Italy’s Renzi Faces Test for Reforms in Local Elections

Another election victory could vindicate the prime minister’s efforts to shake up Italy’s economy and political system.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi answers questions from reporters in Rome, April 10, 2015
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi answers questions from reporters in Rome, April 10, 2015 (Palazzo Chigi)

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi faces an electoral test for his ambitious reform program that has alienated the most leftist members of the ruling Partito Democratico.

Seven of Italy’s regions and more than a thousand municipalities hold elections this weekend. Renzi’s party now controls five of the regions where elections are held.

The Democrats are expected to benefit from division on the right where former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been eclipsed by Lega Nord leader Matteo Salvini. His party is confident of keeping the northeastern region of Veneto where Venetian nationalism is strong. In an online poll last year, nearly two out of four million voters in the region said they wanted to break away from Italy.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement could appeal to leftwingers disillusioned by Renzi’s market reforms and his attempts to consolidate power for the ruling party. It hopes to imitate the success of Spain’s anti-austerity Podemos party in local elections last week.

The Democrats’ chances of victory in the battleground states of Campania and Liguria are dented by alternative left-wing candidates who benefit from corruption scandals in the ruling party. The Democratic leader in Campania, which includes the crime-ridden city of Naples, is appealing a conviction for abuse of power over the award of a local incinerator plant contract.

Renzi triumphed in European Parliament elections last year, winning 41 percent support against 21 percent for the Five Star Movement and 17 percent for Berlusconi’s conservatives. The election result was seen as a vindication of his more social democratic policy which has included pro-business measures and labor reforms that aim to close the divide between full-time workers who are almost impossible to fire and mostly younger workers on insecure contracts.

The reforms have been slow but appear to be paying off. The national statistics agency reported that the economy — the third largest in the eurozone — expanded .3 percent in the first quarter of this year. The European Commission projects .6 percent growth for Italy this year and 1.4 percent next year.

After the 2008 crash and subsequent European sovereign debt crisis, Italy’s gross domestic product fell to the level where it was in 2000. It has since barely recovered.

Renzi, who came to power by leading a coup against his predecessor in early 2014, has had to stare down opposition from within the Democratic Party to liberalizations. More than three dozen of his own lawmakers abstained from a confidence vote last month when the premier pushed through an overhaul of the Italian voting system that should make it easier for him to win reelection.

Under the new rules, the party that wins at least 40 percent support in national elections is guaranteed a majority of the seats in the lower chamber of parliament. If no party crosses the threshold, a runoff would be held between the two most popular parties.