IIT PROBABLY IS the most famous of modern Italian political aphorisms. “Power exhausts those who do not have it,” joked the late Giulio Andreotti, a longtime Prime Minister. His words had particular relevance this week to Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing Nordic League, as he reflected on the results of his second big miscalculation in five months. On January 26, the candidate for the post of governor of the League failed to conquer the region of Emilia-Romagna in a vote that Mr. Salvini had presented as a referendum on the advisability of ruling Italy .
Salvini only came out of power in August of last year. Until then, he was one of two deputy prime ministers in the first cabinet of Giuseppe Conte, a technocrat; he had a decisive influence on politics as leader of the party which has run the elections since mid-2018. But then he torpedoed the coalition government in order to force elections, hoping that it would give him an absolute parliamentary majority and unlimited powers. His rivals responded by forming a new coalition without him.
His last big miscalculation was to put himself at the head of a campaign he should have known more difficult to win than it seemed. Emilia-Romagna, which stretches from central to northern Italy, has drifted to the right in recent years. The left was lost in the general elections of 2018 and the European elections of 2019. But it is deeply rooted in a region of the Italian Communist Party which has disappeared today (PCI) chose as a showcase for its moderate “Eurocommunism”. The outgoing governor, Stefano Bonaccini, who made his political teeth in the PCIThe party’s successor is widely regarded as the head of an effective administration. A poll conducted last December showed that two-thirds of voters in Emilia-Romagna rated it positively. And almost twice as many people expressed their confidence in Mr. Bonaccini than in his challenger in the League. Salvini’s advisers likely warned him of similarly disheartening conclusions.
Two other factors played a role in the categorical defeat of the League (its candidate finished more than seven percentage points behind Mr. Bonaccini). The first could not have been foreseen: the eruption on the scene of a new movement, the so-called Sardines, a group of young leftist activists who began to beat Mr. Salvini at his own game of l packaging of city squares (hence their name). They succeeded on several occasions, no doubt convincing certain voters who would otherwise have abstained from voting for Mr. Bonaccini and the center-left Democratic Party (PD). The participation rate climbed to 68%, 30 points more than in the last regional ballot in 2014. The role of the Sardines in triggering the left-wing vote earned them an “immense thank you” for the PDThe national leader of Nicola Zingaretti.
The second factor, if it was not predictable, was certainly avoidable. In an area known for his moderation, Mr. Salvini mounted his usual xenophobic campaign. Stunts such as having video cameras record him asking a Tunisian immigrant over the intercom of his building if he was a drug dealer, the headlines made the news, but apparently not many hearts and of spirits in tolerant Emilia-Romagna.
In another regional election in the southern region of Calabria, the right stormed the victory. But that was hardly a consolation for Mr. Salvini, because the new governor came from the Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi, which today represents a form of conservatism less populist and eurosceptic than that of the League. Calabria is in any case special, a region in which political choices are strongly conditioned by the omnipresent influence of its mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta.
Mr. Salvini’s air of invincibility dissipated last summer. But now his stubborn approach is openly mocked. Elsa Fornero, minister in the technocratic government of Mario Monti from 2011-13, and author of a labor market reform that Mr. Salvini wanted to eliminate, asked playfully if he was stupid or if he pretended to be .
The chances of the League leader’s return to power remain solid, however. The last two elections were disastrous for the Five Star Movement (M5S), theoretically the main partner of Mr. Conte’s second government, which also includes PD. the M5S has almost a third of the seats in Parliament and the power to decide legislation. However, its candidates scraped 7% in Calabria and a pitiful 3% in Emilia-Romagna. They were hardly helped by the resignation four days before the election of the leader of the movement, Luigi Di Maio, largely in response to his gloomy representation in previous elections and the disarray that had arisen.
the M5s was created to challenge established parties, resists being called the party itself and claims to transcend the division between the right and the left. Inevitably, he found himself uncomfortable in power, all the more so now that he was in coalition with the mainstream PD. Since the general elections in March 2018, 24 of M5SEgypt’s 331 legislators have abandoned him in parliament.
What is happening now is unclear. Zingaretti proposed that the five stars officially join the PD in an electoral alliance that already includes other smaller groups. But his offer was implicitly rejected by the M5SVito Crimi, the leader of stopgap. The movement must hold a congress in March to decide to take a new direction.
This sets a quiet schedule given the pace at which the M5S is falling apart. The ruling coalition is safe in the lower house where it has a majority of 24. But in the Senate, the Five Star defections have already left it two seats below the majority and depend on the support of various regionalists and independents.
the PD is more compact. But this is largely because he lost nearly 40 of his parliamentarians to the benefit of Italia Viva, a group created last year by a former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. Italia Viva has not yet left and remains in the orbit of the government. But Mr. Renzi, who is courting the more moderate wing of Forza Italia, remains a joker. In this context, Mr. Salvini’s best choice could be to sit firmly and do as much as necessary. But it’s a hyperactive and advertising-hungry leader in the League who will have a hard time keeping up. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Salvini’s Sardine surprise”