Scandals, austerity and comic diversion

While rightwing parties were the big losers, there is no sign of a move to the left, writes Toby Abse

The results of the May 6-7 local elections in Italy reflect the Europe-wide trend of a vote against austerity - even if those dissatisfied with prime minister Mario Monti did not have the relatively clear option provided by Syriza for those reacting against Luca Papademos in Greece.

Whilst the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) has done much better than Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL), it has not actually advanced in this week’s elections in the way that the Parti Socialiste or the Labour Party - which, as the official opposition, could pose as opponents of austerity against Sarkozy and Cameron - have done elsewhere in Europe. This is clearly a consequence of the PD’s more or less total identification with the savage cuts implemented by Monti’s technocratic cabinet. In no major town or city did the ex-‘official communist’-dominated PD get more than 30% - even in major industrial cities with a strong left tradition like Genoa (24.4%) and La Spezia (27.9%) or former PCI strongholds in Emilia like Parma (25.2%) or Piacenza (26.5%). To give but one example, in the 2008 general election the PD obtained 43.1% in Genoa and even in the 2010 regional election it scored 31.7% in the city, so it has lost roughly 9% in four years.

The PD is obviously drawing considerable comfort from the much greater misfortunes of Berlusconi’s PdL and Umberto Bossi’s far-right, regionalist Lega Nord. The PdL’s vote frequently fell below 10% - although in La Spezia it stayed in double figures with 12.0%. In many major towns and cities its percentage was in single figures - in Parma it was down to a disastrous 4.7%. It is hardly surprising that Silvio Berlusconi, who had not made a serious contribution to the local election campaign, confining himself to one rally at Monza, preferred to go to Moscow for the inauguration of his great friend, Vladimir Putin, as president of Russia rather than stay in Italy and publicly explain this electoral wipe-out on live TV. From a safe distance the shameless Berlusconi blamed his hapless Sicilian party secretary, Angelino Alfano, for the PdL’s disastrous 8.28% in its former stronghold of Palermo.

Inevitably, there has been a great deal of internal dissension in the PdL in the wake of the election defeat, with the vampiric former fascist, Ignazio La Russa, complaining about the emphasis on choosing ‘good-looking’ candidates rather than politically experienced ones and calling upon the party to stop supporting Monti. Whether or not La Russa’s belief that an older and uglier candidate would have done better in Palermo has any merit, the emphasis on the negative electoral consequences of support for Monti was probably amply justified. Given that one of the few promises that Berlusconi kept as prime minister was the one about abolishing the municipal house tax on first homes, the PdL’s consent for Monti’s restoration of this tax at a higher rate under a different name did not go down at all well with the PdL’s electorate - most of whom are amongst the roughly 80% of Italian families who own their own homes. It is also worth emphasising that the growing suicide rate amongst small entrepreneurs, which had been brought to public attention by an internationally publicised march of the widows of such men the Friday before polling day, would have also resonated strongly amongst the PdL’s core electorate.

The Lega has suffered from the impact of the scandals surrounding its leading figures, such as Francesco Belsito, Rosy Mauro and Renzo Bossi, the son of Umberto. These were given an even more farcical twist in the last few days of the campaign, when it emerged from the documents that Belsito kept in his safe - presumably for blackmailing purposes - that Bossi’s degree in economics was awarded not by an English private university, but by an Albanian one. Bossi, who failed his school-leaving exams three times, apparently succeeding in passing three years’ worth of courses in a single year and with extremely high grades. It is doubtful whether Bossi junior has ever set foot in Tirana, given the danger of physical violence in retaliation for the numerous anti-Albanian comments that his father and other Lega leaders have made in the past.

Whilst the Lega mayor of Verona, Flavio Tosi, was triumphantly re-elected in the first ballot on 57.4% of the vote, his success was not replicated elsewhere. In Monza and Como in Lombardy the Lega scored 11% and 7% respectively and in Belluno in what had been thought to be the safer region of Veneto, it could only manage 4.9%. It was therefore eliminated from the run-off ballot for all three of these mayoralties and it is unlikely that the Lega will hold on to more than a handful of mayors in obscure small towns in Lombardy and the Veneto.

