What Salvini’s Setback Means for Italy

(Bloomberg Opinion) — In the end, Italy’s red wall held up against Matteo Salvini’s assault.The leader of the right-wing League had hoped to score a famous win in a regional election in Emilia-Romagna, an area with strong leftist traditions. Voters thought otherwise: Stefano Bonaccini, the incumbent Democratic Party governor, won convincingly on Sunday against his opponent, Lucia Borgonzoni. The populist Five Star Movement collapsed to less than 5%.The result is a setback for Salvini, who campaigned extensively in the region in the hope of wounding mortally the coalition government of the Democrats and Five Star. But it would be foolish to rule him out. Emilia-Romagna was always an ambitious target. The right-wing partnership of the League, the Brothers of Italy and Forza Italia won big in Calabria, a Southern region that also went to the polls at the weekend.The latest trouncing of Five Star, still the largest party in parliament, might have a mixed impact on the government. Its lawmakers could keep propping up the executive because they fear losing their seats in a fresh election, but some might defect in the hope of winning Salvini’s favors — with the expectation that he’ll take power eventually (the League dominates national polls). The coalition is extremely fragile.Nevertheless, Salvini has again failed to deliver a killing blow. The elections in Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s sixth-largest region by population and one of the richest, are his second tactical blunder since the Summer. In August he collapsed the turbo-populist alliance of the League and Five Star as he felt certain he’d secure a new general election, which would propel his right-wing grouping to government. The Democrats and Five Star chose to form an unlikely partnership instead, scuppering his plans.This time Salvini turned a regional vote into a test for government, as he smelled blood in Emilia-Romagna. With hindsight this too was a mistake. A defeat in Emilia-Romagna was, in a sense, perfectly normal. Yet the narrative has shifted: Today, Salvini comes across as a loser.The result offers respite to the Democrats, who are regrouping after a string of poor electoral results. But they should hold off on the Lambrusco, Emilia-Romagna’s favorite sparkling wine. Sunday’s victory is the same as the U.K. Labour party winning seats in deep-red Liverpool. In usual times, there would be nothing to celebrate. As the result in Calabria shows, Salvini’s right-wing coalition is dominant in most of the country.The biggest uncertainty relates to the government. Five Star is in an existential crisis as its candidates in both regions failed to get anywhere near 10%. Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, resigned last week as party leader because he wanted to avoid blame for the inevitable defeats. The party will hold its first congress in March, but it is split into factions between those who want a closer relationship with the left and those who don’t. It has no obvious figure capable of reuniting its members.The Democrats will hope that they can replicate what Salvini did with Five Star in the last administration: Force them into submission by exploiting their fear of a new election. This might shake off the torpor from the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on a range of topics from immigration to industrial policy. Italy would then move in a more classically social democratic direction.It’s also entirely possible, however, that Five Star’s implosion means the government loses its parliamentary majority, which is already very slim in the Senate. In any new national vote, Salvini would be the strong favorite.The best chance for the Democrats and Five Star is to make the government work much better. The left won in Emilia-Romagna because the region has fared well thanks to pragmatic local administration. The same cannot be said for Italy as a whole.To contact the author of this story: Ferdinando Giugliano at fgiugliano@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.netThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinionSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.