State of the Left

The Italian regional elections

6 October 2020

Progressive forces did well in the recent regional elections and constitutional referendum campaign in Italy – but further reform is still needed

Stefano Sotgiu

Following the regional elections and constitutional referendum that took place on 20-21 September, Italians have decided that the number of parliamentarians must be reduced, with a clear ‘Yes’ vote in support of the change of close to 70%. The total number of lawmakers that make up the national Chamber of deputies and Senate will be reduced to 600 from the current number of 945. One of the pivotal missions of the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement), supported by the centre-left Partito Democratic (PD), is therefore accomplished, as many on the Italian centre-left especially have been committed to such reform for decades. But in these elections, Italians not only voted for the referendum but also in a number of important regional elections, some of which would be crucial for the authority and legitimacy of the national government – especially those that took place in Tuscany and Puglia. Once the ballots were counted, it was clear that in each of these regions progressives forces prevailed. Notably, some key victories were also secured by leaders on the populist left, including Michele Emiliano (in Puglia) and Vincenzo De Luca in Campania.

It should be noted that a significant and qualified minority of just above 30% voted ‘No’ to the constitutional reform. This minority is represented for the most part by the progressive electorate of the Democratic Party.  At the time of writing, it seems that the party has absorbed this shock in a relatively serene and relaxed way, partly because the campaign was more focused on the regional elections. Fierce factions of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters have of course been fighting their fights (largely online, given the pandemic), with the latter being typically characterised as being more aggressive in attitude and outlook. Now, the reform process must take place following the verdict of the referendum. Above all, a new law and new electoral colleges that guarantee territorial and gender representation and a new regulation of parliamentary work must be introduced. This will require a package of reforms that Italians can trust, and that must be subject to popular deliberation.  Herein lies a major institutional limit of the Italian system. In other countries, reforms of this nature and consequence could have been discussed and voted on by Citizens’ Assemblies before being submitted for popular consideration. Unfortunately, Italy still shows a reluctance to use such instruments. Like a fly stubbornly banging against the glass, the country has been unable to undertake the institutional innovation necessary for any democratic breakthrough in how major public decisions take place. This dramatically undermines the country’s ability to build solid, well-founded, logical, and shared policies that enjoy popular support.

In Italy, as is the case in many parts of the world, the results of mid-term elections are often considered as an informal referendum on the performance of the national government in office at the time. Clearly, if the leaders of the centre-right opposition were thinking of bringing down the yellow-red coalition PD – Movimento 5 Stelle government on foot of the September elections and referendum, they will be clearly disappointed, as the vote has instead underscored the remarkable stability of the executive led by prime minister Giuseppe Conte. Conversely, Matteo Salvini’s Lega has been weakened by the results and his leadership has been called into question from within his own party’s ranks by the likes of the triumphant governor of Veneto Luca Zaia, as well as by other actors on the right, including the likes of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) Party and by Giovanni Toti, governor of Liguria and leader of the ‘Cambiamo!’ (‘Let’s Change’) Party and former close ally of Silvio Berlusconi.

The Five Star Movement, on the other hand, dID not directly benefit too much from the referendum result as on the same day it suffered several major defeats in the regional elections. Only in one case – in Liguria in the northwest of the country – did the Movement coalesce with the PD and this resulted in something of a debacle. In the remaining regions the party ran alone, suffering major losses as its electorate turned instead towards the progressive candidate. All this has accentuated the quarrelsome character of the Movement’s internal structures, which has been torn apart by infighting between groups that jockey for power. This is therefore a clear element of potential weakness for the government of Giuseppe Conte, with a Five Star Movement bereft of reliable political leadership – which is somewhat similar to the PD preceding the Zingaretti secretariat.

So, from a political standpoint, the real winner of the election day is arguably the PD and its leader, the aforementioned Nicola Zingaretti. The party is now stronger and more able to dictate the government’s agenda following the regional poll, including by obtaining more money for health care through the European Stability Mechanism, amending anti-immigration legislation, using European funds for sustainable development projects, and through the much-needed digitalization of public services. Zingaretti, whose role would have been questioned by a defeat in Tuscany, is now more firmly in the saddle and is also re-opening the internal front with the reform of the Circles (Circoli), the party’s baseline local organizational units, as well as by reviewing the party’s internal decision-making processes, asking for the PD to be more open to the demands and needs of the modern society. It remains to be seen whether it will succeed in bending the resistance of internal party factions that are often conservative and resistant to change.

From a systemic and institutional point of view, the fact that emerges from the poor quality of discussion during the election and referendum campaigns is that there can be no real rational comparison between different options.  Debate is often undermined by personal attacks or apocalyptic pronouncements. The propagandistic simplification of the problems facing citizens in their daily lives often poisons public debate and does little to improve the political health of a body that has become weakened by years of populist illness. Currently, the very use of referendums is undergoing a severe crisis over the specific questions that citizens are asked to consider. Such decisions regularly turn into a judgment for or against the proponents of a particular reform and those who support the change. This clearly undermines the quality and efficacy of any debate on the matter at hand.  Italy can no longer afford such an emotional and ineffective attitude towards reform which the country has been in desperate need of for too long. From this point of view, the remarkable turnout at the referendum – helped by the regional elections being held at the same time – is a reassuring sign of Italians’ renewed interest in politics.

This situation must be answered with a policy of openness and that is in accordance with what is happening elsewhere in Europe and in other Western countries. Italian citizens deserve to be able to fully participate in the choices that have the greatest impact on their lives and deserve to be able to discuss them in depth, to evaluate their pros and cons directly, without the complications of the battle for government. Because, as governments pass, institutions remain and must belong to everyone. No political instrumentalisation must hinder the modernisation of the country. The solution to the Italian political malaise is now clear: Italy needs more deliberative democracy.