Pier Ferdinando Casini’s centrist UdC did not profit from the collapse of the PdL in the way he had fondly imagined it would, or at least not to any marked degree. Whilst the UdC scored a relatively good 8.6% in Brindisi, elsewhere its share of the vote was minimal - 2.6% in Piacenza, 3.1% in Verona, 3.7% in Belluno and 2.1% in La Spezia.


Some of the disillusion with the major parties, particularly the PdL and the Lega, was reflected in an increase in abstention - 66.9% voted on this occasion compared with 73.7% in the same localities five years ago. This trend was more marked in the PdL/Lega strongholds in the north than in the traditionally less politicised southern regions.

The one political force that has benefited massively from popular anger against both the austerity policies of the Monti government and the evident corruption of the main political parties is the Movimento Cinque Stelle, led by the famous comedian, Beppe Grillo. It has overtaken the PdL in a number of towns and cities. Its 19.1% score in Parma has meant that its candidate will be in the run-off with the centre-left candidate in the second round of the mayoral election in a fortnight’s time. Whilst the ‘Grillini’ are not in a position to compete in any other second-round contests, they have gained 14.2% in Genoa, 11.7% in Alessandria, 9.5% in La Spezia and 9.2% in Verona. Although the vote for Grillo and his followers is clearly anti-establishment, in part coming from people who previously voted for the left and from young people with no political affiliation, it also draws on some disillusioned former PdL and Lega voters. It can hardly be seen as a positive phenomenon, given Grillo’s racist opposition to the granting of Italian citizenship to the children of immigrants and his, at best tasteless, remark - in Palermo of all places - that the Mafia only asked people for a bit of protection money (pizzo), unlike the politicians who ‘strangled people’.

Left vote

The one mildly positive feature of the elections has been the advance of Antonio Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori (IdV), the only parliamentary force which has been consistently opposing the Monti government from the left. Its most remarkable result has been in Palermo, where Leoluca Orlando secured 46.6% in the first round of the mayoral contest, far ahead of the official centre-left candidate, Fabrizio Ferrandelli who managed to obtain a mere 20.7%. Ferrandelli emerged as the centre-left candidate after a primary that could not be remotely considered to be fair and free, in which he beat the original favourite of the PD’s national leadership, Rita Borsellino, the sister of the famous anti-Mafia magistrate assassinated in 1992, after an unprecedented turnout in quarters of Palermo that have been dominated by the Mafia for decades.

Ferrandelli is not the only mayoral candidate to have some rather dubious connections - neither the Sicilian PdL nor the Sicilian UdC are known for animosity towards Cosa Nostra. UdC national leader Casini recently emphasised the humanitarian visits he pays to disgraced former Sicilian president Salvatore Cuffaro in jail, whilst Marcello Dell’Utri - jailed for conspiring with the Mafia in 2004 - is still highly regarded in Sicilian PdL circles. The Cosa Nostra prisoners in Palermo’s prisons ostentatiously abstained from voting in the first round, perhaps because the Mafia vote was split. It remains to be seen whether Cosa Nostra will mobilise its electorate to prevent the return of Orlando, their long-standing arch-enemy, to the mayoralty.

The far left’s performance in these elections has generally been a poor one. Whilst Marco Doria, an independent close to SEL, managed to beat the PD in Genoa’s centre-left primary and with 49% very narrowly failed to be elected mayor in the first round, SEL’s score as a party in Genoa was only 5.0%. If Doria is elected in a fortnight, this would be a step forward. However, there is a danger in too great a reliance on charismatic individuals - something that is already evident in the way Nichi Vendola has turned SEL into a rather personalised party and seems unaccountable for some rather dubious alliances in his regional fief of Puglia.

If the radical left is relatively weak even in an industrial city like Genoa, things are worse elsewhere. In Verona, the Partito di Alternativa Comunista got a mere 0.5% and the Rifondazione Comunista-Comunisti Italiani bloc a rather disappointing 1.0%, with SEL on 2.7%. In Palermo, despite their support for the IdV’s Orlando, the communist-green alliance standing as Sinistra Ecologia per Palermo got only 4.8% to the IdV’s 10.3%.

In short, the performance of the Italian radical left as a whole is closer to that of its British equivalents than their French or Greek counterparts. Whilst opposition to austerity is a very real phenomenon, there is a very serious risk that it will be channelled by dangerous charlatans like Grillo unless and until a viable communist organisation is rebuilt