Italy: the electoral tsunami and the neoliberal spell

A total anomaly or a revealing laboratory? In order to understand the results of the Italian general elections of 4 March 2018, to grasp the current situation and to outline future scenarios, we first have to take into account what happened over the past seven years and the reform of the electoral law that preceded the vote.

The electoral law reform and the defeat of the "Establishment Party"

The new law, approved in November 2017, is a majoritarian-proportional mixed system, which currently provides a share (about 35 percent) of elected representatives in single-member constituencies with a majority ("first-past-the-post") rule and the remaining (about 65 percent) elected with proportional system in larger constituencies. It even provides the possibility of coalitions between different parties, without any bonus; and it establishes a 3 percent entry threshold on a national basis, both for the Chamber of Deputies and for the Senate.

After the rejection of the previous system by the Constitutional Court, this reform was the outcome of a political agreement between the Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi and Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi. The latter was re-legitimized as "statesman" and again as a central figure of the party system, despite of the criminal convictions that made him legally non-eligible as candidate. When the law was passed both PD and FI were considered the political forces destined to obtain the most votes, although neither of them was expected to have enough seats to govern alone.

For those reasons the reform had essentially three main goals: firstly, to favour the possibility that after the vote PD and FI formed a governing "Große Koalition"; secondly, to marginalize the role of the 5Stars Movement, which by its own choice could not have coalesced with any other party; thirdly, to penalize minor political forces, in particular those that were placed on the left of the PD.

The construction of a scenario, forcibly leading to "broad agreements" between the two Italian parties linked to Conservatives (Forza Italia is a member of the EPP) and Socialdemocrats (PD is a member of the PES), was in fact seen as the natural upshot of the ten-years and so far unresolved economic and social crisis. It was also seen as the point of arrival of a political season that was initially characterised by "technocratic" governments and by the so called "broad agreements" (Monti 2011/13 and Letta 2013/14), aimed at an almost mechanical implementation of austerity policies. These had been followed by the Renzi government (2014/16) and (in absolute continuity with it) by the Gentiloni government. The latter two embraced neo-liberal reforms on issues such as education and labour market regulation, actively contributing to the more general process of social precarisation and mass-impoverishment. The referendum for the approval of a neo-centralist and authoritarian constitutional reform was perfectly falling within this overall framework. Its defeat on 4 December 2016, together with the results of numerous local elections, marked the beginning of the decline of Renzi’s political phenomenon and of his attempt to "modernize" the Democratic Party in a neo-liberal way.

Viewed in a broader context, the "genetic mutation" of the PD, with the introduction of strong elements of discontinuity in that experience, is part of the political failure of Center-left government experiences of the last two decades and the depletion of the historical cycle of socialdemocracies throughout Europe, starting from the assumption of the Blairist "Third Way". In Italy's recent history this process contributed to qualify the PD, along with Berlusconi's Forza Italia, as two different but similar variations of a single "Establishment Party". This explaines why the final outcomes were completely different from the expectations of Renzi and Berlusconi, who turned out to be the great losers of the 4 March elections.

Winners without a majority/1: the new Right of the Lega

Rather, the winners of the elections in Italy were without any doubt two others: the first is the 5Stars Movement, the second the Lega of Matteo Salvini.

The latter is a party born and electorally grown in the "systemic crisis" of the so-called First Republic in 1992-93, with the corruption scandals of the post-Second World War party system, overwhelmed by judicial inquiries. The "Lega Nord" (Northern League) was characterized by the centrality of regional autonomies demands (at times even secessionist), rooted in the richest regions of northern Italy and claiming the representation of the "productive classes", expression of the new model of territorial productive organization. For almost twenty-four years it was, with mixed fortunes, the junior partner of the Center-right coalitions led by Berlusconi and it shared with Forza Italia the responsibility of the national government until 2011.

In 2012-3, the Lega was in turn involved in scandals concerning the management of public fundings. Salvini liquidated the party founders, he took the lead and transformed its identity and political content. The Lega still governs Lombardy and Veneto regions, but now qualifies itself as a political force of the populist Right-wing. It puts at the center of its agenda the rejection of the European Union and of the single currency, but above all the fight against immigration, which assumes explicitly xenophobic tones. In this sense the international references of the Lega became "the French of Le Pen, the Dutch of Wilders, the Austrians of Mölzer" (1) and, more recently, Ukip and the AfD, Trump and Putin. Any reference to the "North" disappeared in the party's name and its campaign was characterised by nationalist slogans, including "Italians first", so as to justify acts of racist violence conducted against migrants.

