Speaking on a post-election-special of the talk show Ballaró, Giulio Anselmi, the president of the ANSA press agency, was asked what had surprised him most about the European Elections campaign: “I was most struck by how they [the campaigners] didn’t talk at all about European issues, but then that’s a tradition in European elections in Italy”. He’s largely right – despite talk about ‘changing Europe’, and positions on the fiscal compact, Italy’s political parties treated these European elections as a kind of dress rehearsal for a general election. A dress rehearsal that has long been framed by the media, and by many of the campaigners, as a contest between Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico and Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle – so much so that Grillo repeatedly declared that a victory for his party would have the major effect, not in the European parliament, of forcing the current government to step down; a victory for Grillo would mean yet a further delegitimization of the current government and its unelected leader (Renzi is Italy’s third prime minister in a row who has not been directly chosen in parliamentary elections).
Framed as such a contest, the surprise victor was Matteo Renzi, whose centre-left PD party , against all polls and predictions, won by a huge margin, taking 40.8% of the vote – the sort of figure that harks back to the days of the Democrazia Cristiana of Amintore Fanfani, which, in 1958 (conspiracy theorists take note that the ’58 election took place on exactly the same day as voting this time around, the 25th of May) got a similar percentage while seeing off Palmiro Toglatti‘s Partito Comunista Italiano in a general election.
Usually surprises for the centre-left in Italy, as represented by the Partito Democratico are anything but welcome; in 2006, when everyone seemed convinced that Berlusconi was finished, he managed to surprise a complacent Left coalition l’Unione by essentially drawing level with them (Romano Prodi managed to win numerically, but his majority in the Senate was always precarious and his government fell in 2008); in last year’s general election the PD saw a substantial lead in the polls fade away on election night, as Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle surged into Parliament; this week, though, the surprise is in their favour, as they managed to drive their vote up to 40.8%, up a staggering 10.2% from the last European elections in 2009.
Against the odds because the Renzi is currently prime-minister, and the Partito Democratico is the main partner in a government that is enforcing strict budgetary guidelines and austerity measures. Add to that the fact that the PD is mired, like nearly all of the Italian political establishment – with the notable exception, for now, of the Movimento 5 Stelle – in corruption investigations, scandal wearily following scandal; and the icing on the cake? the PD is still, through choice and necessity, tied to working with Silvio Berlusconi (a pact that remains anathema to many centre-left voters). Take these factors together and Renzi’s victory seems not just remarkable, but almost miraculous.
How have they done it? Well, undoubtedly one of the major contributing factors has been the emergence of Matteo Renzi as the leader of the PD, and his ousting of Enrico Letta as prime-minister. Renzi is of a different breed to previous centre-Left leaders, young (he’s 38, which means still in nappies in Italian political terms) and media savvy (he’s a master of the twitter hashtag, and arguably got the better of Grillo in their streamed encounter), he has certainly shaken up this party. To his critics he’s a master of sound-bites, simply a new Berlusconi in the making, while his supporters see him as an energetic leader capable of moving the PD’s into a post-ideological position. Because he’s a relatively new leader, and has been prime-minister just since February, it’s easy for the electorate to divorce him from the old PD’s failings. There’s undoubtedly a honeymoon effect to his advantage.
What’s clear is that, at the moment, Renzi at the helm of the PD has convinced many voters who did not vote for the centre-left party in last year’s general election when its leader was Pierluigi Bersani. Voters who chose Mario Monti’s now all-but-extinct party Scelta Civica seem to have flocked to the PD’s this time around, according to figures on voting patterns produced by the Bologna based Istituto Cattaneo.
It’s not just the numbers that are interesting, though, but the distribution – the PD’s won throughout the country, including in traditionally right-wing areas like Como, Bergamo, and Verona, pointing to the post-ideological appeal of Renzi; the Partito Democratico has its roots in the Partito Comunista Italiano, but you’d be hard pushed to fit Matteo Renzi into any Euro-Communist mould. The most left-wing thing you can say about him is that he has a huge and undying admiration for Tony Blair. His victory in the PD leadership primaries last year, following Bersani’s resignation, has been characterised as a modernising operation, bringing in lots of young (and female) faces into positions of power; to older party members it felt more like a hostile take-over by someone who, in terms of policy outlook, should have been on the centre-right’s side of the fence.
But while the PD managed to steal votes from the centre-right in many places, crucially they managed to avoid a hemorrhaging of their traditional vote – something feared by many, and hoped for by smaller left-wing parties coalesced in the Lista per Tsipras group; This small group, with Greece’s Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras as its mascot, managed to pass the election threshold, but failed to capitalise on what it saw as left-wing dissaffection with Renzi.
Another part of the PD’s success has to be attributed to the disintegration of the centre-right in Italian politics. Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia has won a weak 16.8%, while the break-away group Nuovo Centra Destra (the new Centre Right) which is in government totalled 4.4%. So a total of 20.2% (though they’re not allied – far from it) compared to the 29.6% winning total they enjoyed together in 2009 as the Popolo della Liberta party. Though figures suggest that many of Berlusconi’s traditional voters simply stayed away from the polls, rather than passing over to the PD.
For years people have been predicting the end of the Berlusconi era – and the European Election results seem to finally bear this out. Berlusconi, who could not candidate himself, having been convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to social work, campaigned nevertheless tirelessly over the last weeks, appearing as regularly as ever on television, but to little avail. He looks and sounds tired, and, for once, failed to frame the political narrative to his benefit. Whereas in the past he had a ready made and singular nemesis in the centre-left ‘comunists’, useful to stir up the fear of small business owners throughout the country, now he has to fight on a number of fronts – bemoaning Renzi’s closeness to Merkel’s Europe, while attacking Grillo, and attempting to fight off challengers from the centre-right.
Only one party on the centre-right had cause for cheer, the Lega who – just like Renzi’s PD – have a fresh new leader, Matteo Salvini (who infamously campaigned a number of years ago to have carriages on the Milan metro assigned for use only by Milanese). To put this in context, the Lega, though, had a 10% vote in the 2009 elections – Salvini’s vote this time around is good more for the fact that he has avoided the decimation that many expected given the continuing scandals that shadow the Lega’s historic leadership. In last year’s elections the Lega fell to 4%, and even worse they lost plenty of strongholds in the administrative elections across the north of Italy. Out of all the main parties the Lega has, perhaps, the most stridently Eurosceptic line, so a strong vote in the European elections should be of little surprise.
The Nuovo Centra Destra (New Centre Right) party, the party that formed as a challenge to Berlusconi’s leadership of the centre-right (and current partners in government with Matteo Renzi’s PD) won just 4.2% – a poor result for a party whose ambition is/was to dominate the post-Berlusconi centre-right. The hope for Angelino Alfano’s party was that voters who feel they can no longer vote for Berlusconi would flock to his party – a vain hope.
The real loser of these European elections has to be Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle – strangely, as they won 21.15%, making this party the second largest of these elections; they won 17 seats in the European parliament (3 less than Britain’s Labour Party, or seven less than Marine le Pen’s Front National in France) – a strong result, if it weren’t for the fact that this election was pitched squarely as a battle between Renzi and Grillo. The M5S party famously exploded onto the political scene in last year’s national elections, becoming the largest single party in the lower house of parliament.