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September 16, 2020

Europe

ITALY: A 3-3 draw or a thumping victory for the center-right?

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 5 mins)
  • The wobbly ruling coalition led by the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Democratic Party (PD) faces an important political test this weekend as seven of Italy’s 20 regions will go to the polls.
  • As the center-right bloc seems to have three regions (Veneto, Liguria and Marche) in the bag and the center-left has one (Campania), the focus will be on the tight races in Tuscany and Puglia. A few votes could yield an impressive 5-1 victory for the Lega and its allies.
  • Such an outcome would bolster the center-right’s call for early elections but the ruling coalition’s spirit of self-preservation is likely to prevail.

On 20-21 September, Italians will head to the polls to vote for the presidency of seven regions, the mayoralty of over 1,100 municipalities, and a constitutional referendum over the reduction of the number of MPs. The ballot is the first electoral test for the government following the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, which disrupted plans to hold some of these elections earlier this year. While the ruling coalition is expected to survive a bad showing in the regional elections, a loss in Tuscany could intensify the soul-searching within the PD and add pressure on its leader, Nicola Zingaretti. The fear of snap elections and the patronage opportunities offered by the EU recovery fund (Italy could receive up to EUR 209bn) constitute powerful incentives for both the PD and the M5S to stick together despite the mutual misgivings and low popularity.

The constitutional referendum: yet another half-cooked reform

The constitutional referendum is the only vote involving the whole country. The proposal to reduce the number of MPs in the Chamber of Deputies from 630 to 400 and Senators from 315 to 200 is widely expected to pass, though with a low turnout and with limited enthusiasm. The constitutional reform, championed by the M5S, has received lukewarm endorsement by other parties (the PD has waffled internally as usual over the matter) but has few meaningful opponents. Contrary to the M5S’ claims, this reform is neither going to lead to a more efficient decision-making process in parliament nor will it generate large savings (at best, less than EUR 300 million per five-year legislature). In the short-term, however, the popular approval of the constitutional changes will likely provide a boost to the stability of the new governing coalition. Since many lawmakers will lose their seats (and those in the current legislature are not eligible for pensions if an election is called before September 2022), it is not in their personal interest to support snap polls.

Regional elections: it is mainly about Tuscany (and Puglia)

In contrast, most attention has focused on the regional races in Campania, Liguria, Marche, Puglia, Toscana, Valle d’Aosta and Veneto. These votes have strong national political significance due to the importance of some of the regions, the extensive powers that regions enjoy in key policy areas (healthcare included) and the national profile that several of the regional presidents acquired during the pandemic. In short, the regional elections will test the strength of the shaky ruling coalition in Rome and provide an indication of the national standing of each party.

Recall that the Lega-led center-right alliance has snatched the presidency from the PD in eight out of nine regional races that have taken place since the 2018 general election. The center-right bloc is well positioned to reconfirm this trend on 20-21 September as it will easily retain control of Liguria and Veneto and likely prevail in one or more of the other four regions that are currently run by the PD (Valle d’Aosta is a standalone case given its small size and the supremacy of regional parties). The vote will also shed light on the balance of power within the center-right, given the Lega’s apparent decline in popularity and the ascent of Georgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia.

Conversely, the PD is the party that has the most to lose in this new voting round. As indicated by the polls, the center-left party can be reasonably confident of holding onto the presidency of only one (Campania) of the four regions it controls. The center-right seems set to snatch away control of the central region of Marche, while the race for Puglia (where the candidate endorsed by the PD cannot count on the support of Renzi’s Italia Viva and some small centrist parties) remains wide open. The presidency of Tuscany, however, would be the center-right’s most highly prized target – a region dominated by the center-left over the past 50 years and the home of former PM Matteo Renzi. Polls suggest PD candidate Eugenio Giani and Lega’s Susanna Ceccardi are neck and neck in Tuscany. Giani has failed to make an impression during the election campaign and as a new candidate cannot rely on the power of incumbency. The PD is now scrambling to send senior party officials to support him during the last few days of the campaign.

The M5S, in turn, will be a spectator in all races. Just like in previous regional elections, the M5S will be squeezed out by the center-left and the center-right blocs and likely see its support plummet into single-digit territory in several regions. Badly divided internally and lacking any leadership, the M5S will try to save face by focusing on the outcome of the referendum.

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