Their outcome of 4 March went beyond the forecasts: it got a percentage of 17.3, resulting in the first party in the Center-right coalition (the third force of the alliance with 4.3 percent, "Fratelli d'Italia", is a direct heir to the post-fascist tradition, and in 2013 it had only 1.9 percent), which with 37 percent of the total votes was the first among the alliances. But above all it exceeded Forza Italia of Berlusconi (which stopped at 14 percent, the worst result of its history) affirming a de facto hegemony, in numbers and discourses, on the entire Italian Right. It should be noted that the Lega is not only the first party in Lombardy and Veneto, but it is between 15 and 20 percent in the (once) "red" regions of central Italy, and it reaches and exceeds 5 percent in all the South.

The Lega seems to combine the consensus of those "left-behind" excluded from the processes of globalization, with that of the "proprietary egoism" pertaining to the "productive classes" in the industrial districts, including the vote of working class sectors. It should not be forgotten that its fiscal reform proposal - the Flat Tax - has a fiercely liberist sign. In this sense, combining sovereignism and neoliberalism, the Lega of Salvini is a phenomenon very similar to what is happening throughout Europe. And in the world. It is a genuine product of the "reactionary political cycle" (2) that is investing all the West and beyond.

Winners without a majority /2: the "ambiguous populism" of the 5Stars

Among the parties that run separately from other lists, the 5Stars Movement had the best result, receiving almost 11 million votes, corresponding to 32.7 percent. It has grown significantly even in comparison to the 2013 general elections, when it had collected 8.7 million votes and 25.6 percent. The changes in the voting map are impressive: the constituencies of the North and Central Italy are colored in blue corresponding to the victory of the Right-wing candidates (in particular those of the Lega), while those of the Center-South and Islands are tinged in yellow, the color of the 5Stars. Only a few "red" (PD) constituencies survive straddling the Apennines mountains, between Emilia and Tuscany, and in the gentrified downtowns of the metropolis (3).

Unlike the Lega, though, the 5Stars appears as an anomalous and distinctively Italian political phenomenon. Over the past few years 5Stars partially abandoned the "direct democracy" methodology, only to reinforce the opaque and hierarchic role played by the private communication company "Casaleggio & Associates" which turns out to be the real leading structure of the Movement. Its charismatic founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, seems to have left the stage to a new generation of leadership, and even the not convincing experiences of local government (in cities such as Rome and Turin) did not hinder the growth in consensus on a national scale (4).

The 5Stars Movement focused their electoral campaign on the fight against corruption and privileges, in the name of "honesty and legality", against the "old" political class, and on the claim of a basic income ("reddito di cittadinanza"). They obtained widespread electoral support throughout the country but, thanks in particular to the income claim, their support was greater in the regions of Southern Italy and in those areas mostly affected by the social effects of the crisis, and whith higher unemployment rates. It is important to highlight that 5Stars’ proposal has got nothing to do with the universal and unconditional characteristics of a "basic income", and it is instead very similar to a neoliberal "minimum income" conditioned to a mandatory Workfare.

Finally over the past year the new leadership of the 5Stars, led by Luigi Di Maio, with the aim of conquering the national government at all costs, tried to convey an external image of great "responsibility and reliability", aimed at accreditation with global financial markets and European supranational institutions. In this sense they have decidedly softened their positions on the single currency, approving the European Union and current international alliances system.

Starting from the "neither right nor left" discourse, their ideology and their programs remain extremely ambiguous: in particular, they have often embraced positions of great hostility towards migration (sharing the policy of blocking landings and rejecting migrants that was pursued by PD governments). And the idea of a "return" to an "honest and meritocratic capitalism" has led them to neoliberal positions in the field of social rights. It is clear, however, that they have so far interpreted a widespread demand for change and attracted a large part of the Left electorate, generating social expectations that are now in wait for actual answers.

What about the Left?

