What does the result of the regional elections in Emilia Romagna mean for Italian politics?

by Francesca Catassi
What does the result of the regional elections in Emilia Romagna mean for Italian politics?

The regional elections which took place on 26 January confirmed Stefano Bonaccini (Democratic Party) as President of the Regional Council of Emilia-Romagna, with 51.4% of the votes, against 43.6% for Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate. In the last few months, the region has been the object of high political and media attention. The result was far from obvious, because the massive campaign of Salvini (Lega) has put the presence of the PD at risk in a region historically aligned politically to the left.

Emilia-Romagna as a symbol of Salvini's vulnerability or just an exception on the Italian political scene?

Salvini’s gamble in a historically left-wing region

What was supposed to be a regular regional election in Emilia-Romagna on Sunday 26 January turned out to be about much more: the potential jeopardisation of the Italian government – currently consisting of the Democratic Party (centre-left) and the Five Star Movement (populist, anti-establishment) – and the rise to power of Matteo Salvini and his far-right League party.

In the run-up to the elections, Salvini had clearly made this election about big national politics – transforming it into a referendum on the credibility of the current Italian government –– and his own claim to power. All since he pulled the plug on his own coalition government with the Five Star Movement, Salvini has sought for opportunities to remain in the spotlight – multiplying political meetings, stunts and declarations critical of the government. Currently scoring high in the polls, the League has long requested for new general elections to take place.

Salvini already gambled in September 2019 when by leaving the government and withdrawing his support for the League-Five Star coalition, he hoped to force through a snap election. However, instead, the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement preferred to form a coalition, still under the leadership of Giuseppe Conte, ultimately blocking (at least temporarily) Salvini’s rise to power. Salvini has since then criticised this alliance as a political plot devised against the “people’s will” that would prefer to see himself and the League in power, he claims.

Betting on winning the regional elections in Emilia-Romagna was another political gamble by Salvini. His bet was simple, if he could make it there, he could make it anywhere. Winning in Emilia-Romagna – a region currently controlled by the Democratic Party and governed by the left since 1945 – would send a clear message: the current Italian government would have lost all credibility to govern and new nation-wide elections would have to be called.

Losing Emilia-Romagna would be catastrophic for the Democratic Party, both symbolically and politically. This is a region where, since the Second World War and up until the early 1990s, the Italian Communist Party would poll above 40-50%. Since 1995, the centre-left, in different forms, has always governed with a +50% majority. Moreover, the region historically has overall been considered as one of the most well managed and governed regions in Italy. It is one of the wealthiest and most developed regions in Italy, enjoying one of Italy’s lowest unemployment rate, and has a thriving manufacturing and agricultural sector – being home to some of Italy’s most famous companies such as Barilla, Ferrari, Ducati, Lamborghini and Maserati.

Seeking this window of opportunity, Salvini and the League raised the stakes in Emilia-Romagna. In the run-up to the elections, Salvini had campaigned extensively across the region, claiming to have visited 300 city squares together with Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate for the presidency of the region. Salvini’s picture and name was clearly visible on most of the League’s political ads and flyers, almost giving the impression that he himself was running. In comparison, Stefano Bonaccini from the Democratic Party who was seeking re-election as President of the region, seemed to limit the visibility and references to his party in political ads – with some flyers not even depicting the Democratic Party’s logo. Bonaccini’s campaign focused almost exclusively on regional and local issues, such as healthcare, carefully avoiding national politics and questions surrounding the viability of the current Italian government.

Although regional elections were taking place simultaneously in Calabria, Salvini’s campaigning in the south was not nearly as extensive as in Emilia Romagna. Calabria may have been considered an easier win, with most polls indicating at a clear victory for the right-wing coalition led Jole Santelli. In the end, although the right-wing coalition won with 55.3% of the votes, the Democratic Party remains the largest party in Calabria.

A few outcomes from the Emilian vote

Salvini’s strategy of raising high stakes may have backfired. The high media attention that was put on the regional elections in Emilia-Romagna led to a massive increase in the amount of voters to 67.7%, compared to 37.8% in 2014. A majority of these last minute voters voted in favour of the Democratic Party. In the end, the coalition of lists of Bonaccini gained 51.4% of the votes, against 43.6% for Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate. A good victory for Bonaccini with most polls putting his list around 44-47%, and Borgonzoni at around 45%.

Moreover, and maybe more importantly, Salvini’s strong campaigning in Emilia-Romagna led to the establishment of a new political movement, the so-called ‘Sardines movement’. The Sardines is a grassroots movement that was formed in opposition to Salvini, aiming at combating anti-immigration policies, hate-speech and Euroscepticism. The name derives from the several rallies and public meetings organised on several city squares across Italy, where the many participants are literally packed together like sardines. Although the future of this movement is still uncertain, it certain helped to muster up support for the centre-left and parties running against the League.   

A main loser of last week’s vote is the Five Star Movement. Gaining more than 13% of the votes in 2014, it almost faded away with less than 4.5% this time around. Also in Calabria, the Five Star Movement was not able to get more than 6.3% of the votes. This is in strong opposition to the dominant position the movement currently enjoys as the largest party in the Italian Parliament following the 2018 general elections. Much seems to indicate that the Five Star Movement will not be able to sustain the strong role it has played in Italian politics in the future. In addition, the movement is now also in search of a new leader, as Luigi Di Maio resigned in the run-up to the regional elections.

Finally, although Salvini’s rise to power may have been further postponed for now, national polls still seem to indicate that a right-wing coalition led by him would easily get a nation-wide majority to govern. Although the Democratic Party managed to keep the upper hand in Emilia-Romagna, it is still uncertain to what extent a similar achievement would be achievable in Italy overall. A useful lesson from this regional election is that even in Emilia Romagna, the League was able to get a majority of the votes in smaller communes and communities of less than 5000 inhabitants. The Democratic Party on the other hand is only able to get a majority of votes in larger cities and communes with more than 30.000 inhabitants. More than a divide between the left and the right, there seems to be a clear polarisation between cities and rural areas. Citizens living in rural areas in Italy may have long considered themselves as losers of globalisation and of economic growth that may have predominantly favoured more developed and larger cities. There is no doubt that if the Democratic Party or other parties are not able to talk to these citizens, the League will continue to be the only one doing so.

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