Analysis. The region, which had been “red” since the second half of the 19th century, has lost its “color,” changed its skin and become fickle and changeable like the rest of Italy.

Emilia-Romagna elections Sunday will check the political temperature of Italian society

In less than a week’s time, voters in the formerly “red” region of Emilia-Romagna will go to the polls. As we all know, this will be a crucial moment that will offer a clear sign, not so much of the destiny of the current government—whatever the results may be—but one that will help us understand the direction in which our political system is going and how the orientations, values and needs of Italian society are changing.

This is the region with the highest percentage of foreigners in Italy, and also one where the “over 65s” are almost a fifth of the population. It is a region where the population is decreasing in a quarter of the municipalities, where 87% of residents live in urban areas, and where, on the other hand, a third of the municipalities have less than 5,000 inhabitants each (making up only 8.1% of residents). Furthermore, the small municipalities are the ones with the greatest presence of the elderly, the smallest presence of foreigners, and which are also the most “peripheral.” 

It is a rich region, with low unemployment, where 40% of exports are going abroad (a figure that was just 15% in 1980), with a per capita income among the highest in Italy, while not at all equally distributed, on the territory or among the classes.

While the Bologna area is the richest, which is together with Parma and Modena among those with an income above the regional average, the four provinces of Romagna, together with Piacenza, are far below this average (with a 20% smaller average income than Bologna). It is a region where 70.7% of residents have incomes below €26,000 per year (in the city of Bologna, the proportion is 63.7%, while in Rimini it is 77.7%). But this accounts for only 42% of the total income for the region, with an inequality that is lower than the rest of the country overall, but higher than the national average in the richest areas (in Bologna and Parma, 8% of residents have incomes above €55,000 per year). 

Furthermore, like the rest of Italy, this is a region where the highest incomes and the middle classes are concentrated in the urban centers, while the lowest income classes are concentrated in the suburban and peripheral areas.

In Emilia-Romagna, just like in the rest of Italy, the social composition and economic conditions have changed in recent years, a fact that has been reflected in the electoral orientation and has conditioned, in turn, the evolution of the political system. While the region has almost emerged from the crisis that began in 2008, that doesn’t mean socio-economic fractures accentuated by the combination of globalized capitalism and neoliberal-austerity policies have not manifested themselves here. And even in this region, despite one of the most competent regional administrations in Italy, the effects of national political choices have made themselves felt. Territorial and class divisions have consolidated and solidified.

Until the European elections in 2014, this was one of the few regions in Italy where political affiliation and civic tradition had gone hand in hand: high voter participation and high party loyalty, the “Emilian model.” However, starting from the 2014 regional elections, that model has gone into crisis, and its recent political history is the history of a lost hegemony.

The region, which had been “red” since the second half of the 19th century, has lost its “color,” changed its skin and become fickle and changeable like the rest of Italy. Much has already been written about this phenomenon, and political scientists have given several interpretations—from the end of the power of the social bloc to the demise of a system of power—but I believe we can assign the cause to a phenomenon that has also manifested in the rest of the country. The left, and the Democratic Party first of all, abandoned its socialist orientation after 1989, sailing away in pursuit of the north star of economic growth, infatuated by Blair and counting on the model of “social” Europe—the rising tide that is supposed to lift all boats—while replacing the historical objective of equal opportunities with that of equal rights.

The previous standard of good government, no longer guided by a clear ideological direction and by a class-based consensus aimed at taming capitalism, has transformed into mere good administration, setting aside its earlier vocation for solidarity to promote a pure modernist one. After the adhesion to the Europeanist model, however, the flaws of this orientation were exposed: it became impossible to propose an alternative vision to that of fiscal rigorist Europe, one that had previously managed to create—particularly in this region—a “pact” between the working classes and the productive classes to underlie its propulsive model.

This is, as we know, the source of the “populist” impulses. In the 2018 elections, M5S overtook the Democratic Party in the region, and at the 2019 European elections, Salvini’s Lega accomplished the same feat. But the political “geography,” in this region, as in the rest of the country, shows that now the divisions are no longer the same as they were in the past: it is the suburban and peripheral areas that are rewarding populism, and it is the less protected classes that are espousing an antagonism that is no longer “ideological” but social, tied to their present condition (and future perspectives). 

The twin populisms of the Five Stars and the Lega are gaining ground: the “egalitarian” one of the M5S, which targets the urban and suburban classes, and the securitarian, identitarian, anti-multicultural one of the Lega, which targets the more peripheral classes, finding strong support in the concentrations of the elderly, rural, suburban population.

The PD comes to these regional elections after two heavy electoral defeats—a punch-drunk boxer holding on to the “cold” alliance with the M5S to keep the anti-Lega dam from bursting. Its electorate is still concentrated in the central and richest urban areas, the most unequal ones, where the less protected classes have become disillusioned by the promises of the M5S after being disenchanted by the center-left in the past. The reason for the appeal of the Lega is that it is deceiving the productivist social bloc by promising them a boost that will never come. 

If Emilia-Romagna President Stefano Bonaccini, a Democrat, manages to hold onto power, this will be solely because the moderate productive classes will have once again given credit to a system that—in a more effective manner in this region than elsewhere—has kept things moving forward within the dynamics of neoliberal globalized capitalism.

Bonaccini should have aimed instead—not just in this campaign, but in the five years in which he was at the head of the regional government—at rallying the less protected classes around a project that would involve them directly, exploiting the attractiveness of the region, focusing on innovation and social development, changing the model instead of just following the trend, and starting a fundamental debate on the reasons that led to the dissolution and abandonment of the previous loyalties of the popular classes. 

Now, he has come to the end of the line and hopes to be able to start the old electoral engine once more, counting on the rise of the popular awareness that has understood that, even though the status quo choice is not really defending their future prospects, the other side has nothing to offer them in this regard.

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