The regional election held in Emilia Romagna on January 26 was not simply a local affair. The election saw the incumbent governor, Stefano Bonaccini, of the center-left coalition’s Democratic Party (PD), take 51,4% of the vote — a win that will have far-reaching consequences in Italy and Europe. In the last weeks, Emilia Romagna was the theater of a fierce political campaign: Matteo Salvini, leader of the radical-right populist League party, put all his efforts to win the region, a historical stronghold of the center left, with the aim of forcing the government of Giuseppe Conte — supported by an unstable yellow-red coalition formed by the Five Star Movement (M5S) and PD — to resign and go to the ballot box in a national election.
In his attempt to win Emilia Romagna, Salvini played all his cards, leaving the simultaneous regional elections in Calabria aside. For instance, the “intercom” episode is an excellent piece of populist propaganda that sparked controversy in Italy, attracting wide criticism. A few days before the regional election, Salvini buzzed an alleged drug dealer from Tunisia in the Bologna suburbs and asked over the intercom “Hi, do you push drugs?” The League leader also tried to perform a spectacular move by deciding to suspend his campaigning in Bibbiano to openly challenge the rising “sardines” movement, which gathered 7,000 citizens to rally against radical-right and nationalist propaganda.
Salvini had also mocked, on more than one occasion, as shameful the resignation of his former political “ally,” Luigi Di Maio, from the leadership of M5S. According to Salvini, Di Maio, currently serving as Italy’s minister of foreign affairs, fully deserved the resignation as leader of the party for having supported a government with the PD, which is seen as the party of the elites and the financial establishment.
In Emilia Romagna, Bonaccini may have won an outright majority, but the League candidate and the center-right coalition took 43,6% of the vote. The Five Star Movement was the real loser of the regional elections, with a paltry 3,48%, down from the 12,9% at the 2019 European Parliament elections and two-thirds of its electorate abandoning it in favor of the center-left coalition. Notwithstanding the evident defeat, Salvini’s League rose from the 19,2% in 2018 to 31,9% — a gain of 450,000 votes in two years. In an interview following the Emilia Romagna elections, Salvini explained that change is only postponed, that his party had played a “good match” and is on the right path.
Two main factors can explain the defeat of the League in Emilia Romagna: the rise of the sardines movement and the debacle of M5S. The sardines, born in late 2019, were able to gather more than 100,000 people last December in Rome, and their capacity to mobilize people seems to be increasing exponentially. This has greatly contributed in limiting the electoral performance of the League in Emilia Romagna. However, if their political firepower is strong, it remains to be seen if it can be channeled effectively.
As explained by Italian writer Mattia Ferraresi in Foreign Policy, “the Sardines insist their chief goal is not even political; it’s a moral struggle. Their aim is to restore politeness and truthfulness to counter nasty populist leaders whom they frame not merely as political adversaries, but as morally abject hatemongers and promoters of fake news. In short, the Sardines say they stand for good against evil.” In March, the sardines plan to convene a national gathering in Scampia, in Naples — one of Italy’s poorest suburbs and a Camorra stronghold — to come up with a national strategy. For the time being, they are avoiding media exposure.
The second factor is the slow but inexorable crisis of the M5S. The movement, founded by Beppe Grillo 10 years ago, reached its electoral acme during the 2018 general election, when it won almost 36% of the vote. Since then, with the formation of two Giuseppe Conte governments, respectively with Salvini’s League and later with the PD, the Five Star Movement started losing popularity in electoral terms. The pact with Salvini, at the time the minister of the internal affairs, exposed M5S’s inability to govern effectively, giving the leader of the League the chance to present himself as the “protector” of the rights of the Italians in Europe.
The second coalition, this time with the PD, appeared from the very beginning as a political chimera in light of the conflicting political positions of the M5S and PD, producing dissensus within the leadership of the movement itself.
Salvini’s defeat in Emilia Romagna was not a fiasco, as the center-right coalition did well in electoral terms. In particular, the League’s vote gain in a region considered, until few years ago, the most left-leaning in Italy, is an excellent result. The inventory of the populist propaganda was enriched by Salvini with new items — the intercom stunt, the muscular face-to-face with the sardines. Moreover, if in Emilia Romagna two out of three of M5S voters abandoned the movement to support the PD, in other Italian regions they may vote for Salvini in the future. As for the sardines movement, its capacity to effectively influence Italian politics remains to still be determined.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.