meT is NOT often voters have the opportunity to reduce politicians. But on September 20-21, Italy did it – and they took the opportunity with both hands. With a whopping 70% to 30% majority, they voted for a referendum to cut the number of MPs by more than a third. The lower house (Chamber of Deputies) will have 400 members, down from 630, while the upper house will have 200 senators elected instead of 315. The reforms also limit the number of senators for life nominated by the president.
The new law will take effect after the next general election, which doesn’t have to be until 2023 although it may come earlier. This will not affect the generous salaries and benefits of members of the Italian parliament. Nor does it solve a more basic problem: that the two houses have identical functions. However, it brought the ratio of voters to parliamentarians to the same level as in Germany and represented an anti-political triumph, the mistrust of a governing elite whose members many Italians regard as spoiled, corrupt and nearly impossible to get rid of. Anti-politics is an important reason for the emergence of the Maverick Five Star Movement (M5S), which sponsored the reform.
So another populist advance? Pilkada held at the same time suggested the opposite. First, they show that Italians care enough about old school parliamentary democracy to challenge the risks posed by Covid-19 to vote in sufficiently large numbers. Nobody was present at less than 50% and in Valle d’Aosta, which borders France, more than 70%, was impressive by any standard for regional elections. Second, faced with the resurgence of the virus across Europe and a daunting responsibility to invest wisely those large funds ME has been allocated for Italy’s economic recovery, voters chose to continue.
Center-left Democratic Party (PD), who reigns in a coalition including Five Star, is afraid of disaster. Seven of Italy’s 20 regions are at stake, four of which are governed by PD. Opinion polls suggest the party could lose three, including Tuscany, the heart of the left since the now-defunct Italian Communist Party. In the event, PDCandidates for governor in Tuscany decisively defeated a challenger prepared by Matteo Salvini’s North League right-wing. The only defeat for PD and its friendly but uncharismatic leader, Nicola Zingaretti, are in the neighboring region of Marche, once considered part of Italy’s “red belt”. There, the victory went to the Italian Brothers (Fdme), which has its roots in neo-fascism (and which, despite its name, is led by a woman.)
It is the latest of many signs Fdme it may now be ready to overhaul a tougher and more populist League to take command of the Italian right. It is little comfort for Mr Salvini that the League will be first in Valle d’Aosta, with almost 24% of the vote. And he will cheer less and less with the result in Veneto, which has been a stronghold of the League from its early days. The incumbent governor, Luca Zaia, won 77% of the vote. But his victories, such as that of the Democrat Vincenzo De Luca, in Campania, the region around Naples, have been due in large part to the clever handling of the pandemic rather than by overt sympathy for the League’s harsh messages on immigration and Europe. Mr De Luca, whose authoritarian manner earned him the nickname “Pol Pot”, managed the seemingly impossible task of getting Neapolitans to honor the lockdown by, among other things, threatening to deploy police armed with fire-throwers. Mr Zaia won praise globally for containing the virus by thorough testing. The bad news for Mr. Salvini is that as a result Mr. Zaia is now being named as a potential successor.
Despite their referendum victory, Five Star’s performance also shows that Italians are becoming picky about populism. Only in one area do they erode into multiple figures. What was worse was their yield in Liguria, to the northwest. Here M5S allying with Democrats to back a joint candidate, the idea is that this could cast an extra vote to topple the center-right incumbent. In contrast, allied competitors slumped to a whopping 17 points. As Italy enters a crucial phase, which can decide whether it restores its economic dynamism or sinks further into debt-burdened lethargy, PD will be in the driver’s seat. ■
This article appears in the European section of the print edition under the title “Backfire”
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