Italy regional elections deliver warning to Renzi

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A resurgence of the populist Northern League and a sharp fall in turnout in Italy’s regional elections pointed to a growing dissatisfaction among Italian voters with prime minister Matteo Renzi’s plans for sweeping reform.
As widely expected candidates from Mr Renzi’s centre-left Democratic party comfortably won the two contests – in Emilia-Romagna in the north, and Calabria in the south – but the results raised questions about the level of support for the government’s efforts to transform Italian politics.

“This vote has tarnished [Mr Renzi’s] prestige, and the earlier he realises it the better it is because Italy cannot afford a weak leader,” says Gianfranco Pasquino, a political-science professor at the School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna. “He needs to do reforms by convincing people, not just imposing them,” he added.
Since taking control of the Italian government last February as a result of an intraparty coup, Mr Renzi, the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, has benefited from very high approval ratings that translated into sweeping gains in May’s elections for the European parliament. But Sunday’s elections will vindicate recent polls showing Mr Renzi’s backing beginning to fade amid a persistently weak economy and big clashes between his government and trade unions opposed to a planned overhaul of Italian labour laws.

Turnout in Sunday’s poll was surprisingly low in both regions, but the drop was particularly striking in Emilia-Romagna, an affluent part of Italy with a population of 4m that has traditionally been a bastion of leftwing politics. Whereas about 70 per cent of voters in Emilia-Romagna cast ballots in the last European elections and in the previous regional election in 2010, just 38 per cent voted on Sunday, as apathy and indifference reigned.
Speaking on a trip to Vienna on Monday, Mr Renzi was upbeat about the elections and sought to minimise the importance of the collapse in turnout, saying it was a “secondary” factor. Some of the falling turnout may have been because the previous regional president from the centre-left in Emilia-Romagna stepped down this year because of a corruption scandal, which had little to do with Mr Renzi’s reform or style.
“We’ve had 5 regional elections over the past eight months and my party has won 5-0,” Mr Renzi said. “Any normal person would be happy with that,” he added.

But Mr Renzi was also grappling with the resurgence of Northern League, which has morphed from a party focused on secession from Rome to one that has put anti-euro and anti-immigrant positions at the heart of its platform. Although the Northern League’s candidate lost to the Democratic party’s choice for the presidency of Emilia-Romagna, the group’s support jumped from just 5 per cent in the European elections in May to just under 20 per cent on Sunday.
“Renzi’s pseudo reforms are hurting the country,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, at a press conference on Monday.

Prof Pasquino of SAIS says Northern League is not peeling off votes from Mr Renzi as much as removing support from Forza Italia, the centre-right party led by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi that has never recovered from its leader’s departure from office under a wave of scandals at the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011. “This is a redistribution of votes within the centre-right, “ Prof Pasquino added.

There is also bound to be some soul-searching within the Five Star Movement, the populist party led by comedian Beppe Grillo, which gained votes compared with 2010 but also experienced a decline compared with the European elections, not just in Emilia-Romagna but also in Calabria.
“With this level of abstentions we can calmly say that democracy lost. Citizens don’t have any confidence in their parties,” Mr Grillo said on his blog on Monday.

James Politi
Financiale Times
24 November 2014