Far right conquers ‘red Umbria’
Toby Abse explains the continuing decline of the Italian centre-left and the complete marginalization of the far left.
The importance of the dire outcome of the Umbrian regional election on October 27 should not be underestimated. It is completely wrong to dismiss the result in the way Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - the 5 Star Movement) premier Giuseppe Conte has done, as just representing 2% of the Italian electorate. Whilst Conte’s dismissal is partly motivated by his desire to keep his own national coalition in office despite the disastrous result of this attempt to replicate the M5S-Partito Democratico (PD) coalition at the regional level, it also reflects the lack of historical sense of M5S members.
Umbria was not a region that had swung back and forth between right and left like Puglia or Calabria. It was one of the three ‘red regions’ of central Italy - the others being Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany1 - that had been ruled by the left since the constitutional commitment to regional government was first implemented in 1970.2 Whilst Umbria’s first two decades of regional administration were marked by coalitions led by the Partita Comunista Italiana, the residual loyalty of PCI voters to the subsequent centre-left coalitions led by the PCI’s subsequent social democratic reincarnations (including the current PD) owed a lot to what political scientists labelled a ‘red sub-culture’. This meant that the party and its affiliated trade unions, cooperatives and leisure organisations dominated the everyday life of the majority of Umbrians, even if baptisms, weddings and funerals remained in the hands of the Catholic church.
The landslide victory on October 27 of the rightwing candidate, Donatella Tesei, over the nominally centre-left Vincenzo Bianconi by 57.6% to 37.5% has put an end to any illusions about ‘red Umbria’.3 Moreover, despite the mainstream journalistic description of the winning coalition as ‘centre-right’, the vast majority of Tesei’s voters gave their second - party-list - vote to the far-right Lega and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI). This is in many ways more significant than the fact that Tesei herself was a former Lega mayor and at the time of her election to the regional presidency a Lega senator. In Umbria, the Lega got 36.95% of the vote and the FdI 10.4%, giving the combined far right 47.35%.4
In short, as far as I am aware, the Umbrian election has produced the highest far-right vote in any recent regional election in any major western European country - far exceeding the more widely discussed AfD surge in Thuringia, where the soft-left Die Linke remains the largest party.
Whilst the Umbrian result proved a great shock for the M5S-PD alliance (even if the leaders all privately expected a defeat, albeit not on this scale), M5S was the most obvious loser. Its score of 7.41% was humiliating by comparison with recent results in the region. In the previous regional election in 2015 it had managed to get 14.56%. Its high water mark was the March 2018 general election, in which it had scored 27.52% (below its national average, but impressive in the context of a traditionally ‘red region’). In the May 2019 European election the M5S vote had more or less halved to 14.63%. This further halving of its Umbrian vote share in a mere five months gave rise to both panic and open divisions amongst the national leadership. Party leader Luigi Di Maio called upon M5S never again to fight an election in alliance with the PD, or indeed with any other party.5
Conte, anxious to continue his premiership at the head of a national coalition dependent on the PD for its majority, does not share this view. M5S founder Beppe Grillo, whilst far from pleased with the result (as his enigmatic but rather apocalyptic Facebook post showed), is also inclined to support continuing with the alliance for the time being. Roberto Fico, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, and leader of what might be loosely described as M5s’s left wing, is also opposed to a break with the PD. On the other hand, Alessandro Di Battista, the de facto leader of M5S’s right wing who openly opposed the coalition with the PD at the national level in September, is even more hostile to working with the PD than Di Maio is.
The bulk of the M5S parliamentarians, who, like Conte, have a vested interest in the national coalition’s survival, are increasingly discontented with Di Maio’s authoritarian leadership of the party. Given that Di Maio, first of all, led them into a coalition with the Lega, in which Salvini outmanoeuvred him, and then endorsed the so-called ‘civic pact’ with the PD in Umbria, it is hardly surprising that there are doubts about his judgment. Di Maio’s unwillingness to make any self-criticisms adds to this irritation. Regardless of how this internal crisis plays out, it is now clear that M5S will not join a PD alliance in the regional election in Emilia Romagna due in January 2020.
Emilia Romagna is a much bigger, more populous and more prosperous region than Umbria, and the one seen by many as the core ‘red region’ - the one with international fame, whose regional capital was for so many years dubbed ‘red Bologna’.6 Its geographical position on the border of the Lega Nord’s heartland has long made parts of it prone to periodic municipal takeovers and the Lega won control of the city of Ferrera in the last local elections. In the May 2019 European elections the Lega beat the PD in Emilia Romagna by 33.8% to 31.2%.
Salvini hopes that a Lega triumph in Emilia Romagna will deal a death blow to the PD-M5S coalition nationally and precipitate the early general election he failed to get from this August’s crisis. In any event, there are five other regional elections due next year and all bar one are currently held by the centre-left. After the Umbrian election, the right now has control of 12 regions to the centre-left’s seven. This is because the period since the March 2018 general election has seen region after region pass from the hands of the centre-left to those of the right. Whilst in only one instance, in a region bordering on Slovenia, did the right’s triumph have Umbrian dimensions, the series is nonetheless very disheartening.
To return to the PD’s decline in Umbria, it is worth pointing out that it cannot be ascribed to Nicola Zingaretti’s presently more social democratic leadership of the PD. Whilst one can argue that Vincenzo Bianconi, the heir to a dynasty of hotel-keepers with no connection to the PD or the rest of the left, was not the ideal ‘civic’ candidate for regional president, or that aligning with M5S, which until a few weeks earlier had been the bitter enemies of the local PD, was never going to help the PD rebuild, Zingaretti had inherited a bad situation.
