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Lessons from Italy’s election, part one: Death of the “ins”

I have long argued that modern politics is best seen through a lens of “Ins versus Outs” instead of the traditional “left versus right”. Italy’s election is perhaps the best example yet of that idea in action.

Every Italian party that was identified with support for the existing political economic order lost vote share. It didn’t matter if the party was nominally centre-left (Democratic Party and its allies) or centre-right (Forza Italia and Noi con Italia). If you essentially had been responsible for the government during the past fifteen years and did not loudly and consistently proclaim the need to reject the existing model, voters punished you.

The established centre right party of Silvio Berlusconi and the centrist left party of Matteo Renzi both tanked in Italy’s election. PA Images

The four major parties of that order or their antecedents won 80.5% of the vote in the 2008 elections1. They slumped to combined 57.1% in 2013 and plummeted to a mere 36.5% in March’s vote. Over one in five Italians, nearly 40% of these parties’ support in 2013, deserted them for one of the three anti-Europe populist groups on March 4.

The centre left’s decline

The collapse of the main centre-left party, the Democratic Party, has garnered the most attention, but even those analyses normally understate the depth of its decline. Since World War 2, the Italian left had dominated three provinces in the country’s centre – Emilia-Romanga, Tuscany, and Umbria. The leftist bent of the regions was so ingrained that political pundits gave it a name –  “la zone rossa,” (the red zone). The chief leftist party or coalition carried each of these regions in every election from 1963 through 2013. Yet the centre-left only carried one, Tuscany, on March 4, and that by only 1.6%.

The centre-left has been reduced to an urban rump, popular only in the inner regions of Italy’s biggest cities. The Democratic Party and its main ally, More Europe, won only 21 seats of the 232 awarded by plurality vote within geographic districts. Thirteen of those came from Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, and Bologna. Seats that were primarily in the suburban zones of those cities went to the centre-right or to M5S (the Five Star Movement). Even the seat dominated by “the Stalingrad of Italy,” Sesto San Giovanni in Lombardy, went narrowly to the centre-right

These urban voters were much more affluent, educated, and pro-Europe than Italians generally. More Europe, for example, received only 2.55% nationwide. But it did significantly better in the thirteen inner big city seats carried by the left, ranging from a high of 11.1% in the city centre of Turin to a low of 4.2% in the Florence seat that extended out from the centre. More Europe got about 10% in the three Milanese seats won by the left and 8.5% in the two Roman seats that comprise the area most tourists visit. Once again we see how it doesn’t matter what country one visits, if one goes only to the heart of wealthy cities and speaks with people there, one gets a highly distorted view of the nation as a whole.

The centre right’s decline

The collapse of the centre-right “ins” is harder to discern because they ran in a coalition with two populist parties, Lega and the Fratelli d’Italia. But close examination of the results shows a demise for Forza Italia and Noi con Italia every bit as swift and thorough as that of the centre-left.

The rural, poor, Catholic south has historically been to the centre-right what la zona rossa was to the left. The southern regions of Apulia, Calabria, Campania (Naples), and Sicily were won overwhelmingly by the Christian Democrats in every election from 1946 until their demise following the Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s. The primary successors to the Christian Democrats – parties led by Silvio Berlusconi and the Union of the Centre – continued to dominate these regions: winning Apulia in every election between 1994 and 2013; winning Calabria and Campania when the right won nationwide in 2001 and 2008; and losing Sicily only once, narrowly to M5S in 2013.

Today these parties are a shadow of their former selves. In 2008 the Berlusconi party and the UDC combined received between 50% and 56% in each region. This year, they not receive even a quarter of the combined vote in any region. While Forza Italia remained the strongest party on the centre-right, it received less than a fifth of the vote in Apulia and Campania and only a shade above that same proportion in Calabria and Sicily. The centre-right won only three districts in all of southern Italy.

One could say these results are merely coincidental, that the simultaneous declines of centre-right and centre-left have nothing to with their status as the “ins”. Part two of my series – published tomorrow – will clearly show that the results were no coincidence.

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  1.  All vote totals refer to the vote for the Chamber of Deputies contests