By Tom Gill
Thursday 19 May 2011
Italy’s premier Silvio Berlusconi called them a national referendum on his rule.
If that’s the case, the local elections held in towns and cities across the country on May 15 and 16 were a massive No vote.
The prime minister’s People of Liberty party and his main coalition partner the xenophobic Northern League have lost support across their voter heartland in northern Italy.
Most significantly the billionaire media magnate took a real drubbing in Milan, the financial capital where he built his business empire and political power.
It is also where he is being tried on a string of charges, including paying an underage prostitute.
His trial on that charge and another, of abusing his official position, began last month.
The right has dominated Milan since Berlusconi’s entry into politics nearly 20 years ago.
So it was with dismay that the governing coalition saw it garner just 41 per cent of the vote, trailing the centre-left opposition by an unprecedented seven points.
It was the first time in 20 years that the centre-right had failed to get more than 50 per cent of the vote.
As neither candidate won more than half of the support, the vote will now go to a run-off at the end of the month.
If Milan was significant, another key test for Berlusconi was Naples, once again under a mountain of rubbish that he has repeatedly promised to eradicate.
This saw a close contest and meant his People of Liberty party failed to win the city outright as expected and will also go to a run-off.
This is expected to pose more difficulties for Berlusconi, whose supporters have historically shown a low turnout for second-round polls.
The centre-right coalition, which is half-way through its term, also lost in at least another 12 cities in northern Italy.
In total 13 million – a quarter of the voting population – were eligible to make their choice for mayors and councillors in 1,310 towns and 11 provinces. With a historically high turnout they did it with zeal.
Berlusconi, one of Europe’s richest men and with an iron grip over the country’s media, is not just being punished for the stench of sleaze, corruption and authoritarianism surrounding his rule.
Italians are angry that he has failed to revive Italy’s chronically low growth.
The economy expanded just 0.1 per cent in the first three months of the year, well below rates in Germany, France and even crisis-hit Greece.
Unemployment is running 8.3 per cent. Among 15 to 24-year-olds it stands at 29 per cent.
Voters were not just rejecting Berlusconi. Umberto Bossi’s Northern League failed to win mayoral seats in the first round ballot across its northern base including in Varese, a party stronghold.
It also failed in its bid to damage the left in “Red” Bologna, where it had been making big gains.
The new political movement of former Berlusconi ally Gianfranco Fini, now in opposition, did poorly too, dealing a blow to hopes of creating a “moderate” right-wing alternative to Berlusconi that would pursue the interests of capitalism as a whole rather than one, albeit significant, Italian capitalist.
Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party (PD), described the result as a sign of a “change of mood.”
“A wind of change is blowing from the north,” he said. But he has worries too.
In Naples, a candidate for the small but vociferous – and intensely anti-Berlusconi – Italy of Values party ran against the choice of PD and won more votes.
And it was left-wing Giuliano Pisapia who delivered the blow to Berlusconi in Milan after defeating the PD candidate in centre-left primaries.
Then there’s the Five Star movement of anti-Berlusconi blogger Beppe Grillo which remains a persistent threat in the north, most notably in Bologna where it took 9.5 per cent.
Dismissed by some critics as an anti-political populist movement for tarring all the other political movements with the same brush, Grillo’s group is underpinned by many disillusioned progressives.
Their 21,000 votes in Milan and 6,000 votes in Naples will count and they will likely plump for whatever candidate can keep the right out of power.
National parties to the left of the PD maintained their share of the vote compared to the previous local elections.
The Federation of the Left (FdS), comprising Italy’s two communist parties, secured around 4 per cent of the vote overall despite an almost total media blackout.
And the two-year-old Left Ecology Freedom Party, led by the charismatic left-wing Nichi Vendola, won the mayoral race in the Sardinian capital Cagliari and achieved 10 per cent in Bologna.
FdS argues that where the two forces did co-operate, as in a number of small towns, the results were impressive. But they are often rivals.
Vendola, heartened by the results, has other priorities.
Just like Milan’s frontrunner Pisapia, a former Communist Refoundation member and MP, he outmanoeuvred the PD leadership in primaries to become the centre-left’s preferred candidate for the governorship of southern region of Puglia – and went on to be elected twice.
This week Vendola, one of Italy’s most popular politicians, renewed his call to the PD leadership to start a primaries process to select a national centre-left candidate for the general elections, scheduled for 2013.
PD, which hails from the Italian Community Party that was dissolved in 1989-1991 – remains the main game in town on the left.
But it has for too long sought top-down compromises and alliances with forces to its political right. In the process it has stifled debate, lost touch and elections – or failed to hold onto power when it won.
The lesson from this week is that if a voice is given to those within PD and elsewhere on the left who are seeking radical change then this will deliver genuinely progressive and popular candidates – and they in turn can deliver success in the polls.
Whether PD is capable of recognising this is another question.
In the meantime the 74-year-old Berlusconi is still in power.
He has hinted that he may stand down at elections in 2013.
The outcome of the Milan poll later this month in his voter heartland may be crucial to his decision.
And he has real problems now with his ally Bossi, who blames him for the electoral debacle.
But Berlusconi is a survivor – he has fought himself out of a corner a number of times before and shouldn’t be counted out.