Last month the Italian far right failed to seize the left-wing bastion of Emilia-Romagna. But the election results raise wider challenges for the resistance to rising populism.
In the regional elections in Italy, the powerful far-right leader and former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, failed in his campaign to gain one of the main Italian regions, the traditionally left-wing Emilia-Romagna, and so bring down the current governmental coalition. The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, as well as the incumbent regional governor, Stefano Bonaccini of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD)—which won 51.4 per cent of the vote on January 26th, a clear 8 per cent ahead of Lucia Borgonzoni of Salvini’s Lega—can now breathe a sigh of relief.
What was once the famous ‘red belt’ of Italy, a cornerstone (with Tuscany) of Italian communism, rejected Salvini’s aggressively anti-establishment propaganda and ferociously xenophobic campaign, an attempt to wipe the left from the political map. The future of the country seems less murky now, with Italy’s stock market reacting positively as the results emerged. Yet if even the (once fully) left-leaning Emilia-Romagna, and its main city, Bologna, in particular have only arrested Salvini’s advance, can anyone else stop him?
The turnout in Emilia-Romagna was up more than 20 percentage points from five years ago. This made a huge difference. The strong personal victory of Bonaccini—whose electoral list with his name on it added almost 6 per cent to the progressive tally—could at first sight be explained by the local tradition of good governance. This is represented by the modello Emiliano,characterised by a tempered capitalism embedded in a social-democratic governance with a strong left-wing subculture.
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Bonaccini fought passionately, up until the last days, even when his own party in Bologna was expecting a huge loss of votes. But in these historic times, traditional parties do not seem able alone to overcome the far right and its demagogic propaganda. And the main challenge to Salvini came from an unexpected popular mobilisation and activism.
The ‘Sardines’ movement—so labelled because its mass of supporters first appeared packed tightly in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna—added energy to the campaign. Their antifascism, although naïve and meteoric in its rise, reinterpreted to a certain extent the myth of the reformist approach of Emilia-Romagna’s communism.
This grassroots, mostly youth-driven, movement against the populist tide will likely hegemonise discourses within left-wing circles and the media in Italy for the coming months. Certainly it revitalised the otherwise almost ineffectual political opposition to right-wing extremism and xenophobia.
Their full name, ‘Sardines against Salvini,’ tells a lot about their nature and genesis as well as their will to counter a far-right victory in a left-wing bastion. In some ways, they recall the mobilisation of grassroots progressive groups in the United States since the election of Donald Trump as president. This complex and variegated activism, a ‘middle America’ rebooting democracy—made up of Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, local canvassing, and a spontaneous citizens’ engagement in cities and suburbs of many states—has largely been missing on European soil.
Born in Bologna with a flash mob which attracted 15,000, the Sardines represent the main innovation in Italian politics for some time. Their numbers have been rising: roughly 100,000 attended demonstrations in Rome calling on the government to cancel all anti-immigration policies and counter hate speech. Demonstrations spread across other Italian cities, but also to some European capitals and New York. Will this be enough?
Spontaneous movements, especially youth movements, encourage participation and boost optimism but, as the Sardines themselves already suggest, without a clear political proposal and vision they end up in internal divisions and, ultimately, vaporise. The first scission transpired just a few weeks after the election, around a photo where the young founders posed with the Italian industrialist Luciano Benetton. Not for the first time in Italian politics, the line of division fell between the Sardines from the north and those from the south.
In fact, the electoral results showed mixed outcomes. If good governance and social mobilisation played a relevant role in Emilia-Romagna, we have to look at the election in the other region, the southern Calabria, to understand the big picture. Salvini lost in (rich) Emilia-Romagna but his ‘centre-right’ coalition with Silvio Berlusconi and the far-right Brothers of Italy party won in (poor) Calabria.
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Calabria is not only geographically peripherical but characterised by emigration and unemployment. It has not experienced any left-wing good governance in previous decades, not even in recent years, while social activism is still (relatively) limited. These elections thus confirmed, in some ways, that the left (and not only in Italy) is becoming more ‘urbanised’—for the most severe critics more ‘middle-class’, certainly more professional and educated.
The PD and the centre-left did win both in main cities and in the rest of Emilia-Romagna, confirming to an extent the resilience of the progressive ‘historical bloc’, as the Partito Comunista Italiano founder Antonio Gramsci would have put it. What was traditionally the solid alliance among the workers, peasants and small-medium industries supporting the PCI is now a pact between the workers of the third sector and public professionals—but the gap with the right is narrowing.
It’s not very different, in other words, from what happened to the Labour Party in the general election in the UK, where parts of the ‘red wall’ in the north of England moved rightwards for the first time. Although the ‘Brexit’ question played a pivotal role there, the party’s identity crisis is a parallel one.
The implications are obvious, in the UK as well as in Italy and elsewhere. Parts of the ‘red belt’ are no longer immune to the populist appeal of the nationalist far right—to anti-establishment propaganda, anti-immigration politicians and Eurosceptics. This represents a sort of anthropological transformation, especially in a region such as Emilia-Romagna, where the crisis of the local socio-political model meets the sclerotisation of anti-fascist cultures. And it is not looking promising.
It is then wrong to believe that far-right parties cannot gain power nationally. The Lega is now, quite incredibly, the second largest group in Emilia and, as these elections confirmed, gaining some consensus in southern regions. Such advances are especially striking, given its origins as a party of northern-Italian regionalism, even separatism.
If we accept that Emilia’s communism was actually one of the most advanced forms of social democracy in Europe, then we must explore the crisis of the model: the progressive forces abdicated their hegemonic role to become a mere electoral cartel collecting ‘interests’. The winning leftist regional coalition demonstrated that, to win, one does not need only good governance and economic performance but also political vision and myth.
As the resistance of the last bastions against the European populist trend becomes increasingly fragile, it is time for progressive forces to find new forms of mobilisation—without mirroring demagogic nationalism and its policies—and to learn a few lessons transnationally and from Italy. The left needs to regain its capacity to create a shared political culture, to focus on integrative responses and to challenge rising populism with its traditional political weapons: rights, solidarity, equality, democracy.