What to know about the upcoming local elections in Italy

Local elections will take place in over 1,300 municipalities of Italy on October 3 and 4. What is the general political context leading into these elections and how is the left organizing to bring an alternative voice into local institutions?

September 29, 2021 by Maurizio Coppola
The leftist political organization Potere al Popolo campaigning for their candidate Gianpiero Laurenzano in Naples for the upcoming local elections. Photo: Maurizio Coppola

Italians will head to the polls this weekend for the second time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 3 and 4, 2021, around 14 million people living in 1,342 cities and towns of Italy will elect their mayors, city and municipal councils.

Similar to the regional elections in September 2020, Italy is dealing with “unpolitical elections” again. The electoral debates are much more focused on personalities, the electoral lists supporting this candidate more rather than the other one, and media coverage has focused on scandals involving individuals or parties rather than on real political programs of the parties and their leaders. In most cities, there is no feeling of elections at all.

The central government of experts

These elections are taking place in a quietly complex political situation. Since February 2021, Italy has had a government of so-called “national unity” under the lead of prime minister and former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. The main task of this “government of experts” is to find a way out of the current crisis. Draghi is seeking to on one hand promote economic growth, debt reduction, and dismantle the bureaucracy which is currently undermining the “freedom of enterprise”, while on the other guaranteeing the containment of coronavirus.

Despite the fact that this new government is a technical one and it was defined as the “government of the best”, it does not mean that it can pass reforms without any opposition. On the contrary. Politics is not a technical question, but the matter of class interests and power relations. And Mario Draghi reveals himself as the prolonged arm of Confindustria, the main association representing manufacturing and service companies in Italy, and it’s neoliberal policies.

At the end of June 2021, Draghi abolished the protection against dismissals introduced at the beginning of the pandemic. Confindustria, the major unions and the government promised to do everything in their power to avoid a wave of redundancies, but private corporations used the abolition of workers protection to fire them and delocalize (offshore) entire production sites.

Officially, since the beginning of the pandemic, Italy’s unemployment has grown by 1 million people; today, unemployment continues to rise. Important worker’s mobilizations (GKN, Whirlpool and many others) and political campaigns against delocalizations are taking place, but the government seems hesitant to go against capital’s interests and continues to push neoliberal policies. Social tension continues to increase.

COVID restriction measures

According to the official statistics, Italy has one the highest vaccination rates in Europe. This fact is due to the hard-line vaccine politics of prime minister Draghi. Last week, Italy started to administer the third vaccine dose to vulnerable people and the government introduced some measures that should “stimulate” people to accept being vaccinated. The COVID vaccination certificate is needed in restaurants and in long distance transportation, and it will be mandatory for public employees starting on October 15.

These restrictive measures against COVID are producing social and political divisions. Social protests organized by the so-called anti-vax movement are taking place regularly. Even if their numbers are not very high, they attract common social discontent. Additionally, the far right is using these street actions against the government line to meddle in the protests and spread their reactionary positions.

It is around these restrictive measures that the institutional right is having a rift. Matteo Salvini’s party Lega, for a long time the major party in Italy’s political landscape, reveals itself to have two internal fractions: the first trying to capitalize on the general social discontent of the people around the restrictive measures and the vaccine question to break up with the “government of national unity” and ask for early elections; the second one putting itself much more in line with the technical government of Mario Draghi and, by doing so, dismantle worker’s rights and defend capital’s economic interests.

Reconfiguration of the center-left and the center-right?

It is in this general context that the main Italian cities will elect their new mayors and city councils. Above all in cities such as Milano, Torino, Bologna, Roma and Napoli, the elections will be an indicator for the popular confidence of the leading parties.

The 5 Star Movement, long considered the Italian populist option and the biggest party in the national elections in 2018 (32.68% of the votes), lost general consensus during the last two years. Polls are estimating their current national consensus to around 15-16%. When they broke the coalition with Lega in September 2019 (first Conte government), a significant number of deputies moved to the right. In the agreement with the Democratic Party (second Conte government) from September 2019 to February 2021, they enforced the center-left coalition and became an entire component of it. It was the return of bipolarism in Italy.

