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Is Italy facing another populist backlash?

Supporters of the Lega party. Credit: Getty

September 22, 2020 - 6:00pm

Denying media reports, the British Government is adamant that Boris Johnson did not take a mysterious trip to Perugia. Nevertheless, Italy’s worth paying attention to right now.

That’s because Italians have been voting, on Sunday and Monday, in no less than six* regional elections — an important test of the country’s political temperature.

Most the results are now in (see the indispensable @EuropeElects for details) and they show the parties of the national government — the centre-left Democrats and the formerly populist Five Star Movement — losing support.

The Rightwing electoral alliance, which includes the national populist League and Brothers of Italy parties, advanced almost everywhere. This includes the ‘Red Belt’ regions of Tuscany and Marche which are traditional strongholds of the Left. The Right has taken the latter for the first time, but the Leftwing alliance, dominated by the Democrats, has retained power in Tuscany, a much bigger target for the opposition.

There were further advances for the Right in the north of the country, in regions they already controlled — with a convincing win in Liguria and the sort of landslide that would make Viktor Orbán jealous in Veneto. In the latter case, the incumbents have taken around three-quarters of the vote.

It’s a different picture in the two southern regions that had elections. The Left has held on in Apulia, despite the Right gaining support. Meanwhile Campania bucked the national trend, the Left advancing at the expense of the Right. A ray of hope for the ruling Democrats in Rome? Not really, this was a victory for the Regional President Vicenzo de Luca, who is very much of the old school of Italian politics and known for his populist style.

In most places, the once-all-conquering Five Star Movement stood separately from the two main party blocks — and got crushed between them. If this pattern holds, then the victors of the 2018 General Election can expect to sink to third place or worse next time. One small consolation for Five Star is that its proposal to reduce the number of Italian MPs was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum. Mind you, a lot of its own MPs are due to lose their jobs anyway.

In summary, joining the centre-Left establishment has done Five Star no good at all, but then neither did their previous alliance with Matteo Salvini’s League. As for Salvini, yesterday’s results will probably weaken his personal position despite the overall gains for the Right. That these gains weren’t quite as sweeping as some polls predicted will be spun by some commentators as a moral victory for the Democrats. But in reality, these elections confound the idea that times of crisis solidify support for governments and leave populism to wither on the vine.

(*We’ll leave aside the very local politics of Aosta Valley, Italy’s smallest, and semi-French, region)

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