January 24, 2020   6 mins

Whenever the Left has abandoned patriotism, culture and way of life it has ended up in deep trouble — and Italy is no exception. Here the Left looks set to lose control of its powerbase, the region of Emilia-Romagna, for the first time since the Italian Republic was founded in 1946. This in turn could prompt the resignation of Italy’s radical/centre-Left coalition government and a snap general election.

Final polls for Sunday’s elections in Emilia-Romagna, before Italy’s statutory blackout in the fortnight before a vote, had the candidate for regional president of the Left-wing Partito Democratico (PD) neck and neck with Lucia Borgonzon, representative of Matteo Salvini’s Right-wing Lega.

If defeated in Emilia-Romagna, it is difficult to see how the PD dare muster the nerve to continue as junior partner in the national coalition government with the ever weaker alt-Left 5Stelle (5 Star), which continues to tear itself apart. On Wednesday, in a further sign of disarray, Luigi di Maio resigned as 5Stelle leader but remains Minister for Foreign Affairs.

When it came to power after the last general election in 2018 the anti-corruption movement 5Stelle, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo — a Genoan version of Billy Connolly — was Italy’s most popular party, polling at 32.7% (compared to then coalition partner the Lega’s 17.35%). But it has haemorrhaged support ever since and is now on just 15% compared to the Lega’s 33%.

Its coalition partner, the PD, is in equally dire straits even if it does hang on to Emilia-Romagna. It has also seen its suppport plummet and last September it split when former premier Matteo Renzi – Italy’s attempt at Tony Blair — refused to accept the coalition with 5Stelle and resigned to form a new party Italia Viva, which is now polling about 4%.

If the marriage of 5Stelle and PD, sworn enemies until they formed a government and currently fielding opposing candidates in Emilia-Romagna, does collapse it will almost certainly mean a snap general election, which a Salvini-led Right-wing coalition would win by a mile, according to the polls.

These place the Lega consistently on 33% — as much as its two nearest rivals the PD and 5Stelle put together. So, with its traditional allies, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (6%) and the national conservative Fratelli d’Italia (10%), the Lega would have more than enough votes to get a working majority in Parliament.

Salvini would thus become Italy’s first elected prime minister since 2011 when Berlusconi resigned at the height of the Eurozone Crisis. None of the subsequent five was elected as premier — three were not even MPs or Senators.

Even Britain’s liberal-Left Guardian finds it impossible to praise Italy’s coalition government. The other day its Rome correspondent wrote that “the past four months have been marred by constant bickering and scant action on policy” and its budget “contains nothing that will tackle high unemployment or revive Italy’s long-stagnant economy”.

If the Lega wins Emilia-Romagna, then what might keep the coalition alive apart from a shared determination to keep Salvini out of government is the equally shared desire to keep getting paid bootloads of cash. Italian MPs are among the most rewarded on the planet, with a basic gross salary of €140,000 per year, which when expenses plus allowances are included rises to €230,000 per year.

Just as Boris Johnson’s Tories appeal to so many traditional Labour voters in red wall strongholds by pledging solutions to the problems those voters care about, so too does the Lega strike a chord with many former Italian communists in places like Emilia-Romagna.

All populists have this in common: they promise government programmes that combine, to a greater or lesser degree, Right-wing levels of patriotism and Left-wing levels of expenditure.

And in Salvini the League has a charismatic leader who is popular with the working class because he shares their concerns and aspirations and who — like Johnson — has the gift of the gab and loves nothing better than to mix with ordinary people and have his selfie taken with them. And like Trump, Salvini is hyper active on social media with more than 3 .6 million followers on Facebook.

His latest ruse on the campaign trail was to press the intercom buzzer of a Tunisian immigrant family in a block of flats in Bologna whose son was said by local people to be a drug dealer. “Can I come up to your flat to speak to you about your son who local people round here say is a drug dealer?” Salvini said into the intercom. The scene was filmed and went viral. The son later told journalists he would sue those who sent Salvini to his family’s block of flats for defamation, but admitted he had been in prison for drug-related offences.

