Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes es doctor en Historia Contemporánea y autor del libro Italia, 2018-2023. De la esperanza al caos (Madrid, Liber Factory, 2018)
Although the current legislature has more than three years left to live (elections should be called in March or April 2023), the reality is that this January 26 the current government coalition in Italy faces a real test that could put the second executive headed by the jurist Conte in a very difficult situation. In fact, on that day, elections are being held in two key places for the two main formations of the current Executive: Emilia-Romagna, an impregnable fiefdom of the Italian left for decades and therefore key to the future of the Democratic Party (PD); and Calabria, where the Five Star Movement literally swept the board in the general elections of March 2018 (practically one out of every two Calabrians voted for this party). In both cases, the rival trying to beat them is none other than the centre-right led by Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League and a clear candidate to take over the presidency of the Council of Ministers in an increasingly close time.
It should be noted, first of all, that in the last European elections on 26th May Salvini defeated both parties by a wide margin: whilst the PD was almost twelve points ahead (34% in comparison with 22%), in the case of the Five Star Movement the lead was extended to seventeen points (the aforementioned 34% in comparison with a meagre 17% for the party led by Luigi Di Maio). Moreover, in the last elections held in the country (specifically, for the Umbria government, October 2019), PD and Five Star Movement decided to run together and time proved that the election could not have been more ill-advised: victory was again for the centre-right, but this time by a difference of almost twenty points, something really overwhelming. So, it is not surprising that Five Star Movement and PD are preparing for the ultimate debacle, although the reality is that all is not yet lost.
Let's start with Emilia-Romagna. The second richest region of the country has always been par excellence the most "rossa" (red, that is, very left) of the national set. The only party that has defeated the now extinct Communist Party of Italy (PCI) since the establishment of the First Republic in June 1946 has been the also extinct Christian Democracy (DC). With its capital in the illustrious university city of Bologna, it is currently governed by the PD, but, of course, the last electoral victory (January 2015) took place at the height of Matteo Renzi, then not only leader of the PD but also Prime Minister. Now Renzi is not even a member of this party, since in mid-September he founded his own party, Italia Viva, and although his party is not running in these elections, the more moderate vote of the PD has gone with him, which weakens the electoral possibilities of the centre-left formation in order to revalidate its mandate.
In parallel to all this, it should be remembered that it was in the past few months that a striking social movement known as 'The Sardines' emerged, which had its first appearance precisely in Bologna. Led by young people not linked to any party, they are known as such because they appeared in the squares of the country's main cities, crowded together as "sardines in a can" and with a clear demand: to stop the ultra-nationalist sovereignty of Matteo Salvini. The problem is that, at least for the time being, this does not translate into a direct vote for Salvini's main rival, which is none other than the PD, since young people have not trusted the Italian left for some time now. In spite of this, the general secretary of this party (Nicola Zingaretti) is doing his best to capture this vote, as he knows that it could be decisive in retaining the government of Emilia-Romagna: it will be on the 26th when we will know if he has finally succeeded, but it is certainly a good sign for the left that in this region the Italian youth, unlike in other areas of the country, is against a Matteo Salvini who has been collecting victories for a year and a half (Sardinia, Abruzzo, Basilicata, etc.)) against the PD and the Five Star Movement.
It should also be noted that the candidate presented by Salvini, Senator Lucia Borgonzoni, is not exactly a pillar within her party. Born in the capital of Emilia-Romagna in September 1976, she is a local administrator by profession. From a political point of view, her career began precisely in March 2018, when she was elected senator for Bologna, entering the first Conte Government as undersecretary of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage. So, as we can see, she is not a very strong candidate, although it is true that the 'mark' is carried by Salvini, as it happened in Umbria at the end of last October, where the winner was not really Senator Donatella Tesei, but Salvini himself, who did the rest in a very important election for him after his abrupt departure from the first Conte Government in the first week of September 2019.
Considering that the Five Star Movement has nothing to do in this region and that Renzi's Italia Viva is not running, it looks like it will be a very close election: If the PD manages to retain the government of the region, it will be able to stop for the first time the winning dynamic of Salvini and the centre-right; but, if it loses it, then it is to be expected that Salvini will immediately ask for early elections to be called, taking into account that by that time he will control more than half of the regional power and that the polls continue to give the centre-right, month after month, a 50% voting intention, compared to the 35% that PD and Five Star Movement add up to. So, as we said at the beginning of this contribution, these elections can be the real prelude to a new general election. Let us also remember that the situation is propitious for this: the General State Budget (PGE) for 2020 has just been approved, the current government coalition is in a permanent war (the last issue was the question of the statute of limitations for crimes, which has set Renzi against the PD) and the country needs a strong government to face up to increasingly necessary reforms, which the current Executive does not seem to be in a position to tackle.
However, the key to the future of the current government may not be in Emilia-Romagna, which is being talked about so much, but in southern Calabria, and we will say why. Here, as we have already said, it is not the Democratic Party (PD) that is at stake, but the Five Star Movement, because what is at stake is the real effectiveness on the voters of the policies that it has implemented since it won the last general election. In fact, this region is one of the five where more demands were registered for the so-called 'citizenship income', a kind of subsidy for a maximum amount of 780 euros for families without resources. Since last summer, this 'citizenship income' is working, although in many cases the amount received by the petitioners is not precisely the mentioned 780 euros, but rather less, because it must be remembered that, as the deficit objective in the GIP for 2019 can only be increased by 1.2 points (it went from 0.8% of the Gentiloni Government to 2.04% of the Conte Government), public spending has been much lower, and this has directly affected the so-called 'citizenship income'.
However, the amount received by Calabrian citizens is more than estimated, so we will see what their electoral behaviour is. Let's remember that, according to a study by the Ipsos Institute (one of the most prestigious opinion polling institutions in the country), in the European elections of last May 26, 38% of the voters of the Five Star Movement in March 2018 decided to stay at home, so will they go out and vote now when the continuity of a 'citizenship income' that this party only really defends is most at risk, no matter how much the PD has accepted, as well as Matteo Renzi, to include it in the PGE of 2020? We will see what happens, although the reality is that there are many unknowns about this, and also the hidden vote figure.
Certainly, this is the key to the whole affair, because what has been noted for some time now is that the parliamentarians of the Five Star Movement were and still are much more identified with Matteo Salvini than with the PD. Proof of this is that a few weeks ago three Five Star senators decided to join the ranks of the Northern League, and now one more has just been added. So if there is another debacle for this party in one of its main regions, it will be clear that Luigi Di Maio's leadership is more than paid off and that the future lies in a party, Salvini's, that would welcome the parliamentarians who decide to defect from Five Star Movement if it paves the way for him to become president of the Council of Ministers. So, the current government majority could disappear, taking advantage of Salvini's moment to present a motion of confidence that would surely end up winning and that would force President Mattarella to dissolve the Parliament and to call elections for the spring of this year.
If, on the contrary, the Five Star Movement is able to stop its fall in Calabria, then the second Conte Government will be able to have more continuity in time. So, we will see what happens, but what is clear is that the current government coalition puts its political future at stake on the last weekend of January. Once again, Italy is facing its umpteenth political crossroads, the resolution of which we will know in just a few days' time.