Orange left sweeps Italian cities

Finally Berlusconi is losing reports Paolo Gerbaudo

June 12, 2011
8 min read

Nicolò Machiavelli famously asserted that the people are like the wind: unforeseeable and evanescent but almost impossible to resist when blowing at full speed. In Italy, after years of cynical and xenophobic winds blowing invariably to the Right and widespread resignation on the Left, a sustained current of change, coloured in the orange of renewal, has now swept the country from North to South. Two candidates of the radical left – Giuliano Pisapia and Luigi De Magistris – have won the mayoral seats of Milan and Naples, humiliating Silvio Berlusconi who had unwisely decided to turn the consultation into a referendum on himself.

‘This time we didn’t win, but we continue. I am a fighter. Any time I have lost, I tripled the effort’. These were the words of the beleaguered prime minister on an official visit in Romania, commenting on the results of the local elections which have seen the left winning not only Milan and Naples, but also in Turin, Cagliari, Trieste and several other cities. Despite the huge electoral defeat, Berlusconi remains stubbornly tied to the raft on which he is trying to survive private scandals and public failures. Given his notorious resilience he might well survive until 2013, when the next national elections are due. But the local election blunder has seriously weakened his position, making it difficult for him to run again for office. No less importantly, the local elections have given fresh confidence to the Italian radical left: to those ‘communists’ who have filled hours of Berlusconi’s rhetoric and who almost completely disappeared from parliament just three years ago.

While neither De Magistris nor Pisapia call themselves ‘communist’ nowadays, both come from the ranks of small Left parties, respectively the anti-corruption party Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) and Sinistra, Ecologia e Liberta (Left, Ecology and Freedom), a new party of the left led by the gay, formerly communist governor of Apulia, Nichi Vendola. Each of these parties command  around just 5 per cent of the popular vote and, before fighting against Berlusconi’s party, Pisapia and De Magistris had to defeat the candidates of Partito Democratico. The main left-wing party with around 25 per cent of the vote, Partito Democratico has earned the distaste of many voters because of its self-defeating moderatism. Given the weakness of party support to their candidateship, Pisapia and De Magistris would have hardly won if they had not harnessed the energy of the recent wave of protests against rising unemployment, women’s oppression, water privatisation and nuclear power.

The event with the most wide-ranging consequences on national politics is undoubtedly the victory of Giuliano Pisapia in Milan. The leftist lawyer who in the past represented Apo Ocalan, the leader of Kurdish PKK, and the family of Carlo Giuliani, the boy killed by the police during the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in 2001, prevailed with 54% of the votes in the run-off against the incumbent Letizia Moratti. Months ago, very few people could forecast such a burning defeat for the Right in Berlusconi’s heartland: the city where he was born, where he built his business empire and established his television group, as well as the home of football club A.C. Milan, which he acquired back in 1987 and which has served as a formidable magnet for working class support.

To liberate a city controlled by the Right for the last 19 years, Pisapia waged a grassroots campaign based on door-to-door canvassing and innovative forms of internet-based propaganda, with banners, leaflets and websites all coloured in orange. Among his supporters Pisapia drew many citizens involved in environmental and humanitarian campaigns, as well as activists coming from the milieu of squatted social centres like Leoncavallo. Key in fuelling enthusiasm among these supporters has been the newly elected mayor’s radical biography. Before becoming a member of Sinistra, Ecologia e Liberta (SEL), Pisapia was for ten years an MP for Rifondazione Comunista, promoting radical policies on drugs and migration. But his radical roots reach back to the late seventies when Pisapia was part of the extra-parliamentary Left and was acquainted with people near to the terrorist organisation Prima Linea. In the early eighties Pisapia also spent four months in jail after being unjustly accused, and later acquitted, of having participated in the theft of a car to be used in the beating of an estranged comrade.

The right tried to exploit Pisapia’s militant youth, accusing him of being an extremist and a ‘car thief’. This mud-throwing campaign was supported by the majority of national media. In an impromptu national TV address transmitted by 5 national news channels, a scathing Berlusconi accused Pisapia of wanting to turn Milan into ‘an Islamic city’ (because of his intention of finally allowing the construction of a mosque) or alternatively into a ‘zingaropoli’, or a ‘gypsy city’ (because of his willingness to halt the eviction of travellers’ camps). This vulgar scaremongering campaign was not unusual for Berlusconi, and not too different from the ones which served him well in winning past elections. But this time it did not succeed to entice an electorate increasingly tired of Berlusconi’s antics and angered by the lack of political responses to the economic crisis.

Possibly even more unforeseeable has been the triumph of Luigi De Magistris in Naples. De Magistris, formerly a maverick prosecutor, defeated the centre-right candidate Lettieri in the run-off with 66% of the ballots, despite aggressive negative campaigning from the right. But his was also a victory against the moderate Left, whose candidate Mario Morcone was easily overcome by De Magistris in the first round. Running on the promise to ‘smash’ the connections between politics and Mafia in the city, De Magistris successfully cast himself as the leader of a ‘peaceful revolution’ or a new ‘Masaniello’ – the Neapolitan fisherman who, back in 1647, became the leader of a revolt against Spanish Habsburg domination. Similarly to Pisapia – with whom he shared the orange campaign colour – he gained the support of radical left-wing activists and disaffected moderate voters alike, united by a deep distaste for the current economic situation and by Berlusconi’s obsession with his own judicial problems.

The victories of De Magistris and Pisapia resemble the political rise of Nichi Vendola, elected as governor of Apulia in 2005 and 2010 – which was previously known as a staunchly conservative region – and now a candidate for the leadership of the centre-left coalition in view of the next general elections. Similarly to Vendola, who can be seen as the initiator of this new Left wave and who put all his weight behind the local elections campaign, De Magistris and Pisapia have earned their success by casting themselves against the technocratic party apparatus of Partito Democratico. Like Vendola, Pisapia and De Magistris have managed to make up for the weakness of party support by mobilising the grassroots. But to what extent are the recent local elections really signalling a progressive turn in Italian politics after years of social, economic and cultural conservatism?

As a point of caution, it is worth remembering that in the past victorious rounds in local elections have raised unrealistic hopes. Italians tend to be more conservative when they vote in the general elections. Moreover, the Left will have to counter the impression that it is good in stirring grassroots enthusiasm but prone to errors and divisions when in government. Particularly tantalising is the challenge faced by De Magistris who has emphatically promised to solve the waste collection blunders of Naples, whose streets are periodically flooded by piles of garbage. Instead of pushing forward new incinerators or new dumping sites (whose construction has been met by violent revolts) the new mayor has proposed a door-to-door waste collection and recycling system. The local Mafia, which hugely profits from the business of waste disposal, will do all it can to stop this from happening. As for Pisapia, his promise to reduce the high level of air pollution in the city will face the resistance of car drivers and shop-keepers, while the construction of the mosque will be met by big protests from right-wing groups.

To turn the ‘wind of change’ from a slogan into visible political results, the new mayors will crucially need to maintain connection with their grassroots supporters: the key resource which can help them withstand internal and external resistance to their radical policies. As Pisapia told his supporters celebrating victory in central piazza del Duomo: ‘Do not leave me alone. Otherwise I will not be able to change Milan.’


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