Racists and Islamophobes
Following the triumph of the right in last month’s local elections, writes Toby Abse, the left appears more and more isolated
The second round of the local elections on June 25 was a complete disaster for Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD) and the centre-left in general.
As I explained in my last article1, the most significant municipal contests were in the 25 capoluoghi being contested this year. In the first round on June 11, two of these went to the centre-left, and one to the centre-right. A fortnight later, the centre-left only managed to add a mere four to their first-round score, whilst the centre-right gained another 15. Two capoluoghi (Belluno and Parma) went to candidates from ‘civic lists’ (ie, localist independents), whilst the run-off in the Sicilian city of Trapani was invalidated owing to the low turnout (26.8%) for the sole remaining candidate after his rival, facing criminal proceedings, somewhat reluctantly withdrew from the contest between the two rounds!
Five years ago, the centre-left had beaten the centre-right by 16 to six in the same 25 capoluoghi. Renzi, characteristically refusing to acknowledge defeat, tweeted that in the 160 municipalities with more than 15,000 inhabitants the centre-left was still ahead of the centre-right by 67 to 59. Whilst this is true, on closer examination even this sample reveals an unfavourable outcome - the centre-left was down 14 from 81 in 2012, and the centre-right was up 18 from 41 in 2012. Renzi’s widely-mocked comment - “It could have gone better” - was a grotesque understatement. Perhaps the survey of 110 run-off ballots by the political scientists of the Istituto Cattaneo is more relevant - and less supportive of Renzi’s special pleading: in 2012, the centre-left had taken 64 of these municipalities, and it now only has 34, roughly half of those it controlled in 2012.
Whilst the national result is bad enough, a closer look at what were traditionally ‘red regions’ or ‘red cities2’ 2 reveals an even more depressing picture. The PD lost all five run-off ballots taking place this year in the ‘red region’ of Emilia Romagna and it seems reasonable to see the combination of five such losses as representing a general negative trend in the region.
In Piacenza, the right’s campaign focused on the issues of immigration and crime. Stefano Cugini, a member of the outgoing centre-left giunta (municipal cabinet) summed up the right’s rhetoric as follows: “They help the foreigners and not the Piacentini. Nobody is safe, not even in their own home. Piacenza is already a ‘far west’.”3 Cugini added that on the evening of June 25 Lega Nord supporters arrived in Piazza Cavalli (the site of the town hall) in the manner of a paramilitary formation.
In Vignola, theLega engaged in similar racist tirades, saying “The prefecture wants to send us so many immigrants that they will erect a great tent city in the quartiere Bettolino.” In Riccione, the Lega Nord’snational leader, Matteo Salvini, had come in person to claim that “the PD wants so many immigrants that cost €35 a day”. Sadly, crude anti-immigrant rhetoric is not the exclusive domain of the Lega - Paolo Scarpa, the centre-left opponent of Pizzarotti, claimed that in Parma “the quartiere San Leonardo is in the hands of Nigerian mafias”, presumably hoping to win the votes of those who had voted for the centre-right candidate in the first round.
The loss of Sesto San Giovanni - a working class suburb of Milan, to which it is as closely linked as Salford is to Manchester - has an even greater symbolic resonance for the left than the Emilian defeats. This former steel town - once known as the Stalingrad of Italy, and one of the few cities given the Golden Medal of the Italian resistance - had been administered by the left (from the old PCI to the PD) for 72 years. Whilst some previous left mayors - particularly Filippo Penati, who was eventually acquitted of criminal charges after a notorious and long-drawn-out corruption scandal - have illustrated the dangers of very prolonged one-party rule, especially in relation to planning issues, it is unlikely that such matters were decisive. As Monica Chittò - the outgoing PD mayor, beaten by 58.63% to 41.37% on June 25 - emphasised, “there was a climate of hate linked to the migrant question”.
Apart from the death threats and sexist insults that Chittò received on social media, the unofficial side of the rightwing campaign included the widespread distribution of anonymously produced leaflets, saying: “If you too want a Muslim Sesto, vote Chittò.” The central issue in the mayoral election was the planned construction of a large mosque financed by the Qatari government - “to provoke the invasion of Sesto by 4,000 Muslims every Friday”, according to the right. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), claimed the choice was between “the construction of the largest mosque in Northern Italy or a new police station” - clearly Islamophobic demagogy of the crudest kind, since the Qataris were not going to finance the police station, and the Italian government had no plans to subsidise the mosque.
Obviously the fact that Anis Amri, the terrorist responsible for the Berlin Christmas market massacre, had been shot dead by Italian police in Sesto in December 2016 made it much easier to inflame such fears about Muslim migrants in the general population, and the supporters of the victorious Roberto Di Stefano had no hesitation in doing so, even if he himself may have been more cautious in his public utterances.
Unfortunately, Sesto San Giovanni was not the only predominantly working class city with a strong anti-fascist tradition in which the resurgent racist right made inroads. It has been claimed that on the evening of June 25 there was a moment of great optimism in the headquarters of the Genoa PD, as figures for the turnout in the working class areas of the city became known. Party activists believed there had been a strong response to the call for anti-fascist mobilisation put out by the CGIL trade union and the ex-partisans’ association (ANPI). Eventually, 42.67% of the Genovese electors went to the polls, an improvement on the 39.08% registered in the second round in 2012, which had given the mayoralty to the leftwinger, Marco Doria. Turnout this year was more or less equal in the working class and bourgeois quarters. However, the right won in almost every district, with an overall lead of over 10% - 55.2% to 44.8%. Doria sees immigration and crime (or rather the perception of rising crime, not borne out by available statistics) as the key issues behind the rightwing vote in working class areas like Sampierdarena and Cornigliano. The new mayor for the centre-right, Marco Bucci, appears like a smooth figure and makes much of the time he has spent working abroad, but in reality he is just a front man for the racist thugs of the Lega Nord, who gained 12.9% of the vote in Genoa, ahead of Forza Italia’s 8.1%4 .
