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Arianna Capuani: Silvio Berlusconi's party loses control of Milan to the Left for the first time in nearly two decades

Arianna Capuani Arianna Capuani is responsible for foreign relations in the United Kingdom for the Italian localist think tank Fondazione per la Sussidiarietà.

Monday 6pm update:

After results from at 90% of polling stations, Giuliano Pisapia was the winner with 55.15% votes overall against Moratti's 44.85%. Pisapia's spokesman Maurizio Baruffi talked about a victory over lies and defamation, while supporters exhalt in Piazza Duomo. The newly elected mayor was congratulated by the Pd leader Bersani. He added that the government should call new elections.

Milan is not the only city that PdL lost control of, as Naples saw a landslide victory for Luigi de Magistris, the Italia dei Valori candidate, with 64.95% against the Pdl candidate Lettieri, who got a meagre 35.04%. Trieste and Cagliari saw further victories for the centre left coalition.

As a result, the PdL national coordinator Sandro Bondi bizarrely resigned, while saying Berlusconi deserves full support and absolute freedom to decide about the future of the party.


In Britain, you might be forgiven for thinking that Italian politics is nothing but steamy scandals and the threat they pose to the long pre-eminence of Silvio Berlusconi.  But right now, he risks a political disaster of a more mundane, British kind: awful results in local elections.

Losing Milan, the financial capital of Italy and heart of Lombardy, one of the most productive regions in Europe, would be a blow to Berlusconi’s Popolo delle Liberta (PdL). In the latest mayoral elections, the PdL candidate Letizia Moratti scored 41.58% against 48% for Giuliano Pisapia, a lawyer supported by the Left. There is a further vote starting this weekend to proclaim a winner.  It is the first ballot the Left have won in a Milanese mayoral election since 1993.

Many people have tried to explain their impressive performance. While a considerable drop in the number of voters has not been recorded, the critical question is whether the rise of Pisapia is due to voters appreciating some intrinsic quality of his programme for the city of Milan or if it’s a reprisal against Berlusconi and his ineffective handling of power.

One thing is certain: Moratti’s team did not prepare an effective campaign. A defender of Moratti, Mario Mauro MEP, said that Moratti’s programme rightly focused on problems relevant to the city administration – such as security, taxes and the removal of ecopass (a tax on carbon emissions by cars) – but surprisingly not on the young and their job opportunities.  What’s more, Berlusconi seems to have polarized the campaign around himself, obscuring his own party’s candidate. 

After Moratti accused Pisapia of being on the side of Brigate Rosse, Berlusconi added further personal attacks. That was an atrocious mistake that obscured every single positive achievement the Moratti administration had made for Milan. Moratti has now paid the high price of losing in every single consiglio di zona (territorial unit) in the city of Milan, as she was identified with Berlusconi’s handling of the politics, which was dominated by personal attacks.  Moratti, on the other hand, is a high middle class lady, and an understated politician; interestingly, Pisapia is from the same social group. In such a fight between two members of the bourgeoisie, Pisapia is sending reassuring messages to the moderate voters his victory depends upon.

Only his intention of building a large mosque aroused their suspicion. Some say Pisapia, after initially responding positively, is responsible for stopping a demonstration that had been organised by Muslims to support him at the last minute. Not that he has changed his mind, but now the mosque will be built “in full compliance with the rules, and not at the expense of the city of Milan”. That pledge seems better designed to appeal to the swing voters at the centre of the political spectrum in the city.

His actual programme largely speaks to centre-left moderates, (despite winning over the Pd candidate thanks to the far Left votes) and some parts of it have been heavily criticized. The staunchest free market advocate in Italy, Istituto Bruno Leoni’s Director, Alberto Mingardi, told Corriere della Sera that Pisapia’s programme is composed of a series of catchphrases that have been common currency on the Left since 1989. While it’s very good to hope for more career opportunities for women, parity can hardly be imposed by law; Pisapia is refusing to consider privatizing municipalized companies; and, last but not least, Pisapia seems to listen more to city authority planners than ordinary citizens and local enterprises.  Antonio Intiglietta, from the Catholic business association Compagnia delle Opere, stressed how far Pisapia’s programme is from the highly developed form of Big Society localism that Lombardy has followed throughout its history, with its roots in Catholic subsidiarity.

Unfortunately other factors are also helping Pisapia’s electoral chances. For example, the region, the province and the city administration took too long arguing about who should do what for the Expo in 2015, despite all being on the same side of the political fence. Archbishop Tettamanzi has said that change is desirable, and his judgment is held in high consideration by Catholic voters.

A defeat for the Right in one of its strongholds would be a strong signal that the PdL is in trouble. Should Pisapia win, the socialist Partito Democratico (PD) and the staunch lefties “grillini” (the followers of the ex-comic actor Beppe Grillo, now running a famous blog) will fight for the rule of Milan.  That would be an incredible defeat for the Italian Right and the result of years spent failing to deliver on promises of reform.  The Right should learn that empty promises can tire out even die-hard conservatives, that is a lesson for conservative parties everywhere.


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