SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 200 July/August 2016

Italy: election rout for Renzi

The local and mayoral elections in Italy have exploded the myth of Matteo Renzi ‘the invincible’. Having bucked the anti-establishment trend by gaining over 40% of the vote in the European elections in 2014, the prime minister’s Democratic Party (PD) was crushed in the capital Rome by the Five Star Movement (M5S), whose candidate, Virginia Raggi, won 67% of the vote to the PD’s 32%. The M5S also routed the PD in its former stronghold of Turin, home to the Fiat carmaker and historic workers’ movements, where another female candidate, Chiara Appendino, took 54.5%. Overall, the PD lost half of its councils while the M5S won 19 of the 20 second round run-offs it contested.

Renzi tried to dismiss these elections as a purely local affair with no national relevance. But with six major cities up for grabs this was a mini general election in which the PD won only two, Bologna and Milan, both against a candidate from the right. In Naples, Luigi de Magistris was convincingly re-elected with 67% of the vote. He is part of the ‘orange’ movement of high-profile individuals seen as coming from the outside or without support from the political establishment. A former public prosecutor famous for taking on the Mafia, De Magistris has won strong local support to the left of the PD, from social movements and community activists.

Leaving aside the high level of abstention (almost 50%), the M5S was the main beneficiary of a huge anti-Renzi vote, fuelled by an economy which has been stagnant for almost a decade and is projected to grow by just 1% this year, together with deep disgust at massive corruption involving all the traditional establishment parties. The ‘centre-right’ also lost out. Former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was hospitalised after the elections for a heart operation but no amount of emergency intervention can help his Forza Italia party from its terminal decline, winning less than 10% of the vote in many areas.

The ‘lepenismo’ of Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing populist Lega Nord party, was defeated as well. His strategy of going it alone (rather than in alliance with Forza Italia) and attempting to emulate Marine Le Pen in France failed dismally. The Lega lost in Lombardy, including in its symbolic stronghold of Varese, and in Rome. In the second round, hundreds of thousands of right-wing voters switched to the M5S to defeat the PD. In Turin, for example, the votes for the PD’s candidate, Piero Fassino, remained almost unchanged while Chiara Appendino’s votes increased by nearly 100,000.

With the exception of De Magistris (who says he is considering launching a national movement), the left, which contested the elections on a variety of lists, lost around a third of its vote in the five main cities compared to the last local elections in 2011. The candidate for the Italian Left coalition (Sinistra Italiana – SI) in Turin – one of the few with national name recognition – got just 4% of the vote in the first round. These purely opportunist electoral groupings with no real roots in local areas are incapable of filling the political void to the left of the PD.

These elections represent a crucial turning point for the M5S which has undergone a radical makeover, rebranding itself as a respectable, credible political alternative. Its co-founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, has taken a step back and the ‘anti-party’, ‘anti-establishment’ ‘vaffa’ (fuck off) movement is effectively transforming itself into a structured, institutional political party. It wants to show that it is not just a protest movement but is capable of governing and is using these elections as a springboard for parliamentary elections due in 2018. Now faced with running two major cities, however, the M5S is about to undergo its toughest test so far.

It is one thing to have the mayor of small cities like Parma and Livorno, both of which have presented the movement with huge headaches (the mayor of Parma, Federico Pizzarotti, was recently expelled from M5S). It is quite another thing to govern the country’s capital with its major transport and rubbish collection problems, a debt which is twice its annual budget, and a political system infested with Mafia, lobby and vested interests. Virginia Raggi’s electoral programme was deliberately vague on details, concentrating instead on ‘trust’ and ‘transparency’.

During her campaign she tried to reassure worried local authority workers and taxi drivers, said she will try to renegotiate the city’s budget, and expects ‘maximum loyalty’ from the Renzi government. But what will happen when the central government refuses and insists that public services be cut? How will Raggi be able to govern for ‘all Romans’ when faced with irreconcilable economic interests and a political system that is rotten to the core?

The experience of Parma, where cuts to local services have been carried out, indicates what will happen – only on a much bigger scale. It has always been inevitable that the contradictions inherent in a cross-class populist movement like the M5S would explode to the surface at some point. While the M5S has emerged relatively unscathed from its local problems in Parma and in Livorno, its political management of Turin and especially Rome will be under close national scrutiny.

In Turin where ControCorrente (CWI Italy) has a certain base among the 5,000 workers employed by the local transport company, GTT, we will be fighting to defend the transport workers against any attempts at cuts, privatisation or attacks on working conditions. In doing so we will seek to expose the M5S fallacy of representing all ‘citizens’, to bring about a class differentiation and to promote the need for a political party which represents the class interests of workers. In Genoa we have already publicly challenged the M5S on the issue of the crisis at ILVA, the biggest steel industry in Italy, posing the question: with or against the working class?

Parliamentary elections are not due until 2018, by which time the weaknesses of the M5S could be evident. However, Renzi has called a referendum for October on constitutional changes to the nature of the Senate and alterations to electoral law – moves aimed at strengthening central government control. Renzi says this is ‘the election that really matters’, and that if he loses he will resign.

If the broad opposition to Renzi that emerged in the local and mayoral elections is replicated in October, which is quite possible, especially given the way in which he has personalised the referendum, he is likely to lose. This could mean a general election much sooner with the possibility of the M5S emerging with an even greater share of the vote than the 25% it received in 2013. ControCorrente is discussing calling for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum, but this would clearly have to be linked to the question of workers organising independently for struggle and for the building of a left political alternative to both the PD and the M5S.

Christine Thomas

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