February 28, 2024 - 2:16pm

Giorgia Meloni has just suffered her most serious political setback since becoming prime minister of Italy. In this week’s regional elections in Sardinia, the centre-left opposition not only gained the regional presidency but also took control of the regional council. The centre-Right hasn’t lost a region since 2015 — and some commentators are interpreting the result as a possible turning of the tide against Meloni and her allies. As a briefing from Eurointelligence puts it, “she may not be as strong as widely believed”.

At this stage, it’s possible that too much is being read into a particularly confused and chaotic local contest. In Italy, regional and national elections are fought by alliances of different parties, some of which have little in common. That certainly proved to be the case in Sardinia, where the centre-Right campaign began with a bitter fight over who their joint candidate for regional president should be. The incumbent president Christian Solinas of the Sardinian Action Party was eventually supplanted by Paolo Truzzu of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

This clearly had an impact on the result. Though the centre-Right alliance beat the centre-Left alliance in the vote for seats on the regional council, the vote for regional president went the other way — Truzzu losing by a razor-thin margin to Alessandra Todde. It would appear that disgruntled supporters of Solinas expressed their anger by voting across political lines for the centre-Left candidate.

Can Meloni dismiss this defeat as the result of purely local factors? After all, Sardinia is hardly typical of Italy — many Sardinians would insist that it isn’t Italy at all. And the Prime Minister’s party is still comfortably ahead in nationwide polls.

But Meloni should be wary all the same. While her allies in Sardinia were bickering among themselves, the opposition parties put up a remarkable show of unity. Todde belongs to the Five Star Movement, but formed a very effective alliance with the Democratic Party. That’s something of a breakthrough because — though the two parties can be broadly described as centre-Left — they’re at opposite ends of the populist (Five Star) versus euro-establishment (Democrats) spectrum.

A united opposition that can attract Left-leaning professionals and angry outsiders could cause Meloni major problems — especially if she forgets about the wave of Eurosceptic populism that swept her to power in the first place. She was never the Mussolini reboot that some people feared she’d be. In fact, as prime minister she’s ruled as a conventional and rather compliant euro-conservative. There’s been no significant confrontation with the EU establishment and she’s continued to accept mass immigration into an already over-burdened Italy. 

Though Meloni is famous for her rhetoric — especially her line, “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian… no one will take that away from me” — she wasn’t elected just to give off vibes, but to make a meaningful difference. Sardinia is a warning that if she doesn’t bring change to Italy, then change will come to her.