In Italy, Salvini’s Far-Right Surge Halted for Now

Italian former Premier Romano Prodi casts his ballot for Emilia-Romagna region elections at a polling station in Bologna on Sunday. (Massimo Paolone/Lapresse via AP)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – Italy’s liberal and left-wing voters are letting out a collective sigh of relief after the country’s former interior minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini was defeated Sunday in regional elections in Emilia-Romagna, a bastion of left-wing politics in Italy.

Salvini, a far-right anti-immigrant politician, and his League party hoped a win in Emilia-Romagna would force Italy’s weak left-leaning ruling coalition out of office – or in his words, “evict them.”

But Salvini’s effort fell short despite holding dozens of rallies in the run-up to Sunday’s election. The League’s candidate for regional president, Lucia Borgonzoni, picked up about 44% of the vote. But her chief rival, incumbent Stefano Bonaccini of the Democratic Party, won with about 52% of the ballot.

“Stalingrad has not fallen,” read a headline in La Repubblica, a left-leaning national newspaper, on Monday.

The reference to communist Russia’s defense of Stalingrad against Nazi attack in World War II highlighted the stakes in Sunday’s election for those on the left in Italy.

For Italy, a victory by the League in Emilia-Romagna would have been an earthquake – a shattering of political certainty. Since the end of World War II, the region has been led by left-wing politicians and its principal city, Bologna, and its large university population are viewed as deeply dyed in communist and socialist sentiment.

Salvini put his heart – and his over-the-top and tough-guy rhetoric – into winning.

He declared he was going to “liberate” the region from left-wing politics and “evict” Italy’s national government by winning in Emilia-Romagna. He campaigned nonstop across the region, focusing on small towns and medium-sized cities, places where his anti-immigrant, anti-tax, anti-establishment and tough-on-crime message plays well in a region that is rich and without major social problems.

Salvini is Italy’s most prominent politician and national polls show the League leading in popularity. Sunday’s loss was the League’s first defeat out of nine elections during Salvini’s leadership, commentators said. Even this loss, though, can be viewed as a partial victory for Salvini because the League’s haul of votes was impressive, better than it has done in previous regional elections.

The League leader Matteo Salvini speaks at a press conference after polls closed on Sunday. (Stefano Cavicchi/LaPresse via AP)

“For the first time there was a match,” Salvini said at a news conference after the vote. “Having an open contest in Emilia-Romagna was an emotion for me, after 70 years, for the first time, there was a contest.”

But Salvini’s forceful, even brutish, and unorthodox style of campaigning with a far-right message appeared to have contributed to his loss by stirring up opposition in a region with a history of left-wing street movements.

“His strengths are also his weaknesses,” said Sandro Iacometti, a journalist and commentator on Rai, an Italian television broadcaster.

In November, a protest movement called the Sardines sprang up in Emilia-Romagna to counter Salvini and it quickly took root throughout Italy. The grassroots movement called itself the Sardines because it wanted to pack piazzas with so many people as to look like shoals of sardines in opposition to Salvini. On numerous occasions, the Sardines did just that and the movement was seen as a big reason for high turnout of 68% in Emilia-Romagna.

Salvini campaigned as he has done elsewhere by calling for an end to immigration in Italy and accusing immigrants of making Italy more dangerous.

In one high-profile stunt, he used the questionable tactic of ringing an intercom buzzer of an apartment purportedly housing Tunisians, asked to be allowed in and then accused them of being drug dealers. He was led to the apartment, he said, by residents upset about the alleged drug dealers. The incident drew a lot of criticism and may have hurt him electorally.

Salvini lost, but the biggest loser Sunday was Italy’s ruling party, the 5-Star Movement, an anti-corruption direct-democracy party that won about 33% of the vote in the last national elections in 2018. With that result, it became Italy’s largest party, an extraordinary feat for a grassroots party that had never been in power at the national level.

After the election, the 5-Star Movement formed an unlikely coalition government with Salvini and then spent a year unable to contain Salvini who, as interior minister, closed Italian ports to refugees and cracked down on immigrants. His tactics proved very popular and his poll ratings soared while those of the 5-Stars tanked.

Last summer, Salvini broke off his alliance with the 5-Stars in pursuit of new elections, but instead of calling new elections the 5-Stars aligned themselves with the Democratic Party and formed a new government. This new government, though, is struggling to pass legislation and enact policies to get Italy out of its economic doldrums.

In Emilia-Romagna, the 5-Star candidate for regional president won only 3.4% of the vote. A more dire result for the 5-Stars came in a separate regional election on Sunday in Calabria, an impoverished southern region where the 5-Stars had previously proven very strong thanks to a platform of boosting social spending in the South. On Sunday, though, the 5-Star candidate in Calabria won only about 7% of the vote.

Instead, Calabria’s voters turned to a right-wing female candidate. With the victory of Jole Santelli, Italy’s shift toward right-wing parties deepened. Santelli is a member of Forza Italia, a party run by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Today, 13 regions are run by right-wing administrations whereas in 2014 only three regions had right-wing leaders. Six regions today are run by left-wing leaders, down from 16 in 2014.

“The right is strong,” said Antonio Tajani, a Forza Italian leader, in a television interview on Monday. He said the win in Calabria shows that Southern Italy is fed up with the social spending programs of the 5-Stars and that a right-wing program of supporting business is what southerners are looking for.

The dismal results on Sunday for the 5-Stars were not a surprise and came after weeks of infighting and party defections. About 20 5-Star members have left the party’s parliamentary ranks, with a few choosing to align themselves with Salvini’s party. Last week, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s 33-year-old foreign minister, stepped down as the party’s leader in a nod to the crisis besetting the 5-Stars. The party is set to pick a new leader at a summit in March.

For now, Sunday’s election in Emilia-Romagna will be a big boost to the Democratic Party, an establishment left-leaning party that held power at the national level between 2013 and 2018. Like other center-left so-called social democratic parties in Europe, it has struggled to remain relevant at a time of growing voter dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.

Unless snap elections are called, Italy will hold national elections in 2023. But Italy’s political landscape is notoriously unstable and elections are common. This remains a likely outcome for this coalition government. But for now both the Democratic Party and the 5-Stars will seek to strengthen their positions before calling new elections for fear of losing to Salvini.

Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with Teneo, a political risk firm in London, said Sunday’s results in Emilia-Romagna give Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte “much-needed relief” and lessen the risk of snap elections.

But he said the coalition government “rests on rather shaky foundations” and that the “free fall” of the 5-Stars will force the Democratic Party “to assume a greater role (and possibly face the related political cost) in the coalition government.”

“This could further complicate delicate intra-coalition equilibriums and dynamics,” he wrote in a briefing note Monday. He added that it is unlikely that the government will be able to deliver on policy.

With more regional and local elections in May and June, Salvini will soon have new opportunities to break apart the national government and force new elections.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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