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  • Callum Doherty

Salvini stumbles? The wider lessons from the Emilia-Romagna election

Italy is famous for its turbulent politics, for how parties and governments come and go at the whim of the country’s proportional system. Regionalism also plays its part. Not so long ago Matteo Salvini’s League was a party solely for the interests of the country’s north, whilst the south saw the bulk of the Five-Star Movement’s rise. These populist outliers successfully upturned Italy’s politics, forming a coalition government together in 2018. These two parties falling out is nothing new, but what’s less common is what Salvini has now achieved - a broad electoral coalition with the League at its head that could decisively win the next election.

Last August, then-Deputy PM Salvini attempted to dissolve his own government, hoping for fresh elections. This was denied by negotiations that formed a new cabinet with 5-Star and the centre-left Democratic Party which left the League hanging. Despite this setback, Salvini kept up the pressure. In October the Centre-Right coalition, with League candidate Donatella Tesei, won a shock landslide in a regional Presidential election in Umbria. Umbria, considered part of the Democrat’s “red belt” of central-Italian support for 50 years, flipped to Tesei in an 18-point swing. The right climbed in the polls, pushing 50% in October with seat projections giving them a majority as high as 100. Italy headed into the new year with the prospect of more red-belt regionals. Whilst the left still dominates urban areas in these traditionally safe regions, the right has been gaining support in small towns and the countryside. Salvini doubtless feels that if he can win key states like Tuscany and Puglia, Italy’s fragile government will collapse.

However, on January 26th Salvini’s momentum was dented by failing to achieve a second win in Emilia-Romagna, an event that’s been the subject of concerted media focus in Italy. The Centre-Left coalition held on, increasing their share of the vote with Democratic candidate Stefano Bonaccini, whilst turnout almost doubled, rising to 67%. The close nature of the race could have prompted this increase, but some credit has been given to the grassroots Sardines Movement, a youth-driven protest against Salvini and the right, that originated with a flash-mob on the 14th November. This took place in Bologna, the same day Salvini launched his regional campaign, and drew 15,000 people under the slogan “Bologna non si Lega”, a pun at the League’s expense translating to “Bologna does not tie itself up”. Their spread to other parts of Italy has been swift. On 1st December, 25,000 people gathered in Milan, 40,000 in Turin on the 10th, and over 100,000 in Rome on the 14th, demanding political transparency and the repeal of “Salvini’s Law”- a piece of legislation that takes a hard line on migrants, making it easier to deport them. This success will encourage them - Salvini could smell sardines wherever he goes.

Yet despite being noticeable, the Sardines are city-based, and any potential election could come down to non-urban areas. Meanwhile, Five-Star’s silence in the last two regionals is deafening. From winning the most votes in 2018, they’ve slipped in the polls and are currently under interim leadership. They risk imploding, barely registering in Umbria or Emilio-Romagna, mostly to the right’s benefit. In the latter state, support for 5-Star fell by almost 10%, whilst the right gained 11%. Furthermore, Emilio-Romagna was not the only recent election. On the same day Forza Italia, a more moderate member of Salvini’s coalition, flipped Calabria from the Democrats in an even more impressive swing than that seen in Umbria. It’s clear that in many parts of Italy the left is still retreating, with no clear answer to those outside the big cities. Meanwhile, the post-fascist Brothers of Italy have disturbingly reached 10% in the polls.

The remaining regionals will be contested on the 31st of May. If a week is a long time in British politics, 3 months in Italy must be lightyears- anything could happen. For now, Salvini’s coalition has shown enough discipline to achieve the kind of nationwide success unseen in Italy for decades. The question is whether it can last, and has the Italian left found the populist appeal of its own through the Sardines?

Image: Flickr// Radio Alfa

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