Last weekend, Italians went to the polls to vote for around 1,200 mayors, which included major cities such as Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologna and Naples. The pro-EU, liberal-centrist Democratic Party (PD) — by any definition, the party of the establishment — won by a big margin in Bologna, Milan and Naples, and is also projected to win in the upcoming runoffs in Rome and Turin.
For most mainstream commentators, the results mean only one thing: that “Italy has turned its back on anti-establishment politics”, as The Times writes, echoing similar takes in the Italian press. But is this really the case?
A closer look at the numbers reveals a much less comforting reality. First of all, fewer citizens than ever went to vote: 55% of all eligible voters — the lowest turnout ever (20%, or 400,000 people, less than the last local elections). In other words, one in two voters decided to stay at home. In some cities, turnout in some high-income neighbourhoods was 30% higher than in low-income neighbourhoods.
And while PD came on top, it still lost more than 120,000 votes compared to the last local elections, held in 2016. This is not a case of voters shifting their support from “anti-establishment” parties to the PD. It’s a case of a huge number of former voters of those parties — particularly the Five Star Movement and the League — simply staying at home. It’s frankly very hard to see how this could be seen as evidence that Italians are turning their back on anti-establishment politics.
In fact, I would posit that it’s evidence of the exact opposite: voters have turned their back on those parties precisely because they have betrayed their anti-establishment ethos. The Five Star Movement and the League, after all, came out on top in the last national elections, in 2018, on a staunchly “populist”, “anti-establishment” and anti-EU platform. That election was a huge rebuke of the establishment — embodied by the Democratic Party at the national level and the EU at the supranational level, which by then had overseen disastrous austerity and neoliberal “structural reforms” for over half a decade.
The last thing those millions of voters could have imagined is that, within a few years, both those parties would be governing hand in glove with the PD in support of a government led by the literal incarnation of the establishment, Mario Draghi. In this sense, the record-low turnout in the latest elections should be understood as an equally loud rebuke of the parties that betrayed that promise of change.
It’s no surprise that the only party to significantly bolster its votes is Brothers of Italy, which is also the only major party that doesn’t support Draghi’s government of “national unity” (it’s also now topping the polls).
Anti-establishment politics in Italy is not dead — it’s simply lost any serious political avenue. Which is why an increasing number of citizens — especially among the lower ranks of society — are turning their backs on democracy. As Italy’s economic and social crisis continues to simmer under the surface, one thing is clear: anti-establishment anger is soon bound to make a comeback. The question is: if no party is there to channel that anger, what form will it take?