Italian regional elections aren’t exactly headline news in the UK, but what happened in Umbria this weekend matters.
In 2018, the populists came to power in Italy — in the form of a coalition between the Five Star movement (a ‘broad tent’ populist party) and the League (a party of the hard Right).
Though it was the junior partner, support for the League surged — while that for Five Star fell away. Seeking to capitalise on this success, the League tried to force an election earlier this year. Had it happened, Matteo Salvini would most likely have become Prime Minister — the first hard Right leader of a western European nation since… well, pick your own precedent.
Among other things, that would have escalated the confrontation with the Eurozone authorities over Italian government spending — with the risk of a renewed single currency crisis.
The EU’s nightmare scenario was averted when, in September, Five Star formed a new coalition with the centre-left Democrats. It’s an unholy alliance of parties who hate one other, but it meant no elections and the League excluded from Government. Salvini, it seemed, had been outmanoeuvred. The League dipped in the polls, perhaps a sign that the populist tide had turned. Cue sighs of relief in Brussels and Frankfurt.
The Umbrian regional elections have shattered those hopes. The Government parties ran on a united list, but were thrashed by the rightwing list of which the League is the largest part. The indispensable Europe Elects has the preliminary results:
Italy (Umbria regional election), preliminary final results:
LEGA-ID: 37% (+25)
PD-S&D: 22% (-14)
FdI-ECR: 10% (+4)
M5S-NI: 7% (-8)
TP-ID: 3% (new)
NPSI-EPP: 2% (new)
LeU-S&D|LEFT: 2% ((-1)
— Europe Elects (@EuropeElects) October 28, 2019
Compared to the last regional elections, the Democratic Party lost about a third of its support and Five Star around half. Meanwhile, the League more than doubled its share. Other right wing parties, allied to the League, also made gains.
What makes this result all the more significant is that Umbria is a traditional stronghold of the Left — part of the Italy’s so-called ‘red belt’ (which also includes Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna). If the League, once confined to conservative northern Italy, wins over the working class voters of central Italy, then Salvini as Prime Minister becomes a question of when, not if.
In the meantime, Five Star finds itself in an exquisitely painful position — a Eurosceptic, anti-establishment party propping-up the EU establishment in the most sensitive part of the Eurozone.