Progressive Futures

The end of regionalist forces in Italy?

24 February 2016

How will Matteo Renzi’s electoral reforms transform the impact of localised groups on national politics?

Francesco Rocchetti

Over the last couple of years, the Italian political landscape has undergone significant change.
The Northern League (LN) – a regionalist movement created to promote the independence of a macro-region in the north called ‘Padani’ – is trying to expand its base of support to southern regions which were originally dubbed ‘terronia’ (a derogatory term to indicate lands of lazy farmers that live off the productive north). In fact, during the last regional elections, the party gave up on its federalist stance by turning to a nationalist rhetoric typical of other Eurosceptic parties in Europe such as the Front National or Nigel Farage’s UK Independence party.

This political shift that brought about the disappearance of any independence stance can be explained by three main elements: the proclamation of Matteo Salvini as the new leader of the Northern League, the growing crisis of Silvio Berlusconi and his political party, and the pending approval of the new electoral law.

Following the election of Salvini, LN changed its core objectives. Even though article one of the charter still defines the independence of the northern regions (the so called ‘Padania’) as the party’s main goal, Salvini reoriented its strategy towards more enticing battles that could involve the entire nation. The new key battles of the party are rather exit from the EU, the containment of migration, and pension reforms. In a way, scapegoating has moved from the Rome bureaucracy and southern regions to Brussels.

What has not changed is the way the Lega Nord – as it is known in Italy – frames these battles, through a hammering dialectic and the proclamation of easy solutions to very complex problems.

Thanks to the new strategy, in the last regional elections the party made significant electoral gains in traditionally left-leaning parts of central Italy and proclaimed itself the main party of the right (not without reason).

The destiny of Berlusconi is now closely tied to Salvini’s rise. During the past year, he could not prove to be the leader he once was and failed to rebuild a centre-right coalition from scratch like he has miraculously done on various occasions in the past. Forza Italia (Go Italy – FI) is now a divided party unable to come up with shared priorities and, above all, a credible heir for Berlusconi’s political capital.

Additionally, Berlusconi’s eternal judicial problems, his inevitable ageing and his own apparent fixation with Matteo Renzi’s political abilities have affected his ability to appeal to the public. In this particular field, Salvini proved to be extremely successful and quickly gained the support of a large part of center-right voters.

The possible repercussions of the approval of a new electoral law are under the spotlight now. Among these, and crucially to explain the transformation of LN, is the disappearance of the regional forces. The new electoral law, pursued by Renzi under the approval of FI, Silvio Berlusconi’s party, will revolutionise the Italian political arena.

The new law has been conceived in order to prevent minor parties from having the swing vote and being crucial for a government to stay in power. The core structure of the law is derived from the Spanish model, but with a majority prize of 15 per cent for parties achieving a minimum of 40 per cent of votes during the first turn. Instead, if the first round does not provide a clear winner, the law considers a second round that is designed to crown a winner. It is a majority-assuring model that de facto modifies the form of government, by giving enormous control to the executive power and creating an asymmetry between the ruling party and the rest of the parliament in terms of seats and political power but safeguarding the representation of political minorities (parties obtaining more than three per cent have access to the lower chamber).

The reason why the new electoral system is discouraging regional secession movements is that the majority prize will only be given to parties and not to coalitions, to the detriment of regional parties that in the last 20 years have been crucial to the creation of stable parliamentary majorities and to the birth of national governments.

The government, aware of the lack of regional representation in the Camera dei Deputati (lower house), has designed a new Senato della Repubblica (upper house), where only regional delegates will sit. The new chamber is expected to have fewer powers and marginal influence on the law-making process, thus creating an asymmetric bicameralism.

Now the question is how regionalism and independentism are going to influence Italian politics.
One possible answer is that Italy will see an increased influence of regional governments on national politics. During the primaries of the Democratic party (PD) for the selection of the regional candidates, in some regions a number of candidates emerged opposing Matteo Renzi’s ideas and, more importantly, pledging to serve merely as representatives of regional demands. This course of action can be interpreted as a sign of the disintegration of parties, where central authorities do not have enough power anymore to impose a national line and cannot prevent the creation of regional concentrations of power. The recent clash between the national government and the governor of Puglia, a leading figure of the PD, are evocative of the confrontation. Puglia is claiming that the new national energy policy that encourages oil and gas exploration as well as the South Stream pipeline project will damage the regional wealth and for this reason is promoting, together with nine regions, a referendum in order to partially modify some national laws. On the other side, Renzi is trying to limit the power of regions through the constitutional reform he is promoting. According to the new amendments to the constitution, regions would see their power considerably decreasing on a number of issues (energy policy, infrastructure policy, active labour market policy).

Despite the current crisis of regionalist forces, Italy is still a divided country, where different economic areas have different agendas; it is a country far from a proportionate decentralised distribution of power and this is the reason why the country will see, in the foreseeable future, the emergence of new regional pushes.

Photo credit: Tinxi / Shutterstock.com