The so-called "broad agreement" governments, followed by the period of Renzi's victories, by the implementation of neoliberal counter-reforms and by the disruptive constitutional referendum have made it impossible to hold on to or to go back to electoral-political alliances between the Democratic Party and the parties to the left of it. Political formulas such as the Olive-tree ("Ulivo" in the 2000s) or the Center-left ("Centro-sinistra" in the 2010s) are currently out of the question on a national level. Bearing this in mind, in the course of this past year various forces of the fragmented Italian left-wing gave rise to a variety of attempts in decomposition and recomposition. "Sinistra Italiana" (Italian Left, the party which originated out of Sinistra Ecologia Libertà – SEL and whose leadership is made up of people mostly coming from the generation of 2001 Genoa's anti-globalisation movement) strived to create a "fourth pole" in Italian politics, which would be capable to recreate a strong bond between the political Left and all the sectors of Italian society that were afflicted by the social consequences of the crisis. Such a formation was also meant to formulate an electoral offer consisting in a larger unitarian and unified Left-wing platform, clearly autonomous and alternative to the PD.

This attempt brought together a significant part of former PD members who had quitted (probably too late!) their Party out of dissent with Renzi’s policies and had founded "Articolo1 – Movimento dei Democratici Progressisti" (MDP). Starting from the initiative of three political parties – MDP, "Possibile", and Sinistra Italiana - a "civic, progressive, ecologist and leftist" electoral platform, last December 2017, was built, named “Liberi e Uguali” (it means Free and Equals) and led by Pietro Grasso, former anti-mafia public prosecutor and incumbent president of the Senate.

Considering that, when it launched, the first polls cast a percentage around 7, the election results of "Liberi e Uguali" (LeU) were far below expectations and politically disappointing with 3.4 percent - corresponding to 1,114,000 votes, with 14 deputies and 4 senators elected.

This means that, yes, LeU promoters were able to understand what was happening: i.e. that millions of leftists voters were fleeing from the Democratic Party (elections 2008: 12,095,000 / elections 2013: 8,500,000/ European elections 2014: 11,200,000 / elections 2018: 6,134,000 votes).

At the same time Liberi e Uguali was not capable of offering these voters a convincing political alternative. It has intercepted only a minimal part of them: according to YouTrend survey (5), only 6 percent of the 2013 PD outgoing voters chose LeU today. And LeU absolute number of votes is slightly higher than those obtained by SEL (1,089,000) in 2013.

A more detailed and in-depth analysis is needed to understand the structural reasons for this result. It has just begun to produce a broad discussion, in particular on perspectives. On the one hand, candidacies and front-runners, the programmatic profile, which appeared too generic, and the very image of LeU, perceived as too much in continuity with the Center-left past, may have negatively influenced the electoral campaign. On the other hand, it is clear that the huge wave of consensus for the 5Stars has managed to "saturate" the political-electoral space defined by the demands, sometimes confused, of radical change and rupture with the status quo of recent years.

To tackle the latter issue there is an evident deficit in the ability to read and analyze the class composition of Italian society and the transformations that have invested it. From this point of view a political proposal, that would be adequate and long-term, should start. A proposal capable of creating a space of radical innovation for the entire Left – innovation in terms of discourse and programs, languages and organizational forms.

In this context there are some positive aspects of the result of Liberi e Uguali that should not be underestimated: a representation of the Left returns to the Italian Parliament, and this will be more useful and precious than ever in the coming months, to contrast an aggressive neoliberal and racist Right-wing and to challenge the many contradictions of the 5Stars. This is particularly true in a scenario of extreme uncertainty and unpredictability, since no single party or coalition has got sufficient numbers of seats to form a government majority. Not only that: the electoral campaign of LeU has mobilized thousands of activists and created a valuable patrimony of local-based chapters that brought together activists with different backgrounds. With the Corbynist slogan "for the many, not for the few", it has put the issue of unequal redistribution of wealth and of social justice back in the core of public debate and political initiative.

There were leftist lists with even worse results, condemning them to political irrelevance and to having no representative elected in Parliament. Such is the case of "Potere al Popolo" (Power to the People) which originated from a Neapolitan social center called "ex OPG", and included Rifondazione Comunista, the "EuroStop" network and minor communist parties. Although Potere al Popolo was boosted in some cities by activist groups, and was supported by international left media and by some authoritative sponsors, such as Jean-Luc Melenchon and Sahra Wagenknecht, the list gathered only 372,000 votes, equal to a 1.1 percent. It lacked the support of the majority of radical social movements, which preferred to keep away from the electoral contest and, rather, gave rise to several significant antifascist and antiracist mobilisations. Their "populist" and "anti-Europeistic" discourse did not manage to attract the "anti-system" vote, which was more usefully deflected towards the 5 Stars Movement. The issue of future prospects is still an open question for the network of activists who devoted their efforts and energies to this list (6).

