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Italy’s regional elections: the end of the road for the Five-Star Movement?
Sunday’s elections in two Italian regions – widely seen as an opportunity for Matteo Salvini’s League to deal a fatal blow to the government – failed to return outcomes that fit easily in the narrative of boundless right-wing dominance that had developed prior to the vote.
In Emilia-Romagna, a traditional left-wing bastion, incumbent Stefano Bonaccini won comfortably re-election polling 51%, over 7 points ahead of his opponent, the League’s Lucia Borgonzoni. However, in the Southern region of Calabria, the Right’s coalition triumphed with 55% of the vote.
While clearly confirming the positive moment of the Right, the results also imply that Salvini overplayed his hand in talking up chances of a breakthrough in Emilia-Romagna and ‘nationalising’ the race by campaigning tirelessly in the region.
Even in Calabria, the League polled only third among party lists – virtually on par with its allies, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the radical-right Brothers of Italy. The League’s modest result suggests that its appeal in the South is still held back by the party’s roots in Northern regionalism, and Salvini’s allies will be indispensable to him in places like Calabria to reap the benefits of a generalised shift the right in the mood of the country.
The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has also few reasons to celebrate: holding on to Emilia-Romagna would have been taken for granted a few years ago, and Bonaccini’s success can be at least in part attributed to his high personal approval numbers. The party is still on the back foot, stuck in an uneasy coalition government, weakened by splinter parties, and still unable to link up with the anti-Salvini mobilisation of the grassroots ‘Sardines’ movement.
Perhaps the only unequivocal signal of the regional elections is the collapse of the Five-Star Movement (M5S). Their candidates obtained 3% in Emilia Romagna, where ten years ago M5S elected its first candidate, and 7% in Calabria, where the party had won 43% in its clean sweep of the South in the 2018 general elections. M5S has often underperformed in subnational contests, but these are by any standards abysmal figures for what is still the largest party in Parliament and senior coalition partner in government.
What accounts for this downfall?
Since entering government – first with the League and then, from last summer, with PD – the very strengths that propelled M5S’s success over the past decade have turned into its weaknesses.
Ideologically, M5S’s neither-left-nor-right ‘valence populism’ – focussing on non-positional issues such as integrity in politics, corruption and direct democracy – leaves it now in the uneasy position of having no stance on the new dominant issue dimension of Italian politics: immigration.
Prior to 2018, M5S’s ‘light’ ideological package was a formidable asset: it managed to impose a post-ideological frame on the political conversation, championing a narrative of moral and democratic renewal that could attract disgruntled voters of the left and the right.
Its success in past elections was built primarily on this reconfiguration of the political space around a new axis of ‘new’ versus ‘old’ politics, as opposed to other parts of Southern Europe, where the anti-austerity frame dominated, and Northwestern Europe, where a distinct value divide around migration and national identity emerged.
But in 2020 Italy, M5S’s populism is yesterday’s fashion. As the League’s rebirth as a nationalist party following the refugee crisis and Salvini’s skilful issue entrepreneurship shifted the conversation to migration, M5S’s obsession with MPs’ expense claims and downsizing Parliament rings hollow to voters.
Salvini’s anti-elitist message touches similar emotional chords as M5S, but the ‘thin-centred’ ideology of his populism is filled with a core of xenophobia that has now largely polarised Italian politics for or against it. (Or, more precisely, for or against him, in a familiar pattern of personalisation that echoes the Berlusconi years.)
A party like M5S that can pass hardline anti-migrant laws with Salvini one day, and then enter into a coalition with the centre-left that wants to repeal them the next one is bound to be squeezed in a polarised environment. Even M5S’s redistributive policies have done little to revive the party’s electoral fortunes: in Calabria, there are over 170,000 recipients of the party’s flagship unemployment benefits policy, but fewer than 50,000 people voted for M5S last Sunday.
Alongside this ideological dimension, M5S’s other strength-turned-weakness is organisational: its fluid, non-professional, internet-based structure that blurs the distinction between members and party officials.
This was a deliberate choice, and from the beginning has been integral to M5S’s identity as an ‘anti-party’: its candidates would be ordinary people chosen via internet votes by members, implementing policy also decided online. Once elected, they would stick to a two-term limit, halve their pay and devolve a fixed share to the movement, which would survive on these contributions and turn down public funding.
It’s easy to see how important these features were in establishing the movement’s credibility as a vehicle of political renewal in a context of distrust of politicians and parties. But now they’ve turned against it.
For instance, one of the reasons why M5S’s slump seems to have no floor is because its party structures are underdeveloped. All parties can suffer setbacks, but having a network of local branches keeping alive the fire with a core of loyalists can function as a cushion in hard times: this is for instance the case of the League prior to Salvini’s takeover. But you can’t sustain it on the cheap.
Conversely, it is particularly in local contests like Sunday’s elections that the reach of M5S’s clicktivism reveals its limits, while parties like the League and PD can count on an established presence on the territory.
Similarly, the nice idea of having ordinary citizens implementing the will of the (online) people in lieu of professional politicians produced a hapless crop of representatives. M5S’s leadership committed one blunder after another in coalition, allowing the League to run the show as junior partner and, to make up for their dearth of political talent, entrusting non-partisan technocrats with key positions in government.
Party discipline has also plagued the party: now nearing the end of their second (and supposedly last) term, M5S MPs jumping ship in droves. Since the election in March 2018, M5S’s parliamentary group has lost 31 of them, and the majority of MPs have quietly refused to hand back half their salary to the party.
The leader who presided over M5S’s meltdown, Luigi Di Maio, is the epitome of the consequences of M5S’s organisational experiment: a law undergraduate selected as party candidate by a grand total of 189 people online, he became Deputy Speaker at 25, leader of the largest party in the country at 31, and Foreign Minister at 33. After squandering most of M5S’s political capital in less than two years he resigned as party leader – ever helpful – three days prior to the regional election.
As the party heads into an extraordinary party congress to regroup after his resignation, it’s probably too early to say that Sunday’s elections sounded the death knell for M5S’s political experiment.
But the emergency sirens are blaring pretty loud.
Leonardo Carella is a doctoral candidate in politics at Mansfield College, Oxford. He tweets at @leonardocarella. Image credit: CC by Weldon Kennedy/Flickr.