references to his own criminality, publicly called Grillo a “convicted murderer”. This was a reference to his 1980 manslaughter conviction for the death of his three passengers, including a child, in a vehicle Grillo drove with extreme recklessness - an incident which up until that point Grillo’s political opponents had always refrained from mentioning directly. Whilst such exchanges of insults may not have helped Berlusconi recover his vote share, they did not help Grillo either.

Grillo’s enthusiasm for allying M5S with Ukip at the European level has added to the post-electoral squabbling within M5S. However, it should be stressed that Grillo’s lunch with Nigel Farage in Brussels - at which Repubblica reported that rivers of red wine were drunk (a rather surprising choice of beverage on Farage’s part, given the ready availability of beer in Belgium) - was also attended by Davide Casaleggio, Gianroberto’s son. This is an indication of the extent to which this alliance is part of the strategy of Casaleggio senior and not just some temporary whim of the comedian’s. Whilst Grillo has tried to backtrack slightly, suggesting he was taking “soundings” rather than committing M5S to a partnership with Ukip, the project will apparently be put to an internet referendum of M5S members - and such referenda almost always go the way Grillo and Casaleggio want, with a voting procedure that on occasions has made Sisi’s election to the Egyptian presidency look positively transparent.


Berlusconi too is clearly a loser in this election. Needless to say, he claims that it was his own inability to campaign outside Rome and Milan because of the restrictions imposed by his community service order that led Forza Italia to such a poor result. However, as he is aware, the fact that Angelino Alfano’s breakaway Nuovo Centrodestra (NCD - New Centre Right) managed to get over the 4% threshold, albeit in coalition with the Christian Democratic Unione di Centro (UCD - Union of the Centre), and secure some MEPs will have a considerable effect on his remaining parliamentarians. Further defections to the NCD are imminent, now that it is clear that leaving Forza Italia is not a recipe for career suicide.

Even amongst those who show no signs of leaving there is a great deal of internal dissension. Many of the more experienced politicians blame Berlusconi’s young fiancée, Francesca Pascale, her close friend, Maria Rosaria Rossi, who has become Berlusconi’s secretary, and other members of their so-called ‘magic circle’ for the defeat. They claim that this grouping kept the old man’s loyal and trusted advisers at a distance, so that their wise counsel was left unheeded.

Whilst irrational reactions to defeat on the part of an embittered man can certainly not be ruled out, Berlusconi would have very little to gain if he breaks his pact with Renzi, turns his back on their agreed reform programme and forces an early election under the newly established, almost purely proportional system. In the event of a new general election Renzi or some other PD leader might well cobble together another coalition that excluded a diminished and marginalised Forza Italia. This would deprive Berlusconi of the current elder statesman status that Renzi gave him and thus of any protective barrier against further possible legal penalties arising from the ‘Ruby case’ or other pending criminal proceedings.

Given the scale of Renzi’s triumph and the consequences for the PD’s rightward evolution, perhaps the one encouraging outcome of the election is the success of L’Altra Europa con Tsipras in getting over the 4% threshold by a very small fraction and thus obtaining some representation in the European parliament for an Italian grouping linked to the Party of the European Left. It was extremely lucky that the intervention of the Greens and the declining left-populist Italia dei Valori did not deprive the radical left of such representation. The Greens took 0.9% and the IdV 0.7%, coming nowhere near the quorum, but doubtless they took many of their votes from people who had last year voted for Rivoluzione Civile - the electoral cartel in which both these groups had participated, alongside the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista and others.

However, the relative success of the Lista Tsipras has not convinced the soft-left Sinistra Ecologia Libertà of the need for a permanent change of course - towards a reunification of the radical left on Greek lines. Indeed Renzi’s triumph has in the last few days led SEL’s right wing to become more strident in its desire to liquidate what has already become no more than a left social democratic party into the PD - it should be remembered that it was only pressure from below that pushed a rather hesitant Nichi Vendola, the SEL leader, into the Tsipras project in the first place.


1. The PD reconquered two regions, Piedmont and Abruzzo, from the centre-right. Meanwhile, amongst the major cities where a municipal election took place, its outright win in Florence (59.2%) was rather exceptional, and it enters the June 8 second round in a strong position in Bergamo, Padua, Perugia, Bari and Potenza. The one exception to the PD’s good fortune at the local level has been in the city of Livorno, where the PD’s Marco Ruggeri was unexpectedly forced into a second-round contest against M5S candidate Filippo Nogarin. Forza Italia has already instructed its voters to transfer support to M5S against the PD, so there is an outside chance of the PD being defeated in the ‘red city’, where the Partito Comunista Italiano was founded in 1921 - the PCI controlled the municipality throughout the cold war decades and its successor parties never had any difficulty in winning the mayoralty outright on the first round during the 20 years in which this French-style system has been in place.

2. Until recently the Lega Nord had been allied with the UK Independence Party at the European level. This shift in alliances explains Nigel Farage’s new-found enthusiasm for a lash-up with Beppe Grillo and M5S.

3. Repubblica May 27.

4. According to Mario Monti, the technocratic prime minister from 2011-13, “the line that Renzi is affirming with political capacity is - permit me to say it - the line of my government: keep the accounts in order and carry out structural reforms for growth, having a voice in Europe” (Corriere della Sera May 30).

5. Renzi has an obsession with what he imagines to be English phrases, which he believes are an emblem of modernity, even though his grasp of foreign languages is poor, to say the least. This dovetails with his hero-worship of Tony Blair, whose post-Iraq war unpopularity in his home country has passed Renzi by, as well as with his identification with the American Democrats.