Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised to step up his efforts to ‘reform’ Italy and deal with critics in his party after euro-sceptic populist parties secured successes in local elections.
Candidates backed by the Italian PM’s Democratic Party (PD) won five out of seven regions where polls where held on Sunday, maintaining its overall position before the vote, but PD support fell sharply from last year’s European elections and it lost the northwestern region of Liguria.
“After yesterday’s vote, we will carry on with even more determination in the process of renewing the party and changing the country,” Renzi said on Monday.
The result has undermined the almost unprecedented hold that Renzi has had over Italian politics since becoming PM following to an internal party coup in February 2014.
The party, a fusion of ex-Christian Democrats and ex-communists, is still in control of 17 of Italy’s 20 regional governments, a ‘very positive’ result, according to Renzi. But while gaining Naples, they lost Liguria, partly due to a breakaway leftist candidate who split the leftwing vote.
Renzi’s plan to “renew the party” comes amid growing dissent in his party that he’s moved it too far to the right; a large minority oppose his efforts to roll back labour rights and marketise the education system.
The anti-immigrant Northern League, which wants to scrap the euro, successfully scaremongered over public concern over large numbers of refugees hitting southern Italian shores, taking the northeastern Veneto region and expanding outside its main heartlands.
Together with a strong showing for the Beppe Grillo’s ‘anti-establishment’ 5-Star Movement, also strongly eurosceptic, the result confirmed the appeal of populist parties in Italy after years of recession and Brussels-imposed neo-liberal austerity.
In just under a year 40-year-old Renzi has seen his support fall by almost half, from 41 percent in last year’s European elections, which were held a few months after he snatched power by ousting his predecessor and PD rival Enrico Letta.
Renzi was hoping for a convincing result to maintain his drive to roll back the clock on labour rights and public education, as well as his authoritarian constitutional reforms; these have been strongly opposed by unions, opposition in parliament and the left wing of the PD.
Unlike Greece and Spain, the social and economic crisis that has seen living standards plummet and unemployment soar has not led to the emergence of a powerful radical left, despite the country once having the largest communist party in the West. What opposition there is to Renzi is within his party.
Stefano Fassina, a leading Renzi critic in the PD blames Sunday’s result on the PM’s decision to align himself with with ‘international finance’ and hawkish business leaders like Sergio Marchionne, boss of Fiat, after initially winning wide consensus by maintaining ‘ambiguous’ positions on touchstone issues for both right and left.
A low turnout of just 54% was in part due to the disillusioned left voters. One of the key slogans of the protest movement against the education reforms was ‘I won’t vote PD’, notes Fassina, who supported the Ligurian alternative left candidate Luca Pastorino as an understandable response to Renzi’s rightwards lurch.
With the traditional left deserting the ballot box and the PD split, the biggest winner was Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nasty Northern League, which has bounced back from damaging corruption scandals after replacing founder Umberto Bossi .
A blunt speaker and accomplished self-publicist, the 42-year-old Salvini has become the leading figure of Italy’s right, stealing the limelight from long-time ally, the 78-year-old ex-Prime Minister and tax convict Silvio Berlusconi whose own Forza Italia party is in dire straits. Salvini is already looking to national elections due in 2018.