Normally in Italy, politicians and analysts examine local election results with the care that ancient soothsayers took in entrails and the flight of birds in order to foresee the national future. This time there is more detachment; these local elections are just that… for the most part, local.
Over the last fortnight, about 7 million Italians were called to vote for their city councils. On Sunday and Monday there were the run-off elections for mayor in most cities – those places where no candidate won 50% in the first round. The most significant contest was here in Rome but there were another 15 provincial capitals at stake. The centre-left won in all of them and is doing well in the first round of local elections in Sicily where they have already won Catania without needing a second ballot.
The other significant result is that the turnout has gone down even further; 11% less than the first round with 48.5%, a collapse with respect to 2008’s 77.2%. Rome was below the national average at 45.5%.
These are the two data that we will have to work out over the next few days.
It was a whitewash in favour of the Democratic Party (PD), not just still licking its wounds after the February defeat but still bleeding from self-inflicted injuries after the April presidential disaster. The victory should be an encouragement and so it was but no one is being triumphalistic about it. It is further proof that the PD has a much stronger grassroots organisation than any of the others and a much more stubborn electorate that goes out to vote even if they have to hold their noses. Very clearly the PD lost fewer votes to abstention than the others.
But the deep divisions in the party remain and will not be healed until the autumn congress which will either signal the definitive end or relaunch the party. It is significant that the the new mayor of Rome, a surgeon with Swiss, Sicilian, Genoese and US antecedents, Ignazio Marino, is an anti-aparatchik who distanced himself from the party during the campaign. His campaign slogan was "Non è politica, è Roma" (It's not politics, it's Rome". Like the new president of the Friuli region, Debora Serracchiani, elected in April, he was elected “in spite of” the party (and she said as much).
The PD has certainly not made a big enough comeback to want early elections. This is music for prime minister Letta. The centre-right PdL’s defeat is also balm for Letta because with their defeat, they too will hesitate before bringing the government down even though in an EMG poll published yesterday, they are still the first party at 28.1% (compared to the PD’s 27.8%).
Berlusconi’s family paper Il Giornale headlined today’s edition “No Berlusconi, no party” meaning that without Berlusconi, the PdL collapses. It was not quite true as Berlusconi did campaign for Gianni Alemanno the centre-right candidate in Rome but of course he himself was not a candidate and until the crucial court verdicts at the end of the month, he is keeping a fairly low profile. But it is true that without Berlusconi, the centre-right disintegrates more than the centre-left. A one-man party can work at the national level but when local contact is needed to deal with potholes, schools and streetlights, the Big Man is not enough. Beppe Grillo and the Five Star Movement also did very badly though despite visible divisions and bad press, they are still polling at 19.7% (down from 22.1% last week), certainly not a spent force.
The other elements of the centre-right did very badly. The heirs of the fascists and the “social right”, the Italian Social Movement and its successors have all but disappeared with their strongest leader, Alemanno taking a hammering in Rome.
In the north, the Northern League (LN) also paid the cost of internal divisions and loss of contact with their electorate. They are far from dead and could make a comeback if they can overcome the leadership struggle and get back to what they used to do well – serve and articulate local interests. It is significant, though that Treviso’s violently anti-immigrant mayor, Giancarlo Gentilini, was thrown out and among the new councillors is Said Chaibi (22), born in Italy of Moroccan parents. Italy is changing.
The low turnout is yet another symptom of how alienated Italian voters are and there is no consolation that “the Americans and the British have low turnouts and they’re none the less democratic for it”. For a start, they use different electoral systems and then, when the British turnout to the European Parliamentary elections goes under 30%, it is considered a vote of no confidence in the institution. This is the same old story – the parties will have to work very hard to regain some legitimacy and confidence. Locally and nationally.