Salvini’s Sardine setback – Italy’s hard-right leader falls short in regional elections | Europe
HE HUFFED AND he puffed. But, in the end, he did not blow the house down. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the hard-right Northern League, suffered an embarrassing setback on January 26th when his candidate in Emilia-Romagna, a region stretching from central into northern Italy, failed to wrest the governorship from the left’s incumbent. Stefano Bonaccini of the Democratic Party (PD) finished more than seven percentage points ahead of the League’s contender, dashing Mr Salvini’s hopes of using a victory as leverage for the removal of Italy’s shaky government, a coalition between the PD and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
In another regional ballot, in the southern region of Calabria, the right stormed to victory. But that was scant consolation for Mr Salvini, since the new governor is from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which nowadays represents a less populist and Eurosceptic form of conservatism than that preached by the League.
The result in Emilia-Romagna was a personal blow for Mr Salvini. He had put himself at the front of the campaign and turned it into a plebiscite on his right to lead the country, as the head of a party that has been topping the polls since mid-2018. He had seemed assured of success. Though Emilia-Romagna was often described in the campaign as a stronghold of the left (not least by Mr Salvini, anxious to inflate the significance of his expected victory) it has drifted steadily rightwards in recent years. The left lost in Emilia-Romagna at the last general election in 2018, and again at the European elections last year.
Mr Bonaccini’s reversal of that trend reflected popular support for a regional administration widely regarded as efficient and responsive. But there was something fishy about his victory too: the role played by the self-styled “Sardines”, the latest grass-roots movement to spring from the well-composted soil of Italian politics, and one that came into being specifically to challenge Mr Salvini. Though a master of social media, the League’s leader differs from other right-wing populist paladins in placing equal stress on appearances in person. The Sardines set out to best him in packing city squares (hence their name), but with people who rejected his values. They succeeded repeatedly, and doubtless convinced some left-leaning voters who might otherwise have abstained to cast their ballots for the PD. The turnout shot up to 68%—30 points higher than at the previous regional election, in 2014. The Sardines’ role in bringing out the progressive vote earned them an “immense thank you” from the PD’s national leader, Nicola Zingaretti.
As for the ad hoc movement’s organisers, they vowed to slip back into anonymity. “We were not born to stay on the stage. We stepped onto it because it was right to do so,” said a message on their Facebook page.
Both regional elections brought further humiliation for the equally unconventional M5S, whose leader, Luigi Di Maio, chose to resign four days before polling day. The candidates of a movement that captured a third of the vote in the general election two years ago scraped 7% in Calabria and just 3% in Emilia-Romagna.
That points to trouble for the coalition government led by the technocrat Giuseppe Conte, notwithstanding the relief supplied by the result in Emilia-Romagna. A grotesque imbalance now exists between the M5S and its nominally junior partner, a resurgent PD. How it is resolved will bring to the surface additional tensions in the M5S, already in severe disarray. And any further defections from the M5S could leave the government short of a majority in the Senate, Italy’s upper house. That, in turn, might force an early election. Mr Salvini has emerged bloodied from Italy’s latest political scrap. But he has yet to be counted out.