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5 things we learned from Italy’s local elections

ROME — Italy’s political landscape shifted on Sunday, with voters in local elections elevating the far-right Brothers of Italy party and punishing the 5Star Movement, a formerly anti-establishment force that has been trying to reestablish itself as a center-left party.

The results give a sense of how Italy’s political climate is changing heading into the country’s next major vote — a parliamentary election is expected next spring and will likely determine the country’s next prime minister.

Yet the trend lines were multifaceted. While the Brothers of Italy, the country’s main opposition party, benefited, so did the center-left Democratic Party, which is closely aligned with Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s unity government.

Meanwhile, the 5Stars, a populist force also within Draghi’s coalition, lost some of its standing after making numerous compromises as part of the government. The same happened for The League, a far-right party in Draghi’s coalition that similarly made concessions on some of its positions.

More broadly, right-wing parties are expected to retain control of several major regional capitals, including Genoa and Abruzzo, and flip Palermo, according to projections on Monday. In races where no single candidate won outright, including in Verona and Catanzaro, there will be a runoff vote in two weeks.

In total, Sunday’s elections covered roughly 1,000 mayoral races, including those in 26 provincial and regional capitals.

Here are five things we learned.

1. The Brothers of Italy are on the rise

Sunday proved the Brothers of Italy could turn its polling rise into tangible results.

Since choosing to remain in the opposition rather than join Draghi’s government, the Brothers of Italy has risen dramatically in national polls and overtaken its far-right rival, the League.

On Sunday, those projections held out all over Italy, even in the north, the League’s long-term stronghold. In Padua, the Brothers’ electoral list received 8 percent of the vote, compared with 7 percent for the League, according to the latest projections. In Parma, it scored 8 percent to the League’s 4 percent. And in Verona, one of the League’s traditional power bases, it earned 12 percent to its rival’s 6 percent.

The Brothers were also leading the League in Palermo, 9 percent to 5 percent, according to Monday’s projections. “In many municipalities we are the driving force of the center right. The vote has debunked the narrative that Fratelli di Italia does not have a governing class,” said Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni outside the party’s headquarters in Rome.

2. The right did well when united

In some cities, right-wing parties formed coalitions — and benefited from it. These coalitions saw their candidates win in Genova and L’Aquila and flipped Palermo.

Conversely, in cities where the right-wing parties didn’t band together, such as Verona and Catanzaro, the elections will go to a second round.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, called for right-wing unity moving forward.

“At the next elections the center right will win only if it is united,” he said at a Monday press conference.

3. Working with Draghi helped — for some

Anxiety over Europe’s numerous crises — a lingering pandemic, war raging, ballooning inflation, rising energy prices — had some voters preferring to stick with the establishment. And the Democrats benefited most from that disquiet.

The Democrats’ electoral lists received more votes than any other party in major cities such as Verona, Genoa and Palermo, according to the latest projections.

4. The 5Stars’ shine was further tarnished

The 5Stars have struggled to regain momentum since emerging victorious in Italy’s 2018 national parliamentary election.

On Sunday, the movement didn’t even have many mayoral candidates running. And it took a heavy symbolic loss in Parma, the first 5Star-controlled city, where the movement has disappeared since its popular mayor, Federico Pizzarotti, left the party under acrimonious circumstances.

“Since 2017 the 5Stars’ votes have been dispersed, replicating what is happening at the national level,” Pizzarotti told POLITICO. “Its strength was the activists in the base, but now the movement is led by famous personalities at the national level.”

Many of the 5Stars’ traditional voters likely abstained, according to pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco of YouTrend, while others went to the League or Brothers of Italy.

The 5Stars have historically performed poorly in local elections, so there is still hope it could recover ahead of next year’s election. In 2017, the movement also appeared finished before surging ahead in the parliamentary election the following year.

The 5Stars have been trying to form an alliance with the Democrats — more a marriage of necessity than a love match. They ran in coalition in 18 races out of the 26 provincial capitals, but never with a candidate of their own. And even when there was a coalition, often with the 5Stars supporting the Democrats’ candidate, it didn’t always work. In Genoa, once a leftist stronghold, the left’s joint candidate was defeated.

5. A referendum strategy hurt the right

Despite its electoral advances, the right and in particular the League took a credibility hit after it promoted a referendum on justice reforms that got almost no turnout — just one in five eligible Italians cast a vote.

Salvini, the League leader, blamed the government for holding a single-day election and vowed to carry out the reforms when he secures more government power.

Conversely, the Democrats’ leader Enrico Letta called the referendum “a failure” and said the correct route for such reforms is through parliament. 

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