Luca Comodo, Research Director, Ipsos Public Affairs.
Milan. The recent local elections in Italy, together with the referendum that followed, marked a dramatic change in the mood of Italians.
Last June, "electors were choosing their mayors in several major cities, including Torino, Milano, Bologna, and Napoli. Torino and Bologna stayed true to their past by electing the centre-left coalition in the first round. However, both Milano and Napoli have visibly broken with their past. In Milano, Giuliano Pisapia, a lawyer with political experience in the ranks of the radical leftâ€”although he has deep roots in the upper middle class of the cityâ€”won the election. An outsider, Pisapia was the unexpected winner of the primary election against the Democratic Party candidate. In Napoli, Luigi De Magistris, a judge, presented by Italia dei Valori di Di Pietro, was competing alone against both the centre-right and the Democratic Party candidate. Again, the outsider won.
In addition, in Cagliari (Sardinia) the winner was the young Massimo Zedda, 37, the candidate for Sel (Sinistra Ecologia e LibertĂ , Nichi Vendolaâ€™s party). An outsider, once again.
The results are a real political earthquake. In Milano, where Silvio Berlusconi and 'berlusconism' were born and thrived for 20 years, the defeat is severe: Pisapia won in the second round with an advantage of 10% over the former mayor, candidate of the right. Berlusconi himself, who was listed as the leader of his party list, only obtained half of the votes he got five years ago, event though he had invited his supporters to renew their confidence by giving him a personal vote. The campaign of the centre-right appealed to fearsâ€”announcing gypsy invasions, expansion of youth social centres, terrorists as representatives of the local authoritiesâ€”and was countered by Pisapiaâ€™s 'gentle force'. This is significant as what happens in Milano notoriously anticipates what will eventually happen in Italy.
In Napoli, the centre- left government failed to solve the historical and endemic problems of the city: De Magistris won promising a miracle counter charge and by standing alone, with no allies whatsoever. In the second round, most centre-right electors did not vote at all, thus condemning their candidate to a severe defeat, with only 35% of the votes.
Two weeks later, the referendums marked another huge defeat for the centre-right party. The main ally of Berlusconi, La Legaâ€”the Leagueâ€” published an article in a newspaper with the following headline: "Weâ€™re fed up with being slapped." Bossi, leader of La Lega, invited Italians to abstain, while Berlusconi declared that he would not vote.
On the contrary, Italians did vote and they did so in large numbers. For the first time in 15 years, the referendums largely exceeded the quorum with a voter turnout rate of nearly 55% (including Italians living abroad).
The questions in the referendum were related to the abrogation of laws on privatisation of water, the building of nuclear power stations, and the legitimate constraint, which allows the Primer Minister and the highest people in office to avoid standing trial if it conflicted with official duties. The abrogation was approved by 95% although the Government was strongly against it. The quorum was reached across all regions, even those where abstention is traditionally high.
This is not only a change in the direction of the electoral preference of Italians, but it is a dramatic change in the mood of the country: Berlusconi ceases to be credible, people are largely fed up with broken promises, they look for pragmatism, and willingness to act. Both campaigns were dominated by the Internet and by a huge mobilisation of the youth, people who are detached from traditional political parties, but who are willing to take part in national decisions.
After 15 years of individualism and narrow-mindedness, expressions such as solidarity, rules, and unification, are back. Normality is a key word. Even industrialists and entrepreneurs, who would traditionally stand close to the centre-right, declare theyâ€™ve been abandoned by the government, and recently organised a silent protest march to express their distress.
Berlusconi reacted by promising fiscal reform, which is clearly unfeasible (as Italians tell us they are aware of in our polls). Further complications for the country include the need to find 40 billion euros over the next three years to lower the public debt, and Moodyâ€™s downgrading of the countryâ€™s debt rating. The time for promises is over. We can say itâ€™s the end of an era: the latent signs have been here for at least a year, and today they were made official by our citizens. The problem is, as very often is the case in Italy, that a real alternative is not available right now.
July 21st, 2011