It was not just that the contest had been brought about almost a year early by a corruption scandal, centred on the local health service, in which the now disgraced PD regional president, Catiuscia Marini - well into her second term - was allegedly deeply involved; or that Marini had to be more or less press-ganged into resigning by Zingaretti and the national leadership.
The reasons for the PD’s decline are much deeper, long-term and structural. In the regional elections between 1970 and 1990 the PCI and its social democratic allies averaged 60% of the Umbrian vote. Between 1995 and 2010 the forces of the centre-left and left combined (including Rifondazione Comunista, which did well in this region) got 58-63% of the vote. The 2015 regional elections saw a drop of more than 15% in the centre-left vote and the rise of M5S and the Lega, both of which became serious forces in the region.
The correlation with economic factors and with the PD’s complicity with the Monti government’s austerity policies should be obvious. Whilst Italy’s gross domestic product fell by 5.2% between 2007 and 2017, the Umbrian equivalent fell three times as much - 15.6%. One has to accept that the impact of the October 26 earthquake in the region played a role, but the economic and human devastation in the area around Norcia did not account for all of it. The Umbrian steel town of Terni had been for decades a centre of working class militancy and PCI membership. When, like its Tuscan equivalent, Piombino, this industrial centre declined, unemployed steel workers turned to rightwing populism, as the heirs of the PCI - blindly attached to European Union rules about state aid - refused to nationalise and desperately sought foreign bidders.7
Further serious erosion for the PD’s Umbrian support took place during the period of Matteo Renzi’s neoliberal leadership of the PD, characterised by the anti-working class Jobs Act. In the regional election of 2015 the PD still got 35.76%, but by the general election of March 2018 its vote fell dramatically to 24.81% in Umbria. In the European election of May 2019 the PD’s Umbrian total slipped slightly to 23.9% and in the recent contest brought about by Marini’s antics, including her defiance of Zingaretti’s attempt to get her to go quietly, it was probably fortunate that it only slipped by a further 1.6% to 22.3%.
I would like to end by pointing out that the old ultra-leftist assertion that economic crisis and social democratic betrayal inevitably push workers to the left is not borne out by the Umbrian electoral statistics. Indeed, there were candidates well to the left of Vincenzo Bianconi - hardly difficult, since local rumours, which he strenuously denied in national press interviews, claimed that the hotelier had supported the centre-right prior to his selection as the ‘civic’ candidate. However, these communist candidates, in fourth and fifth place respectively, got very little support. Rossano Rubicondi of the Partito Comunista, a rabidly Europhobic and nationalistic, hard Stalinist outfit, got 1.01%, whilst his softer Stalinist competitor, Emiliano Camuzzi of the Partito Comunista Italiano (the current name of the former Partito dei Comunisti Italiani, which was originally founded by Armando Cossutta in 1998) got 0.87%. Camuzzi was supported by Potere al Popolo, whose list got a glorious 0.32%.
Leaving to one side the programmatic weaknesses of these small communist groups, it is blindingly obvious that in any single-round, first-past-the-post contest, most of those anxious to defend whatever remains of the legacy of the red regions from the far-right Lega and FdI will stick to the mass party of the centre-left, which under Zingaretti has displayed greater willingness to work with the trade unions and to extract some pro-working class concessions in the budget.8
1. Although some lazy journalists and political scientists classify the geographically adjacent Marche as a “Red Region”, it does not have such a consistent political history even if it currently has a centre left administration.
2. The Christian Democrats had long delayed implementing this part of the 1948 constitution precisely because they always feared that these three regions, which had generally elected communist-led municipal councils since 1945, would give the Partita Comunista Italiana a regional power base.
3. All Italian regional elections since the 1990s have been single-round contests, in which a plurality of votes is sufficient to elect the regional president and win a majority of the seats, even if the larger minorities are entitled to some representation. A very substantial absolute majority of the popular vote for a new coalition therefore marks a qualitative shift in a way that a narrow plurality would not.
4. Both of these parties used to be linked to Marine Le Pen’s Front National. In the current European parliament the FdI is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) - in other words, these self-styled “post-fascists” are an official sister party of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. The paper-thin character of the “post-fascist” label can be seen from the recent dinner to commemorate the 97th anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome, attended by all the local FdI Parliamentary deputies, mayors and deputy mayors in the province of Ascoli on October 28. There can be no doubt about the anti-Semitism of their leader, Giorgia Meloni, who refers to George Soros as a “usurer”. The Lega’s efforts to unite the far right in the European parliament have failed, since their Polish and Hungarian interlocutors - PIS and Fidesz - prefer to disguise themselves as ‘centre-right’. However, the Lega is the official sister party of both the German AfD and the French RN in the most extreme rightwing grouping in the European parliament.
5. This first experiment with electoral coalitionism had been endorsed by roughly 60% of M5S members participating in an online poll.
6. Older comrades will be familiar with Bologna’s role in Eurocommunist mythology. In reality it was once briefly taken by a right-populist mayor (1999-2004) and the Lega pushed the current sitting PD mayor, Virginio Merola, into a second-round run-off last time.
7. The parallels with similar steel towns in south Wales and northern England should need no underlining.
8. Space does not permit any detailed discussion of the arguments between the four coalition parties over the budget. Suffice it to say that in very broad terms the PD and LeU support pro-working class measures, while M5S and Renzi’s Italia Viva act as apologists for the tax-dodging bourgeoisie.