Before the collapse of the Berlin Wall Italy had the largest communist party outside the Soviet Bloc — the Partito Comunista Italiano  (PCI) — and Emilia-Romagna was its epicentre. This was the region where internationalism and then socialism first took hold at the end of the 19th century before evolving into communism after the First World War.

The PCI’s economic model ruled the roost in Emilia-Romagna for decades and consisted of publicly subsidised cooperatives which guaranteed jobs for the boys — party members — across huge swathes of the economy. The system worked because it was a closed shop.

Ironically, Emilia-Romagna is also where Benito Mussolini was born and then became the rising star of Italian revolutionary socialism as editor of daily newspaper Avanti! in Milan — before his expulsion from the party in 1914 after his refusal to oppose Italian entry into the war on the side of Britain and France.

He took that decision, as did the socialists in France and Germany but not Italy, because the war had made him realise that people — himself included — are more loyal to country than class and that therefore nations are superior to the internationale. In 1919, he founded fascism as a national, as distinct from international, version of socialism. The tectonic tensions that caused fascism are similar to those that cause populism — however different the consequences. Then as now patriotism, and what it means, played a crucial role.

At Brescello, the small town near the River Po used by Giovannino Guareschi as the model for his Don Camillo books, which pitted the communist mayor Peppone against the priest Don Camillo, Salvini posted a selfie on Facebook of himself next to the statue of Peppone with the caption:

“I bet today Peppone would vote Lega! You have no idea how many old communists have told me in the past few days: ‘The PD people prefer bankers to workers, this time I’m voting for you!'”

This was the region where at the end of the Second World War communist partisans massacred thousands of Italians without trial and covered it up for decades. Things have not changed that much; I live here, near Ravenna, and about 10 years ago received a bullet through the post with an anonymous death threat for my children because I had written an article stating that the Americans and British liberated Italy, not the partisans. The Communist partisans were, contrary to Left-wing propaganda, a military irrelevance, and they did not fight for democracy and La Patria but for communism and the Soviet Union.

The Left can still control the writing and teaching of history through its command of the education system and media, but not the workplace and community where it has become increasingly irrelevant. And that is why more and more working people here are turning to the Lega.

Then there is the issue of money: average annual GDP per capita growth in Italy since the introduction of the euro has been zero. Italy’s government debt is 131% of GDP — and GDP is virtually stagnant. The economy has been in more or less permanent recession for years. Adult unemployment is officially about 10% but in reality is much more, as not many more than half of working age Italians do actually work. Youth unemployment, meanwhile, is more than 30%.

To make matters worse, 600,000 migrants, the vast majority of whom were not refugees according to the UN, have arrived in Italy since 2013 by sea from Libya — 335 miles away from Sicily. The Left, in power on its own most recently with Renzi followed by Paolo Gentiloni until 2018, did nothing to stop the migrant flow until its dying days, nor create jobs or protect italian workers from globalisation. It kowtowed to the EU’s diktat that austerity is the only solution to the eurozone crisis. Obviously, the eurocracy loves the Italian Left but the country’s hoi polloi increasingly do not.

Salvini promised a crackdown on mass illegal immigration and as deputy prime minister delivered. Indeed, his 2018 closure of Italy’s ports to charity ships ferrying migrants to Italy from the Libyan coast was practically the only concrete achievement of the last coalition government of 5Stelle and the League — apart from 5Stelle’s introduction for the first time of a non-contributory unemployment benefit system. Needless to say the new coalition has re-opened the ports.

But Salvini’s migrant crackdown was hugely popular with ordinary Italians. He also promised, and still does, an end to austerity with huge infrastructure investment, the breeching of the EU’s budget deficit limits, a flat tax for small businesses, a crackdown on crime, tough import laws to stop unfair trade, and the defence of Catholic values and the traditional nuclear family — hence his frequent brandishing of a rosary during speeches.

Whether or not this is a cynical ploy from the divorced Salvini, and whether or not the party are “racist” as its enemies claim, his message is one that resonates with millions of Italians battered for two decades by the EU, the euro and the forces of globalisation, and disillusioned with the Left’s abandonment of class warfare in favour of the identity war. A familiar story all over the West.

Nicholas Farrell is a writer and author who has lived in Italy for 20 years. His book Mussolini: a New Life is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson