October 3, 2021

Europe

ITALY: Local elections – key issues

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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  • In Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s Italy, administrative elections will have no meaningful impact on the government. The lack of political leaders means that Draghi remains unchallenged.
  • The elections will confirm that League’s Matteo Salvini risks becoming a spent political force and that Giuseppe Conte (M5S)’s new course is a non-starter.
  • The PD could end up winning the mayoral races in all of Italy’s five biggest cities – a development that would create an illusion of strength and cohesion.

Around 12 million people resident in 1,192 Italian towns and cities are eligible to vote in the elections which are held on 3-4 October. The two days of voting end on 4 October (at 3pm local time) and the first results are expected afterwards. But many voters will have to wait two weeks to learn who their mayor will be. Runoffs will be held on 17-18 October in municipalities with more than 15,000 people between the top two vote-getters if no single candidate garners more than 50% of the ballots.

The first electoral test since the appointment of Mario Draghi as prime minister in February will involve big cities like Rome, Milan, Turin, Naples, and Bologna. Moreover, there will be two parliamentary by-elections and a vote for the governor of the southern Calabria region.

What to watch

Nearly all the mayoral races in the biggest cities, including Rome, Turin, and Naples are expected to see runoffs. In Milan, the incumbent mayor, Giuseppe Sala, is almost certain to secure more than 50% of the votes in the first round. The PD candidate for mayor in Bologna is also expected to do the same. A low turn-out is likely on both days. While caution is needed about drawing conclusions from the local elections for the national picture, the timing of this electoral test (just ahead of the presidential elections in early 2022) adds political relevance to it.

Leaving aside the focus on the specific mayoral candidates, political parties will pay attention to the amount of votes each one of them secured in the local elections as that has an impact on the balance of power within coalitions, especially within the right-wing bloc.

Problems for the right-wing bloc

In the most likely scenario, mayoral candidates backed by the rightist alliance – composed by the League, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Forza Italia – will not prevail in any of the largest cities. Leaving aside the fact that most of their voters generally reside in small towns and villages, the right- wing coalition has failed to field strong candidates in all the main cities that are up for grabs. This is mainly due to intra-coalition dynamics, lack of cohesion, and the rivalry between Matteo Salvini (League) and Georgia Meloni (FdI) for the leadership of the bloc.

This rivalry could intensify in the weeks and months ahead as Salvini is struggling – his strategy of keeping one foot in government and one foot is not paying off with voters. This, in turn, has triggered some malcontent within the League, which looks somewhat fractured between a governing faction (pragmatist and moderate) and Salvini’s loyalists. This detrimental unstable equilibrium, however, is very unlikely to trigger a split of the party

For Salvini, the next signpost relates to the fate of “Quota 100” (a scheme allowing for a state pension if the number of years of contributions paid plus age equals 100) as it is currently set to expire on 31 December. Salvini has been campaigning for its renewal for months – his political legitimacy would be further affected if Draghi decides otherwise (just like he did about the compulsory Green Pass).

As for the FdI, its popularity has levelled off in the polls and its potential support has an upper limit of max 25%. The party remains an empty box without a program (apart from opposing the government) with a media-savvy leader – a mix that may help to win votes but leaves the party unsuitable to govern and administer.

Bigger problems for the M5S

The Five Star Movement (M5S) is set to be the other big loser in the local elections. In the big cities, the M5S are likely to win only in the places where they have formed a nominal alliance with the PD: Naples and Bologna. The party is on track to lose both Rome and Turin, the two cities the M5S won in 2016. The vote is also about Giuseppe Conte, the former prime minister who took over the M5S as leader (at least on paper) in August – the loss of Rome could trigger another round of soul-searching within the embattled party and suggests that Conte’s new course is a non-starter.

A critical by-election for the PD leader

There is also much at stake for the PD and especially for its leader, Enrico Letta. The former prime minister is seeking a parliamentary seat in a by- election in Siena. Letta has not made much of an impression so far as party leader and a negative outcome (unlikely) in Siena would likely force him to resign. With or without Letta, the PD will continue to emphasize its unconditional support to Draghi as evidence of its reformist drive, about which the PD has nothing concrete to propose. Still, the PD could emerge as the winner in the mayoral races in all the five big cities – providing the party with the opportunity to portray itself as “winner” despite the lack of a sense of direction and a policy agenda.

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