Italy’s Renzi Faces Test for Reforms in Local Elections

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

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi is welcomed by French president François Hollande in Paris, March 15, 2014
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi is welcomed by French president François Hollande in Paris, March 15, 2014 (Elysée)

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

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

Division on the right

The Democrats are expected to benefit from division on the right, where former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been eclipsed by the leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini.

His party can be sure 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 altogether.

Disillusionment on the left

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement could appeal to left-wing voters who are 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.

Vindication

Renzi triumphed in European 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 social democratic program, 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 reports that the economy grew .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.

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