Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Humble pie for Berlusconi

The Milan elections were always about much more than who was going to be the next mayor. For more than a month Silvio Berlusconi campaigned as if his premiership and personal reputation depended on it. He stood as a candidate for the council hoping to win more personal preference votes than his 52,000 in the last local elections in 2006. In Italy’s double ballot system (where if no one wins an outright majority in the first round, the two most voted candidates go to a run-off two weeks later), not winning at the first round was to be taken as a slap in the face.
As the votes were counted, it was clear from the beginning that the outgoing mayor, Letizia Moratti had not won a clear majority and that there would be a second round. Much worse for the centre-right, as counting continued, we saw that not only was she second, but she had lost by a large margin. The centre-left’s Giuliano Pisapia had won 48.04% to Moratti’s meagre 41.58% with the same 67.56% turnout as in 2006. As for preference votes, Berlusconi took just over half of the 2006 score; it was a major defeat.
The third blow would be if Pisapia wins the run-off on 29 May. Not quite a knockout for Berlusconi but very serious for the survival of his government. Italy (and Berlusconi) are not like Germany or Britain where the chancellor suffered heavy losses in the March elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden Württemberg, and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats lost the referendum on their plan to change the voting system and took a drubbing in the council elections. There the governments and coalitions in Berlin and London continue but here the sound of creaking timbers is already audible and some might crack under the strain of the loss of Milan.
Berlusconi’s main ally, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League is very unhappy with their alliance with the Popolo della Libertà. Bossi expressed his displeasure after last week’s megabrick. Moratti accused her opponent of having a conviction for car theft (and associating with terrorists) 33 years ago and having been amnestied. In actual fact, he appealed against the amnesty and was given a full aquittal. She made the accusation in the last minute of a live debate so that Pisapia had no time to reply.
If Moratti had been a pitbull politician who delights in savaging friends and foe alike, she might have got away with it. But she is a rather drab upper class Milanese lady who was clearly uncomfortable with her own performance. “To thine own self be true” said Polonius, and she wasn’t and the voters noticed. Berlusconi is certainly true to himself when he berates the judiciary but by now, a lot of conservative Milanese are fed up and either didn’t vote or voted for the centrists who took 5.54%. And then, some were actually voting on Moratti’s lacklustre administration over the last five years.
Whatever happens in a fortnight, yesterday was a triumph for Pisapia, but it is one which will cause the PD some worry. Pisapia was supported in the primaries by Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia Libertà against the PD’s candidate. It will be even more difficult now for the PD to refuse primaries to choose the centre-left’s candidate for prime minister.
But however important Milan is, there were another 12 million Italians voting.
The PD can draw some consolation from their victories in Turin and Bologna where their candidates won on the first ballot. Piero Fassino won in Turin, well-known and well-liked senior party leader and former minister (but even he still polled less than the very popular two term mayor Sergio Chiamparino who he will replace 56.66% compared to 66.60%). In Bologna after a very messy selection process and a very strong showing from Beppe Grillo’s Cinque Stelle left wing protest movement (9.40%), the PD candidate scraped in on the first round with 50.46%.
The other big city, Naples, was much more messy. The city has been run by the centre left since 1993 and has been covered in rubbish for most of the last five years. It should have been easy for the centre right to win. But Berlusconi’s triumphalism when he first cleared up the rubbish in 2008 has, like the rubbish itself, come back to haunt him. The buckpassing between central, regional and city governments has reduced confidence in everyone with the result that the centre-right only managed 38.53%. On the other side, once again, there are divisions with the main centre-left candidate from the PD, coming third with 19.15%, beaten by the crusading magistrate, Luigi De Magistris from Di Pietro’s IdV.
In the rest of the country, the message is similar. The centre-right, PdL and LN, have lost but the PD is still not clearly the answer. Grillo has done well as have Di Pietro’s candidates (less the party – it is possible to vote a candidate but not the coalition supporting him). Gianfranco Fini and his Futuro e Libertà faced their first challenge with the polls and did not do well and the other centrists or “Third Poll”, Casini and Rutelli did not do much better.
The only conclusion is that Italians are more and more fed up with politics – turnout was down but only from 72.85% to 71.04, hardly dramatic. They do not like Berlusconi or Bossi, but they don’t love Bersani. Many voted for protest parties, but again, not in dramatic numbers.
The drama will start now as the negotiations for the second round begin; candidates campaigning for themselves but also trying to persuade their former rival candidates support them. Will Grillo declare for the PD? I doubt it. Will the second centre left candidate and the PD in Naples give De Magistris full support? Yes, but grudgingly. Who will Fini and the other centrists support in Milan? They’re already bickering. Most important, what will the Northern League do to the government if they lose Milan…?

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