Last updated: May 22, 2012 5:22 pm

Italians spurn main parties in local polls

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Italians voting in local elections have delivered a resounding rebuff to the mainstream political parties, reflecting what commentators said on Tuesday was a growing revolt against the establishment that could have a profound impact on general elections due to be held early next year.

Results from voting on Sunday and Monday in second round run-offs were particularly devastating for Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Liberty and the Northern League, the former prime minister’s one-time coalition allies whose party has been shattered by a corruption investigation and internal power struggle.

Mr Berlusconi has remained silent on the results but already some supporters are blaming their losses on the party’s support for the technocratic government and austerity policies of Mario Monti who took over as prime minister last November.

Discontent is only set to rise as Italy falls deeper into a double-dip recession. The Paris-based OECD estimated on Tuesday that the economy would shrink by 1.7 per cent this year, compared with a government forecast of a 1.2 per cent contraction.

Mr Monti, who still commands popularity ratings much higher than the politicians backing him in parliament, was uncharacteristically heckled on Tuesday when he visited survivors of Sunday’s earthquake that caused considerable damage north of Bologna.

Emerging as the new force on the political scene – possibly as Italy’s third largest party on a national scale – was the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo, a maverick stand-up comedian and activist blogger whose candidates swept to victory in the northern town of Parma and three smaller councils.

Mr Grillo declared his win in Parma was his party’s “Stalingrad”, referring to a decisive defeat for Hitler in the second world war, and said his next objective – a metaphorical push to “Berlin” – would be at next year’s parliamentary elections.

Federico Pizzarotti, Parma’s new mayor, told the Financial Times that his victory represented the desire to dump the traditional parties.

“There has been a lot of bad politics in Parma, a real mirror of the country, because of its debts and scandal. If we can do it in Parma, we can do it everywhere,” he said.

Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the centre-left Democrats, sought to claim victory overall, noting the party’s net gain of 38 councils in towns with more than 15,000 inhabitants against Mr Berlusconi’s net loss of 64.

Although the Democrats have confirmed their place as Italy’s strongest party, with opinion polls giving them about 25 per cent of the national electorate, commentators noted the party had lost votes overall with the turnout at a historic low of about 50 per cent.

While local elections that covered only about a quarter of the electorate may not be an accurate indicator of the national picture, the results strongly indicated that the Democrats would need to shift to the left and enter a larger coalition if they are to win next year.

This raises the worrying prospect for financial markets of a fractured left-leaning government divided over economic policies. Another possibility is that the weakness of the Democrats and the centre-right could drive them to form a “grand alliance” that would ask Mr Monti or a similar technocrat figure to take the helm.

Mr Berlusconi, hounded by personal scandals and court cases, has said he will not run again for high office. But there is speculation that he might seek to stage a political comeback if he concludes that Angelino Alfano, his party’s secretary and chosen successor, is not capable of leading them to victory next year.

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