The role of Italy’s south in this weekend’s election

napoli

Although Lombardy in Italy’s north has been called the ‘Ohio’ of Italian politics — it’s a huge prize, given that it’s the most populous and richest region, and one of the few regions currently too close to call — Sicily might well be the ‘Florida’ of Italian politics.Italy Flag Icon

It’s the fourth-most populous region of Italy, after Lombardy, Lazio and Campania, and with 27 seats in the Senato (Senate), it’s quite a prize.  Like Lombardy, Sicily is essentially a toss-up in this weekend’s Italian general election.  Voting is underway today and will continue throughout Monday.

In addition to Sicily, the election remains close in three additional southern regions, in Campania (29 seats), Puglia (20 seats) and Calabria (10 seats) — polls, as of mid-February, showed the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani with a very narrow lead.  Taken together, the four regions boast 86 seats, representing more than half the seats Bersani will need to form a senatorial majority — a far larger prize than even Lombardy’s 49 seats.

Taken together, the four regions are Italy’s poorest, nearly one-half as wealthy as Lombardy, and plagued by widespread unemployment, even before the latest European financial crisis — the four regions receive funds from the European Regional Development Fund to stimulate economic growth and modernize their economies.  Since Italian unification in 1865, southern Italy never fully integrated into the rest of Italy, and governments for the past century have tried to develop plans to bring southern Italy’s economy up to a level more commensurate with northern and central Italy.

In addition to their economic and cultural gap with the rest of Italy, the regions are hampered by their links to organized crime — the Mafia / Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Campania, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and, to a lesser degree, Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia. That, in turn, has led to greater amounts of political corruption, cresting in 1992 with the murders of anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

Despite the south’s central role in the election, there’s not much indication that any government would necessarily do much for the south, especially in an era of budget cuts.

All four regions typically favor the center-right in Italian politics — former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centrodestra (center-right) coalition won all four regions in 2008 and even in the 2006 elections, when center-left prime minister Romano Prodi returned to power, his coalition lost both Sicily and Puglia.  Despite the strength of the autonomist Lega Nord (Northern League) in northern regions, such as Veneto and Lombardy, there’s not much of a counterpart in the mezzogiorno.  To the extent there’s a separate ‘southernist’ autonomist movement in the southern regions, it’s split among a group of shifting regional parties that routinely aligned with the centrodestra, and that continues to be the case in this election — a patchwork of southern parties, Grande Sud (Great South), has joined Berlusconi’s coalition, making them, oddly enough, electoral allies of the Northern League.

The winner in each region is important under Italy’s election rules — in each region, the party or coalition that wins the greatest number of votes is guaranteed 55% of the senatorial seats from that region.  So in a highly fragmented election like the 2013 elections, Bersani’s centrosinistra coalition could win 30% of the vote and still take 55% of the seats in a given region.

In the Italian parliament’s lower house, the winner of the national vote is guaranteed 54% of all seats, and polls show that Bersani is very likely to win the national vote.  In contrast, however, the regional rules for the upper house mean that he’s far from guaranteed a majority in the Senato, and so may be forced to form a government with prime minister Mario Monti’s pro-reform centrist coalition.

In this weekend’s election, however, the left has hope that if it can sweep Lombardy and the key southern regions, it will have a shot at winning a clear senatorial majority:

Campania

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Campania, home to Naples, and 6.6 million Italians, may be best known these days, politically speaking, for the strike in summer 2008 that led to a waste management crisis, with uncollected garbage piling in the streets of Naples in the hot mezzogiorno sun.

Since 2009, the mayor of Naples has been the leftist, anti-corruption Luigi de Magistris, who is one of the chief leaders of the Rivoluzione Civile (Civil Revolution) coalition that contains not only the remnants of Italy’s communist and green parties, but several anti-corruption groups as well, and is expected to poll especially well in Campania and in Sicily.

Antonio Bassolino served as the leftist regional president of Campania from 2000 to 2010; the center-right returned to power at the regional level in a relatively robust win in 2010 after voter disappointment with Bassolino’s handling of the waste management and labor crisis and his subsequent indictment on corruption charges.

National disenchantment with Berlusconi and lingering local disenchantment with the center-left makes Campania ripe for a relatively strong protest vote.  Recent polls show Bersani’s centrosinistra with a lead of anywhere from 0.4% to nearly 10% — one early February ScenariPolitici poll gave it 34.5% lead to 31.5% for the centrodestra, 11.5% for Beppe Grillo’s protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), 11% for Monti’s centrist coalition and a relatively strong 8% for Civil Revolution.  If the centrosinistra loses this region, it will be because many voters chose Civil Revolution instead.

Sicily

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Sicily, home to slightly more than 5 million people, is perhaps least likely to deliver victory to Bersani this weekend.

Nonetheless, the October 2012 regional election results should give him some hope.  Sicilians elected its first center-left (and openly gay) regional president, Rosario Crocetta, the candidate of Bersani’s moderate-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  Although Crocetta’s broad centrist/leftist coalition controls a minority government, Grillo’s Five Star Movement actually won the largest vote share of any party (14.9%), more than either the PD (13.4%), Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), with 12.9% or the Christian Democratic Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre), with 10.9%.

The Christian Democrats were long dominant in Sicily (often in cooperation with the Sicilian mafia) and continue to poll stronger in Sicily and the south than throughout the rest of Italy.  Although nationally, the UdC have more typically aligned with the center-right, they’re part of Monti’s centrist coalition in this weekend’s election and they have joined the PD-led coalition that controls Sicily’s regional government.

Recent polls show the current race as tight as any in Italy’s regions, with Berlusconi’s coalition holding a narrow 33% to 32% lead over Bersani’s coalition, 12% for Grillo’s Five Star Movement and 12% for Monti’s coalition. In part, that’s on the strength of the autonomist parties, which poll slightly higher in Sicily than elsewhere in the south, but still well within single digits.  Like in Campania, Civil Revolution does better in Sicily than nationally, with 8% support, likely on the strength of its leader, Antonio Ingroia, who is a longtime anti-mafia magistrate.

Puglia

puglia

The ‘heel’ of Italy along its southern Adriatic coast, with nearly 4.1 million people, Puglia twice elected Nichi Vendola, one of Italian’s most dynamic leftist leaders as its regional president.  Vendola leads the democratic socialist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom) party, which has joined Bersani’s coalition.

A recent early February poll showed the centrosinistra with 38% to just 31.5% for the centrodestra, on the strength of 11.5% support for the Vendola’s SEL, 11.5% for Monti’s coalition and 10% for Grillo’s Five Star Movement.

Calabria

calabria

The ‘toe’ of Italy, and the southernmost region on the main Italian peninsula, Calabria is the smallest prize with a population of just 2 million, but it’s most likely to vote for the centrosinistra.

A representative poll from early February showed it with a 37.5% lead over Berlusconi’s coalition (with 32.5%) and Monti’s coalition (with 11.0%), and with Grillo’s Five Star Movement polling a relatively low 9.5%.  Calabria ranks dead last among Italy’s 20 regions in terms of GDP per capita, making it slightly less wealthy than Campania, Sicily or Puglia.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Naples, December 2005. 

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