Italy’s Left Recovers in Local Elections, Defeats Populists

Leftwingers, disappointed in the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, vote for the ruling party.

Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo greets his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta, in Brussels, May 1
Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo greets his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta, in Brussels, May 1 (Flickr/Elio Di Rupo)

Battered by months of coalition talks that threatened to split the party between far-left hardliners and centrists, Italian prime minister Enrico Letta’s Partito Democratico emerged with majorities in five of the nation’s sixteen largest cities from elections that were held on Sunday and Monday. It is also in the lead for runoffs that are due in two weeks’ time.

Letta formed a coalition government with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservatives last month after an inconclusive national election in February left the two in control of the lower and upper chambers of parliament, respectively. He succeeded Pier Luigi Bersani as party leader who resigned in disgrace earlier in April after he had failed to get a leftist elected president by the divided legislature.

Berlusconi, a media tycoon who is appealing a prison conviction for abuse of office during his own premiership, was quick to capitalize on the left’s missteps and surged in the polls. His party came in second in the most recent local elections.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which won a quarter of the votes in February, failed to win in any of the cities and towns that voted and got just under 13 percent support in the capital Rome, less than half of the support it won there three months ago.

Leftwingers who previously voted for Grillo were probably dismayed by his refusal to back a government led by the Partito Democratico. His lawmakers could have helped it secure a majority in the Senate but Grillo rejected coalition politics altogether.

On his blog, the former comic and activist blamed media criticism of his movement for its poor showing in the city polls and insisted, “there is not any relationship between the national political consultations and local elections.”

La Stampa newspaper’s Elisabetta Gualmini is unconvinced. She writes that the lack of support for Grillo’s members was more due to voters’ apathy. “They gave them a chance but they turned out to be not so different from the others.” Five Star Movement parliamentarians have obsessed over minor issues, she points out, and failed to “rise above the anger” and agree on a comprehensive opposition platform.

La Repubblica‘s Concetto Vecchio agrees, opining that the movement’s representatives “have neither the resources nor the political culture to really change the country” and voters were unwilling to give them the time to gain experience “simply because the crisis is so urgent and requires immediate answers.”

Italy’s economy contracted 2.4 percent through last year when unemployment rose to over 11 percent. Largely due to tax increases and pension reforms, the government’s deficit fell to 3 percent of gross domestic product, the European treaty limit, but Italy’s public debt, equivalent to nearly 130 percent of annual economic output, is still among the highest in the developed world.

In Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper, Stefano Folli suggests that there may be a more structural problem for the populists. “It is very easy to collect votes by agitating against the system and berating inefficiency and corruption but it soon becomes an uphill battle if you can’t show tangible results.”

Even he knows that Letta’s social democrats were only “saved because the others are worse” though. They severed their alliance with the Green and socialist party Sinistra Ecologia Libertà by forming a government with the conservatives while the ideological struggle between former communist and left-wing members who sympathize with the Five Star Movement and moderate, if not socially liberal, leaders like Letta and Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, who is considered a future prime ministerial candidate, remains unresolved.

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