Local elections are normally fairly tedious affairs, more about street lighting and trams. They become more interesting in Naples where refuse collection (or lack of it) is a major issue but wherever they’re held, they are an indication of what might happen in the next elections, but just an indication, a small blip on the barometer.
But Berlusconi’s Italy is not “normal” as we well know and with 13 million Italians voting on Sunday and Monday there is a lot more at stake than a few city councils. Apart from Milan and Naples, Turin and Bologna will also be electing a new mayor and council along with 1,300 other councils and 11 provinces. Where a candidate does not win an absolute majority, there will be a run-off ballot on 29 May.
As ever, since 1994, the first question is what is Berlusconi’s position; every election since then has in practice been a referendum on one man. The second is how well are the two main coalitions doing (and to a lesser extent, how well is the so-called Third Pole, the centre-right opposition led by Gianfranco Fini). And thirdly, what are the relative strengths of the parties that make up the left and right.
Over the last week, the centre-right has raised the temperature in order to activate their own electorate. Italy is so polarised that there are few floating voters left and one side wins by persuading its sympathisers to go out and vote.
Berlusconi has staked his reputation and position on the Milan election (where he is top of the list for the city council) supporting the outgoing mayor, Letizia Moratti. He has used his court appearances over the last couple of months as an opportunity both to harangue his supporters and schmooze with them, turning his prosecutions into Silvio’s battle with what he calls “the Communist prosecutors”. He has called them a “cancer” and has again attacked the leader of the prosecution team, Ilda Boccassini, a woman who has spent all her working life on mafia, terrorism and corruption cases with considerable success, this time calling her a “metastasis”. This is a month after one of the PdL candidates in Milan had put up posters across the city calling for “The Red Brigades out of the Courts” making the explicit equation of the Milan court with the 1970s terrorists.
As part of the campaign, Berlusconi and his followers have shown a blatant disregard for the truth. Moratti accused her opponent, Giuliano Pisapia of having been convicted of a car theft linked to a terrorist attack 33 years, and then having been amnystied. She did this moments before the end of a live debate on Wednesday, knowing that Pisapia would not have the opportunity to reply. But the broadcast was at 2 pm so that by the evening news and even more by Thursday’s papers, Pisapia was able to show the full extent of the lie. Yesterday, another Milanese PdL representative, Daniela Santanché brandished a newspaper photo on another live talk show saying that Pisapia’s supporters waved Hamas flags. Later it was pointed out that the flag was an Italian NGO.
Berlusconi himself has been saying that “the left” (he never says the “centre-left”) will introduce a wealth tax despite all the PD party literature and leaders explicitly denying the policy.
They are trying to play Don Basilio’s game “La calunnia è un venticello” (“slander is a little breeze” from the Barber of Seville)– a great aria and very convincing but they shouldn’t forget that it is Don Basilio and his louche associate Bartolo who are worsted in the end.
But Berlusconi has once again demonstrated his ability to play to two audiences when he promised Naples an amnesty for illegal building. This might come back to haunt his alliance with the League (Calderoli criticised the move) but not before Sunday. He also became more strident on the immigration issue and has tried to outflank the League on the right.
On the left, the more moderate PD will hope to show that it is the undisputed leader of the centre-left. In Naples, Di Pietro’s IdV is standing against the PD so if as is likely the centre-right does not win on the first round, the two elements of the left will have to come together. In Milan, if Pisapia does well (he was selected as candidate after a primary), then the PD will find it diffucult to refuse a primary for the general elections and there Vendola would give Bersani a good run for his money and quite possibly win.
And there is the “Third Pole”; this is the first elections with Fini, Casini and Rutelli together. If they do well, especially if their vote prevents Moratti winning at the first ballot, then they will look forward happily to the general elections. If they bomb, they will be able to say that after all, these were just local elections and they did not have time to build up a local base and in any case, their star, Fini, was not campaigning.
As ever, whatever the results, there will be solace for all. The figures can be coaxed into demonstrating a victory or at least, not a defeat for just about everyone.
If, as is likely, the League does well with respect to the PdL, we can expect Bossi to up his demands both for policy and positions. For policy, he will want an acceleration of the fiscal devolution to city and regional levels – not just in theory but with laws and policy being genuinely implemented so that he can go to the polls next year or in in 2013 with something concrete to show for his efforts. The other policy move will be anti-immigrant measures, probably more for show that substance as he and his voters actually need immigrant labour to run their factories and look after their families.
He will also be looking for more positions in government; Berlusconi will have to repeat his loaves and fishes act, blessing the undersecretaryships and cabinet posts in order to keep all his supporters happy. Last week he appoint nine new undersecretaries, paying debts for support in December’s vote of confidence and he immediately said that he needed more.
Even if the Moratti were not to win on the first round, or, heaven forbid, actually lose, Berlusconi is unlikely to resign as Massimo D’Alema did when the centre left lost badly in the 2000 regional elections. “I was elected by the Italian people” is the refrain we have often heard “and D’Alema was not”. The most we can expect is perhaps a reshuffle.
Monday afternoon will be interesting for all, not just where they have voted.