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Understanding the Sardinian Question

Stefano Arroque looks at the past and present of a powerful movement plagued by internal division.

The last decade has seen an upsurge in European nationalist movements. This is not without reason. Whether they are boosted by the economy, opposition to immigration or simply by identity issues that have remained latent, in the period that followed World War II, regional nationalist parties have broken through the fringes of the political arena to become some of the most important players in the continent today.

To see this, one needs to look no further than the surge of the Scottish National Party in the 2015 British General Election and to the extraordinary gains obtained by Catalonian separatists in Spain. However, some movements are still overlooked by most analysts or dismissed as being weak and lacking popular support.

Sardinian nationalism is inserted in the last category, with many people regarding it as a “failed” movement that is unlikely to regain the influence it had during its post-war heyday in the 1980s. Such a depiction could not be further from the truth, and insisting on it is counterproductive to the Italian and European policymaking that focus on this island in the Mediterranean.

ONE NATION, BUT MANY NATIONALISMS

The very concept of nationalism is a complicated one. Benedict Anderson described nations as being limited imagined communities. This “limited” character is of paramount importance, because a nation defines itself for the similarities between its nationals as well as its differences from other states.

In this sense, the rise of nationalism in Sardinia should come as no surprise, for it has linguistic, cultural and geographical boundaries with mainland Italy. What is peculiar, however, is why, with all these contributing factors, the island did not witness in the last two decades a movement of the proportions of, say, Catalonian nationalism.

There are three reasons for this: political, cultural-linguistic and economic.

First, Sardinian nationalism—or Sardism—has a long history marked by instability and political infighting. The roots of the movement are in the early 20th century, with the foundation of the Sardinian Action Party (Partito Sardo d’Azione, better known by the acronym PSd’Az) in 1921. Pushed into the underground by the fascist government, it was reorganized in 1943 and has since been the most voted Sardist party in every election. Nevertheless, since the first post-war election in 1948, the party has not been able to win power, except for a brief period between 1984 and 1989, due to a coalition with communists and socialists.

During the 1990s and the 2000s, the PSd’Az saw a number of new parties and organizations rise from the ranks, formed by hardline separatists who believed the party had given up on its goal of sovereignty and statehood, and was willing to settle for the status quo. This resulted in a weakening of the PSd’Az and a failure by the new parties to either take its place as the main representative of Sardism, or at least become relevant actors in the Sardinian political scene.

Instead, the outcome was that of a zero-sum game, in the sense that all the parties eventually had to enter coalitions with the dominant center-left and center-right groups in order to remain in parliament.

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Second, Anderson mentions language as an important factor in the creation of a national imagined community, especially when it comes to the dissemination of information via mass media. In the Sardinian case, this is a major issue, due to the absence of a widely-used standardized variety of the language. During recent decades, however, the regional government has been moving toward an effort to enforce the standard dialect, known as Limba Sarda Comuna.

Sardinian can be divided in two mutually intelligible but distinct major varieties: campidanese, spoken in the southern half of the island, and logudorese, from northern Sardinia. These differences are reflected in writing. Therefore, a book published in one of the dialects may stand out as a difficult reading to the native speakers of the other.

It comes as no surprise that most of the Sardinian nationalist literature has been produced in Italian. There are still parts of Sardinia that speak neither of these dialects: the far north of the island, for example, is divided between two Corsican-based dialects. This may help to explain why Italian has never been frowned upon by the natives. The lack of a unified language meant that people from different Sardinian regions not only have used Italian as a lingua franca to communicate with each other, but also have massively consumed media produced in this language.

Third, Sardinia has never been an economic powerhouse in Italy. In fact, it has had the reputation of being a backwater underdeveloped region. But since the second half of the 20th century, it has benefited largely from tourism and the Italian government’s plan of industrialization of rural areas, which brought the petrochemical industry to Sardinia. Although these measures were successful in diversifying the Sardinian economy, they were not planned in the sense of an all-island development. As a result, inequalities between industrialized and non-industrialized areas started to appear.

Agriculture, which for centuries had been the pinnacle of Sardinia, was heavily hit. As the Italian economic miracle faded, the ugly legacy of the so-called “Plan for Sardinian Renaissance” became visible. Pollution skyrocketed; intra-regional disparities rose to an unprecedented level; and the mounting unemployment rate brought with it an increase in crime.

The circumstances became propitious for the appearance of anti-establishment forces, most of which followed a Marxist or Sardist ideology—and, more often than not, a combination of both. They goaded dissatisfied Sardinians through their inflammatory speeches against industrialization which, in their words, had “destroyed the traditional pastoral lifestyle” and the Western-aligned Italian political system.

Over time, the protest movements organized themselves into political parties, and the ones with nationalist credentials—often joined by former PSd’Az members—stuck to their hardline demands for independence. The result, as has been seen, was the exact opposite: the disintegration of the then-united Sardist movement and the obliteration of its once-mighty political presence.

DIVIDED THEY FALL

The survival of an ideology or ideological movement is determined by its ability to transform and to adapt itself to the external circumstances, while itself trying to adapt them according to its own views. Notwithstanding the assumption that no two political moments are equal, it would be naive to conclude from the results of the latest election—held in 2014—that Sardism is finished or that it has lost its electoral base. In fact, it has increased.

In the last regional elections, Michela Murgia, a Sardist candidate, gathered 10% of the total votes. Due to particularities in the Sardinian electoral system, her party and coalition failed to win any seats, while other parties with significantly less votes entered parliament due to their participation in a coalition.

The PSd’Az has had a solid and stable vote share in the last four elections, regardless of the coalition it took part in—it sided twice with the center-right and ran twice on its own. Even movements like the Independence Republic of Sardinia, one of the most radical scions of the protest movement led by firebrand former activist Gavino Sale, managed to secure one seat—although its siding with the center-left coalition attracted criticism by some of its voters.

UNITED THEY STAND?

Sardism now faces a rather usual dilemma in the political world: it is not only alive, but thriving. However, its division in a list-based coalition-favoring electoral system makes any hopes of reestablishing itself as a political force—let alone returning to power—almost surreal.

The only possible way of succeeding is through unification into a single party or coalition. The days of a monolithic PSd’Az-led Sardism are long gone, and given the current diversity of positions inside Sardism—for example, whether to push for greater autonomy or outright independence—and the distrust of the most radical sectors in the party, it is not likely to return any time soon.

Rather, the most likely outcome is that of a pragmatic catch-all bloc uniting all Sardist parties around a popular leader, with a consensus-based electoral program. Catalonia’s Junts pel Sí offers the proof that such a strategy, if well elaborated, can be successful and pass to the voters an image of a responsible movement, willing to put ideological differences behind for the achievement of the greater good—in this case, the driving force behind Sardism, which is the enhancing of the island’s political autonomy. This trust is likely to turn into votes.

Emilio Lussu, one of the founding fathers of Sardism, once said that the greatest tragedy lies not in fighting, but in not being able to fight. Unless there is a movement toward unification—or at least a grand coalition—of all the parties who advocate for Sardinian autonomy or independence, it is highly unlikely that they will turn into a significant political force. This outcome, however, is still far-flung.

In this context, it is vital that the Italian establishment parties pay attention to Sardism and the reasons behind its strength, and ensure that the autonomy of the island is preserved and enforced. Failing to do so would prompt a further radicalization of the movement, which would benefit no one.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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