While the 5 Star Movement and the Democratic Party are the center-left united supporters of the government of Mario Draghi, in three out of five major cities, they are running separately in the current local elections. In the cities where the 5 Star Movement won the mayor’s office in the last legislative period, for instance in Torino (Chiara Appendino) and Rome (Virginia Raggi), they will most probably experience a crushing defeat and risk losing the two cities to the center-right candidates.

Instead, the Democratic Party decided to run alone in the city of Milan. The current Mayor Beppe Sala will be confirmed, probably even in the first round. In Napoli and Bologna, where the two parties are running in coalition under a mayor’s candidate of the Democratic Party, the center-left coalition is probable to win the elections. These results will be a strong internal signal to the coalition and strengthen the Democratic Party’s dominant role in the center-left coalition.

Finally, in all major cities the center-right is running in a coalition composed by the three main parties Forza Italia, Lega and Brother’s of Italy (led by Giorgia Meloni). In recent national polls, the three parties reached around 45-47%, with the neo-fascist Brother’s of Italy surpassing Salvini’s Lega and reaching over 20%. This shift has less importance for the current local elections than for the future national election in which Giorgia Meloni is challenging the leadership of Matteo Salvini in the center-right coalition.

Broader implications of the local elections

In addition to the measurement of the general consensus for the parties, there are two other main challenges in those local elections. First, whoever wins the local governments will affirm themselves as a potential leading party for the national elections planned in 2023. A good outcome in those local elections will pave the way to rule the country for the next legislation.

The second point concerns the distribution of money coming from the European Recovery Fund/Next Generation EU. The Italian Government developed a National Recovery and Resilience Plan (Pnrr), which is basically an investment plan for the 191.5 billion Euros coming from the European Union to overcome the current crisis, relaunch economic growth, and adapt the institutional setting.

A large part of the money is allocated for infrastructure projects, ecological conversion and the transition to green cities and economy. The investment plan is designed at the national level, but the money management takes place at the regional and local level. In other words: to manage these funds means to control the money supply which, therefore, means to ensure better parliamentary control and to serve the clients that gave votes.

And the Left?

The Italian left is choosing two different options in these elections. One option is Sinistra Italiana, a political party born in 2017 from a split from the Democratic Party, a merger with Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà, and with the participation of former 5 Star Movement politicians. Sinistra integrated itself into electoral lists of the center-left in order to rebuild, as leader Nicola Fratoianni said, “an independent leftist political option in a coalition with the Democratic Party and the 5 Star Movement.”

By supporting the center-left coalition, Sinistra Italiana became the crutch of leftist neoliberalism of the Democratic Party and ignored the cultural turn the Democratic Party took in the last twenty years. While in government, the Democratic Party has dismantled worker’s rights, supported infrastructure projects, destroyed the environment, and raised walls against migrants. Today, it can be said that there is no space for alternative left politics in the center-left coalition.

On the other hand, Potere al Popolo decided to take part in the elections either alone (Milano, Bologna, Roma) or in coalition with civic lists supporting independent mayoral candidates (Torino and Napoli). Regardless of the tactical decision of running alone or in an independent coalition, the fundamental idea is to create an alternative to the return of bipolarism; an alternative to the conservative and neofascist center-right and an alternative to the neoliberalism of the center-left, two sides of the same coin.

Potere al Popolo is convinced that it is not possible to build such an alternative with simple agreements between leaders of leftist political parties and electoral coalitions. A leftist alternative needs a new political project rooted in the social fabric where communists want to organize: precarious workers, women, migrants etc.

In this perspective, elections have a double task: first, to use the public attention on elections to be known by people, deepen the popular struggles, and define the party’s political program for the people; second, to be elected in the local parliaments to bring the voice of the people into the institutions. It is in this field of political tension that Potere al Popolo is moving today.