03 November 2017

On Sunday the Sicilian people will be called to the ballot. The vote is expected to have a larger impact on Italian national politics. Most Italian political commentators expect it to shed light on next spring’s national elections which, as highlighted in a previous OE’s blog, can in turn have implications for Europe and, in a more limited way, for the Brexit negotiations. Sunday’s outcome could help shape broader political alignments at national-level ahead of those elections.

The latest Demos polls forecast the victory of Nello Musumeci, the candidate supported by a right-wing coalition. He is polling at 36%, closely followed by the Five Star Movement’s Giancarlo Cancelleri at 33%. However, the most meaningful data arguably concerns the expected poor performance of the Left, which is currently governing the region. If confirmed, this should ring major alarm bells for Matteo Renzi and his Democratic Party (PD).

Italian politics has been redrawn over recent years by the emergence of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (FSM) and by Berlusconi’s political decline, which left a political vacuum on the right of the political spectrum. Now a new re-alignment is emerging with right-wing parties pulling their forces together to support Musumeci, in what will be an important test in the run up to next spring’s national elections.

The right-wing coalition has good chances of success

None of the parties of the Italian Right – Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Lega Nord (Northern League), and the nationalist Fratelli d’Italia – can individually compete with the two major parties: the Democratic Party and the Five Star. Taken together though, the Italian Right are a major force to reckon with and a strong contender in next spring’s election. In Sicily, the Right has managed to overcome internal divisions and has rallied around Musumeci, the leader of a minor Sicilian political force and an ex-member of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI).

Could such an alliance of the Right work at the national level? Perhaps. But the Lega Nord is much stronger nationally than in the island of Sicily, and will bargain harder at the national level. Nonetheless, the approved electoral reform, which provides for a mixed proportional and majoritarian system, represents an incentive to overcome cross-party divisions. It favours pre-electoral alliances which increase the chances of success in uninominal (First Past The Post) constituencies. According to Berlusconi, a national agreement has already been reached among right-wing forces including on a potential division of ministers in a future government. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega Nord, was however quick to talk this down (perhaps for electoral reasons).

And the choice of a former neo-fascist candidate in Sicily to lead the Right suggests that what Berlusconi refers to as a moderate centre-right coalition might in practice be leaning much more towards the right than the centre. This week Berlusconi spelled out key policies that the coalition’s programme should embrace including substantial tax cuts, the introduction of a flat tax, as well as “greater security and, first of all, stopping immigration” – clearly right-wing policies.

A divided Left will struggle to win

The Left is in a diametrically different situation. In Sicily the divisions that run deep across left-wing parties have re-emerged. The Left is divided between two different candidates. Each undermines the other’s chances of securing a good share of the vote. Fabrizio Micari is backed by Renzi’s Democratic Party and by centrist forces, in a remake of the coalition forming the current government. Claudio Fava is instead supported by the majority of forces to the left of the Democratic Party. Should the forecasts be confirmed, with the two candidates polling at 16% and 14% respectively, the result might prompt Matteo Renzi to question whether a broader left wing alliance at the national level would not be preferable to siding with centrist forces.

However, the hostility and substantial ideological divergences between Renzi and the leaders of Movimento Democratico Progressista (MDP) – the main party to the left of the Democratic Party – minimise the chances of seeing a broad left-wing coalition running together in the next national ballots. Indeed the MDP was born out of a scission from the Democratic Party and those divisions are still raw. The possibility of a left willing alliance seems to grow less and less likely by the day, as recent declarations confirm. An option would be for Renzi to renounce running as the prime ministerial candidate and to back a more consensual figure, such as current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. It is doubtful though that Renzi will be ready to step aside and unclear whether such a move would anyway buy the support of the MDP.

A strong Five Star Movement has little chance of governing

The FSM is predicted to perform strongly. Yet the political isolation of the party decreases its chances of governing, especially in a political system which forces alliances. In Sicily, it has been suggested that some politicians on the lists supporting the Democratic Party-backed Fabrizio Micari, might be ready to enter in the governing majority of the right-wing candidate Musumeci, should he win the presidential contest. The FSM, on the contrary, might struggle to put together a governing majority in the Sicilian Regional Assembly even if their candidate comes first.

A similar situation is found at the national level where, although the Five Star Movement is expected to perform well, its chances of forming a governing majority remain low even in the case of a relative victory. The nature of the new electoral law, which the party leaders have quickly labelled Anti 5 Stellum (Anti Five Stars), would require them to seek broader support. Some commentators suggested the possibility of an anti-establishment alliance between the Five Stars and the Lega Nord, where the second would provide (possibly external) support to a Five Star-led government. The Lega Nord has not ruled out this option. Yet, the vote in Sicily, as well as FSM national leaders’ statements, highlights major obstacles to such an alliance.

Italy moves towards greater devolution

Finally, in terms of content, the Sicilian contest has in many ways also been a mirror of the national political debate. The question of greater regional autonomy has featured prominently. The FSM has been its strongest advocate, demanding that the special statute governing the island – one of the five regions with special autonomous powers in Italy – be applied to give Sicily the full competencies foreseen under the document. The FSM founder, comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, went as far as declaring that the Sunday vote is not a “political vote” but rather “a referendum.” In a similar vein, the leader of the Lega Nord Matteo Salvini lamented that despite the existence of a special statute which represents a model for regional autonomy in Europe – the region does benefit from considerable independent political, legislative, administrative and financial powers – the people who have led Sicily in the past, left and right alike, have largely failed to make use of autonomy concessions.

As I discussed in a previous blog, two large regions in the north of Italy, Lombardy and Veneto, recently held referenda in which they demanded greater autonomy. Strikingly, almost the totality of parties across the political spectrum supported this claim, although some, including the Democratic Party, strongly criticised the decision to call a referendum – which was not technically necessary – on the matter.

A general consensus seems to be developing in Italy that regions, especially those with a stable fiscal balance, should be granted greater powers. With questions of greater autonomy, and indeed outright separatism, burgeoning across Europe, the principle of subsidiarity will certainly be a key issue in the Italian and European political debate in the near future. For all these reasons, Sunday’s elections in Sicily are worth watching.