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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 45, New Delhi, October 24, 2020

Italy shows how easily Europe’s leftwing strongholds can fall to the right | Rosa Gilbert

Saturday 24 October 2020

by Rosa Gilbert *

Matteo Salvini has failed to capture Tuscany. But as the extreme right becomes more mainstream, the left must make a better offer

“Europe is watching us”, declared La Nazione newspaper in Tuscany, the only Italian leftwing stronghold that the centre-left managed to retain in the 2019 European elections. This weekend, it was on the verge of having its first ever rightwing governor. Ultimately, Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant League party failed to capture Tuscany, but it would be a mistake for the continent to become complacent. That the right came so close in a “red region” betrays deep underlying issues in Italian politics and society, years in the making, which have parallels across the world.

Italians went to the polls on Sunday and Monday to vote on a constitutional referendum to reduce the number of parliamentary seats by a third – an “anti-politics” populist proposal from the Five Star Movement and its centre-left coalition partners, the Democratic party. (It was approved by 70%.) In seven of Italy’s 20 regions, elections were also held to elect five-year administrations. The elections had been delayed since May due to the pandemic, and voting was held over two days to avoid crowds at polling stations and allow time for booths to be disinfected between people.

With decentralisation codified in its constitution, Italy’s individual regions hold a significant degree of power over public expenditure, education and healthcare. The regions’ differing responses to the pandemic played a significant role in these elections, with the incumbents in Veneto (centre-right) and Campania (centre-left) being re-elected by huge margins – effectively as vindications of their Covid-19 strategies. But the electoral race for governor in Tuscany is also a national story – one of the slow shrinking of the Italian left as it manages to just about hold Salvini and the League at bay, in large part due to their own miscalculations.

In March, as the world watched Italy’s struggle to contain the first European wave of Covid-19, Salvini’s personal ratings plummeted as he prevaricated; public trust grew in the government’s comparatively sober and consistent actions. (Salvini withdrew the League from the ruling coalition last year.) The League’s pro-privatisation management of the health system in Lombardy was blamed by many for the intensity of a crisis that was beamed on to television screens around the world. This is why it is concerning that just six months later the League, in coalition with the extreme right Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, would nonetheless be in contention in Tuscany, a region so proud of its role in the antifascist resistance that its Pegasus emblem is borrowed from the partisan flag.

Leftwing heartlands have been reorienting towards the right for years, in some cases due to the left’s failure to protect workers against the hollowing out of jobs and industry. After consolidating even larger majorities in its own heartlands such as Veneto, the right has overturned a large centre-left majority to win Marche for Brothers of Italy. It currently has 14 out of 20 regions; in 2015, that number was three. While the centre-right coalition was able to bringthe rightwing parties together, the left failed to do the same, with radical left and centrist contenders standing against the centre-left in Tuscany and Puglia. The radical left momentum against the Democratic party (PD) is at its lowest ebb, and with notable exceptions, it has been unable or unwilling to rejuvenate itself or make a meaningful crossover into parliamentary politics.

The close contest between right and left in Tuscany should ring alarm bells. Rather than campaigning on Salvini’s traditional lines of immigration and low taxes, the League in Tuscany ran on a platform of reversing healthcare cuts, investment in infrastructure and social housing. Though the outgoing governor, Enrico Rossi, responded to the pandemic with the free provision of face masks, blanket testing and measures of protection for care homes, healthcare cuts across the country have left it with fewer hospital beds than 10 years ago. EU-mandated austerity has been particularly harsh in Italy, and along with high debt-interest repayments, has resulted in huge underfunding of infrastructure, working against the incumbent left administrations, which even admit that the cuts they implemented were wrong. As the Labour party in the UK discovered last year, austerity is often blamed not on those who made the decision but those local authorities that carry it out. Italians earning less than they did a decade ago, faced with crumbling infrastructure, provide fertile ground for the right.

For now, the Italian left will breathe a sigh of relief. But with the extreme right becoming increasingly mainstream and the underlying causes of its success going unaddressed, Salvini’s dropped baton will easily be picked up by someone else – such as the leader of the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, who is widely considered the new face of Italy’s far right. As in the UK and US, if the left aspires to do more than firefighting it must realise that an offer of more of the same is not going to hold off the right in a context where people are desperate for change.
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(• Rosa Gilbert is a writer and researcher living and working in Florence, Italy)

(Courtesy: The Guardian, 22 Sep 2020)

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