The rightwing takeover of the other working class port city on the Ligurian coast, La Spezia, seems to have been accomplished with a little more subtlety than the capture of Genoa. The new Spezian mayor, Pierluigi Peracchini, is a former provincial secretary of the CISL, the trade union confederation that used to be associated with the Christian Democrats, and has a degree in sociology. Here the right’s margin of victory was even greater than in Genoa - 59.98% to 40.02%.
Cracks are already apparent in ‘Red Tuscany’ too. Whilst the centre-left held onto the traditionally marginal city of Lucca by 50.5% to 49.5%5, the very working class Tuscan city of Pistoia - awarded the Silver Medal of the Italian resistance and administered by the PCI and its successors for 71 years - has, like Sesto San Giovanni, passed into the hands of the right by a staggering margin of almost 10% - 54.28% against the 45.72% for the outgoing PD mayor, Samuele Bertinelli. In this instance, the new mayor, Alessandro Tomasi, is not even a representative of Forza Italiaor the Lega Nord, but a hard-core neo-fascist who came to the FdI from the Alleanza Nazionale, and had already spent 10 years as an opposition councillor. His neo-fascist associates polled 9.6% of the vote in the city, ahead of the Legaon 5.7% and Forza Italia on 5.6%.
A final illustration of the collapse of the PD in ‘Red Tuscany’ is provided by the outcome of the run-off ballot in Carrara. Franceso De Pasquale, the new M5S mayor, who beat the centre-left candidate, Andrea Zanetti, by almost two to one with 65.57% of the vote, copied the 2014 victory speech of his Livornese M5S colleague, Filippo Nogarin, by saying, “We have liberated a city after 70 years of power” - M5S code for ending 70 years of leftwing hegemony by the PCI and its heirs, that had originally been rooted in a tradition of intense working class militancy going right back to the 19th century.
In sharp contrast to the Carrarese contest, M5S lost the Asti run-off ballot to the centre-right by 45.1% to the victors’ 54.9%6, so M5S’s own harvest of municipalities in the June 2017 local elections has been meagre - it won eight out of 10 run-off ballots, mainly in insignificant localities, and lost in the only capoluogo - Asti - in which it scraped into the run-off by a handful of votes on a recount. Nonetheless, according to the Istituto Cattaneo, M5S - or, to be more precise, 32.1% of its first-round voters - helped the centre-right to victory in many such second-round ballots. Although about half of M5S first-round voters abstained in run-offs between left and right, very few M5S supporters switched leftwards. And, one is bound to add, the incessant racist rhetoric of Beppe Grillo, Luigi Di Maio, Virginia Raggi and others - along with M5S’s disgraceful alignment with the Lega Nord in the Senate against the PD-sponsored ius soli 7 - has contributed to the climate that made possible the election of a neo-fascist mayor of Pistoia and an Islamophobic one in Sesto San Giovanni.
Renzi’s obstinacy in rejecting any notion of a broad centre-left coalition of the type currently advocated by his social democratic internal opponent, Andrea Orlando, and by former premier Romano Prodi, who twice headed such broad coalitions (in 1996 and 2006), as well as by the PD’s founding leader, Walter Veltroni, seems to be leading the PD to electoral disaster - not just in this year’s municipal contests, but, more importantly, in next year’s national one.
Whilst pragmatists - and not just those with genuine social democratic inclinations - can see that a shrinking and isolated PD will lose in a three-sided contest with M5S and a resurgent traditional right, Renzi’s arrogance should not be underestimated. It is not a good sign that current PD premier Paolo Gentiloni, usually a calmer and more rational figure than Renzi, over whom he generally exerts some restraining influence, gave an interview after June 8 in which he dismissed Jeremy Corbyn along with Bernie Sanders as “losers”.
Pigs will fly before Renzi’s neo-Blairite PD scores 40% in any general election.
1.‘Grillo and M5S humiliated’ Weekly Worker June 22.
This is shorthand for localities generally, and often continuously, controlled by the old Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) between 1945 and 1991.
3. For some strange reason, Italians have for decades used the English-language phrase, ‘far west’ to describe what Americans call the ‘wild west’.
4. In any event, Giovanni Toti, the Forza Italia president of the Ligurian region, of which Genoa is the capital, is notoriously soft on theLega, and increasingly impatient with Silvio Berlusconi’s apparent desire to move Forza Italia into the mainstream of Italian Christian Democracy and away from Marine Le Pen’s Italian fan club in the Legaand FdI.
5. In the days of the cold war, Lucca was regarded as the one ‘white’ (ie, Christian Democratic) city in a ‘red’ region.
6. By and large, M5S does better in run-offs against centre-left candidates, and goes down to defeat against centre-right opponents.
7. This is a draft law giving Italian-born children of immigrants Italian citizenship on certain conditions. The Lega tabled thousands of amendments as a filibustering strategy in the Senate, but it remains to be seen whether the PD will defy the current surge of racism evident in the local elections and force the issue with a vote of confidence.