Why Italy’s ‘Red Belt’ Has Unbuckled – POLITICO


Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Writer at POLITICO Europe.

When asked who he would vote for on the eve of Italy’s snap general election, Renzo Ramacciani, a retired bricklayer in his 60s, clapped his hand on the kitchen table and said: ‘Meloni’ .

Like many of his friends, he has so far always voted for the Democratic Party (PD). So why the change?

The party “no longer pays any attention to the little people, to the working people,” Renzo said. And in towns and villages north of Rome, there is no exception.

Those who live here have long been part of the country’s so-called ‘red belt’, once the most leftist regions of central Italy. But the belt came unbuckled.

In the last elections, some older voters in northern Lazio left the PD and supported the 5 Star Movement, seeing it as a way to cast a protest vote. Matteo Salvini’s right-wing nationalist, the League, has also seen an outpouring of support from young voters, unhappy with the lack of job prospects as well as a wave of migrants in the region – they confused the two wrongly.

This time around, however, Giorgia Meloni’s new national-conservative Italy Brothers have been the big beneficiaries of an organized election as voters grapple with soaring inflation and wonder how they will pay their bills. of energy.

Energy costs have skyrocketed, and restaurants and bars that have managed to survive the pandemic are now facing monumental electricity and gas bills. A restaurant in the village of Celleno saw its average monthly energy bill jump from around €2,000 to just under €5,000. And some establishments have even taken to displaying their invoices to explain why they charge customers more.

Founded only ten years ago and with roots in the Italian Social Movement (MSI) – which was formed by supporters of Benito Mussolini after World War II – the neo-fascist roots of the Brothers of Italy have not put off Renzo or his friends in the villages near Viterbo from voting for Meloni. They accept her claim that she’s a conservative, not a fascist, and they’ve been willing to ignore her own youthful MSI membership – she joined the youth wing at the age of 19, much to the horror of his leftist party. Roman parents.

Ahead of the election, several PD defectors I spoke to in northern Lazio said they would take Meloni at face value, insisting they weren’t voting for her because of burning social issues. such as abortion or LGBTQ+ rights – this despite campaigning on the slogan ‘God, Fatherland and Family’ and her party making it difficult for women to access abortion services in the Marches neighbours, where his party leads the regional government.

“The press portrays it as a sort of second advent of Mussolini; I don’t believe it,” said Pietro, a 58-year-old trader in Bagnioregio. “They should give it a chance. God knows we need something to change, we need more certainty, more stability,” he added.

Most say they voted for Meloni, or alliance partners La Liga and Forza Italia, because of empty wallets. In other words, it was “the economy, stupid”. So if Meloni takes a radical direction once in power and pleases his die-hard supporters by waging a culture war over reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights, his right-wing coalition risks losing the newfound support it has gained.

More than anything, however, these residents voted for Meloni because they lost faith in the established parties.

A sense of foreboding has hovered over Italy’s mountainous heartland for years. In the central regions of Lazio, Umbria and Marche, distrust of the government has increased. Many feel that successive governments have ignored them and are frustrated by the lack of follow through on economic promises.

However, Rome has paid more attention in the past two years, with Mario Draghi’s coalition government funding much-needed road maintenance in central Italy and backing restoration work on long-neglected cultural monuments – an investment thanks in large part to EU funds and the prospect of some additional €200bn to come in grants and loans, aimed at improving Italy’s lagging economic performance.

But those postcard-perfect regions of central Italy – with summer pastures of sunflowers and poppies, lush vineyards, rows of centuries-old olive trees and medieval stone hilltop towns – have struggled to offset the decline of commercial agriculture for years, desperately exploring ways to reshape themselves as tourist destinations and centers for the craft trades.

But the 2008 financial crash sent a booming regional tourism industry into a tailspin from which it was slowly recovering, only for the COVID-19 pandemic to hit.

The country has pulled off a strong economic rebound this year, growing at an annualized rate of just over 4% in the second quarter of 2022, but that won’t make up for decades of lost ground – it doesn’t even make up for it the 9% contraction in GDP in 2020, the biggest drop in the euro zone after Spain.

Economists attribute Italy’s abysmal economic performance over the past quarter-century to high taxes, a rigid labor market, excessive government spending, heavy regulation, bloated bureaucracy and a lack of competitiveness. For many residents of northern Lazio, however, the blame lies with politicians, whom locals accuse of corruption and cronyism. They also include elite Eurocrats from faraway Brussels in their list of officials.

While tourists see little to complain about in scenic Lazio, over the past decade Umbria and Le Marche have been scorching hot for locals, and the hardest hit are young people, competing for dwindling job opportunities.

Most of them have no choice but to leave if they want to find a sustainable and well-paid job, while those who remain fatally boomerang from one short-term gig to another – often in trade retail, or in what remains of the hard-hit hospitality sector.

Many of those who remain dream of emigrating but stay because of family ties, a strong affinity with their home region, or crippling lethargy and resignation. “I don’t see any future in Lazio. I’m thinking of going abroad, maybe to Spain,” 24-year-old Veronica Deiana told me recently. But she admits she’s been saying it for a long time.

Desperation is brewing – and to the growing advantage of right-wing populist and nationalist parties. The deep disaffection that drives the national mood – genuine concern about the country’s economic prospects amid high youth unemployment and dysfunctional public services – is all too easily channeled into anti-migrant fervor, adding to the toxicity and anxiety. And while the PD dismisses these fears of being “overwhelmed” by migrants as xenophobia, the party’s response has done little to stop the bleeding of their traditional voters into the red belt.

A fractured left offered no persuasive compensatory vision to convince people like Anna-Maria, a 45-year-old housewife in the Umbrian town of Orvieto, who on the eve of the election said she would break her habit of voting for the left.

“The Democratic Party has done nothing to stop the invasion of migrants…These migrants are not us. We don’t have enough money for ourselves and our children can’t find jobs. Enough is enough.”

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