Italian Regional Elections Disappointment for Renzi

Italian voters fail to give Prime Minister Matteo Renzi a boost for his reform efforts in regional elections.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi arrives in Brussels to attend a meeting of the European Council, March 6, 2014
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi arrives in Brussels to attend a meeting of the European Council, March 6, 2014 (The Council of the European Union)

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi did not get the boost he had hoped for in local elections this weekend when his Partito Democratico underperformed.

Democrats still won five out of seven regions that held elections. But the party’s support fell from last year’s European Parliament elections and it lost the northwestern region of Liguria to former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Low turnout, at just 54 percent, also reflected widespread disillusionment. Renzi’s reform efforts are still popular but his party was hampered in the regions by a string of corruption scandals.

The loss of Liguria was at least partly due to another left-wing candidate splitting the Democratic vote.

Renzi triumphed in the European elections last year, winning 41 percent support against 21 percent for the anti-establishment 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 come at the expense of left-wing unity. The trade unions and parties on the far left resist the liberalizations while some of Renzi’s own members opposed the electoral reforms he pushed through that should make the country more governable in the future.

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, reducing the need for electoral pacts and coalitions that often involve tradeoffs.

After Sunday’s elections, Renzi promised to “renew” his party — an ominous signal to rebels who say he has led them too far to the right.

Outside Liguria, Forza Italia failed to capitalize on the left’s collapse. It got 31 percent support nationwide but its former ally, the separatist Lega Nord, is on the ascendancy. It stayed in power in Veneto, the region around Venice, and drew more votes in the south where concerns about African refugees arriving in Italy are rising.

As a Euroskeptic party, Lega Nord also benefited from growing resentment toward austerity and high unemployment which are associated with the European Union. On the left, the Euroskeptic Five Star Movement did well for the same reason. It got 16 percent support across the country.

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