Stabilising instability: the neoliberal governance of ungovernability

Looking at Italy from a European perspective, the same old question arises: is the Italian case an "anomaly" characterised by a seemingly never-ending transition? Or should Italy appear as a laboratory generating phenomenon and constellations of forces, settings, and solutions that might anticipate possible developments of the European situation? We can't quite give an answer now, so we will stick to a few facts that lie beyond the panorama we have tried to describe.

The first of these facts resides in an apparent paradox: in the wake of victory in the elections of two very different forces that were both profiled by mainstream narrative as "anti-system", there was no panic on financial markets, the stock exchange in London or Frankfurt didn't even blink, the interest rate spread on Government bonds showed no dramatic rise, and European chancelleries showed total trust in Italian institutions to hold their ground.

This reaction can have several, converging explanations. First of all, with nationalistic forces in power in several Eastern European governments and one and a half years into Trump's U.S. presidency, it is clear that European and global capitalistic oligarchies consider such authoritarian, isolationist and openly xenophobic stances as viable options in crisis management, something compatible with the overall neoliberal framework which is deemed irreversible. Maybe they are even seen as systemic alternatives, to be tested on the ground to see if and how they work. All this might give food for thought to all of those (including on the Left) who had theorised that from the breaking up of the "globalist unanimism" would stem a new space for "revolutionary" transformation.

Secondly, these same oligarchies and the political establishment they are expression of, seem to confide in the primacy of the "automatic pilot" (to use Mario Draghi's phrase). They confide, that is, in the fact that over the past eight years a network of institutional devices was created at a European level (we are thinking of such things as the Fiscal Compact and the European Stability Mechanism, to name but a few) with the power to influence the choices of any national government, particularly in matters of fiscal policy and therefore to absorb, on the short and medium range, any element of political instability. There are more and more examples that can be compared with Italy: from what happened in Belgium, to the repeated Spanish general elections of 2015-2016, to the six months it took Germany to agree on a new government. In none of these instances the basic economic principles of the capitalist accumulation system were put into question.

What rather clearly emerges from this picture is the image of a neoliberal governance of ungovernability, i.e. a systemic ability to exercise control over social relations of production and reproduction even in conditions of dire uncertainty and political-institutional instability, or even to work within and from within such contexts. A function of objective stabilisation is boasted by forces that are either explicitly reactionary or generically anti-establishment, and that strive to be described as "anti-system". It is a real "spell", and it can only be broken by the rise of a wide, new, recompositional cycle of social struggles, acting on a level that can immediately reconnect the local and the transnational dimension. A few first signs of such a cycle are currently visible among women and migrants, and in the new composition of living labour. A new political Left, radically renovated, must show itself capable of interpreting and translating, also on electoral and institutional ground, these widespread and manifold demands for real transformation.

Notes

(1) Guido CALDIRON, Dal verde al nero. La Lega di Salvini sceglie Marine Le Pen, in Europa quotidiano, 13 dicembre 2013. URL consultato il 19 dicembre 2013: http://www.europaquotidiano.it/2013/12/12/dal-verde-al-nero-la-lega-di-salvini-sceglie-marine-le-pen/

(2) Alberto DE NICOLA, L'Italia nel ciclo politico reazionario, in Dinamopress, 14 febbraio 2017. URL consultato il 3 marzo 2017: https://www.dinamopress.it/news/litalia-nel-ciclo-politico-reazionario/

(3) Mario PIANTA, Italy after 2018 Elections – Fear, Loathing and Poverty, in Transform!Europe online, 7 March 2018: https://www.transform-network.net/blog/article/fear-loathing-and-poverty/

(4) Beppe CACCIA, Drei Populismen und kein "Volk". Politische Konstellationen in Italien, in LuXemburg Zeitschrift, Januar 2017, URL consultato il 20 marzo 2018: https://www.zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/drei-populismen-und-kein-volk-politische-konstellationen-in-italien/

(5) YOU TREND, Dossier sulle Politiche 2018, 17 March 2018: http://www.youtrend.it/2018/03/16/il-dossier-sulle-politiche-2018/ e Matteo CAVALLARI, Giovanni DIAMANTI, Lorenzo PREGLIASCO, Una nuova Italia: dalla comunicazione ai risultati un’analisi delle elezioni del 4 marzo, Castelvecchi editore, Roma 2018

(6) Roberto MOREA, Italian Left - #PowertothePeople, in Transform!Europe on line, 11 January 2018: https://www.transform-network.net/en/blog/article/power-to-the-people/

elections, Italy, democracy