Italian political maps

Italian political maps

The deep-rooted link between politics and territory in Italy

04/2018  | Reading time: 15 minutes

Looking at the results of the Italian elections since 1948, one can observe that the link between politics and territory is still strong. The political offer has radically changed since the era of the quite “theological” conflict between the Christian Democrats and the Communist party—and so did the Italians. What remains substantially unchanged is the deep cleavages that continue to endure in the extremely heterogeneous Italian society, where a highly differentiated territory is still able to shape the political preferences of its inhabitants.

The last Italian election left the country, as predicted, with a hung parliament, since no party was able to gain a working majority at the polls. According to this result, the question of which political forces will form the new government still lingers; the only clear fact is that the political map of Italy has changed again.

When we talk about political maps in Italy, we usually refer to some aspects of the country’s political and social background that, for many years, linked certain voting behaviours to a determined territory. These behaviours have distinguished specific areas since the first election held in 1948. For decades, during the period between 1948 and 1992, also known as the First Republic, this strong link between politics and territory has proved to be a useful tool to predict the advances or the failures of the main political forces, namely the Democrazia Cristiana (DC, Christian Democracy) and the former Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, Italian Communist Party).

The supremacy of these two parties made experts talk about the existence of a two-colour Italy: the white one represented those areas where the DC uninterruptedly proved victorious, while those areas where the PCI was dominant were painted red. These two colours—showing only a few variations in their territorial distribution—reappeared firmly during the whole Italian post-war political history until the 90s.

As already mentioned, the white colour denoted those regions where the DC resulted prominent, namely the north, although with different intensity from region to region, and the south. In all of these areas, catholic organizations, strongly embedded in the society, were able to shape values and voting decisions. Therefore, the clergy was not a neutral element, as it was able to influence the voters far from the “godless” Communist Party. However, unlike in the north, where a modern industrial society was developing, votes in the south were the expression of a more traditionalist society where personal connections among voters and local notables had a decisive role, and selling votes was a means of subsistence.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the PCI could have its best results in the central part of Italy and in some big cities of the north. It managed to became the dominant party there, thanks to the strong local network of its labour associations and to a more critical and “liberal” electorate that rewarded programs instead of political influence. The success of the PCI in these areas was firmly linked to its ability to get inside the local government institutions, where it had the chance to develop a closer relationship with its voters.

The results of the Italian general elections in 1948 (whites are the Christian Democrats, while the reds are the regions where the Popular Democratic Front, an alliance formed by the PCI and the Italian Socialist Party, prevailed)
Source: Wikipedia, author: Thern, licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

It was only after 1992 that this political scenario started to change with the success of the leghe (i.e. leagues) in the north and the scandals connected to Mani Pulite, a nationwide judicial investigation into corruption that led to the arrest of many leading political figures. Apart from halving the Italian political class, Mani Pulite also led to the disintegration of the governing DC and of its main opponent, the PCI. This “legal revolution” brought within the country a new individual awareness that shaped new voting behaviours and a growing disaffection towards traditional parties. The appearance of new political actors and the rise of absenteeism was the direct result of the vacuum left by traditional parties.

It was no earlier than the 1994 general elections that a new political landscape emerged. This was the year when Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Forward Italy) first entered the political arena and led a centre-right coalition to win the elections. Together with Forza Italia, two other new parties made their first entrance into the government team. One was Lega Nord (LN, North League), created by the fusion of two regional parties—Liga Veneta (Venetian Leage) and Lega Lombarda (Lombard League)—and a few other small autonomist groups that in the 1992 elections, under the lead of Umberto Bossi, was able to reach 8.6%. The other was Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale (AN, National Alliance), which was created from the former Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI, Italian Social Movement) founded by the heirs to the fascist Italian Social Republic, a puppet state of the Nazi Germany after 1943. It was right after the victory of Berlusconi and his allies that the political map of Italy was repainted with three new colours: green, grey, and blue.

Limited to the northern regions, at these times, Lega Nord was a secessionist and ethnonationalist party, distinguished by its green-shirted supporters. It was able to preserve the strong link between territory and politics that was heavily weakened by the disappearance of the DC in this areas. However, Lega started to use territory in a novel way. For the first time, the territorial issues were used against national politics, due to the successful invention of the myth of “northern questions.” In practical terms, this argument said that the productive north had to fight for its freedom and against the laziness of the state-subsided southern Mezzogiorno and against a highly corrupted political class in Rome. The voters of LN, one-time supporters of DC, belonged to the urban middle class which owned small and medium enterprises, symbols of the Italian economic miracle in the 1950s and 1960s.

While Lega got the bulk of its votes in the north, in the south, where the conservative and catholic component of the Italian society was stronger, the AN managed to rose. The success of Fini’s attempts to moderate the fascist past of his party—and also its black colour, turning it to grey—allowed him to conquer the domains of the former MSI, which granted a sure electorate for the centre-right in the following years.

These two colours, the green and the grey, mingled together inside Berlusconi’s political machine that for the first time was able to weaken the strong link between politics and territory. Blue was the colour chosen by the il Cavaliere, a nickname for Berlusconi since he got the Order of Merit for Labour in 1977—and what would be a better colour to create a national catch-all party that overtook internal political and territorial borders than the colour used by one of Italy’s football teams on its skirt. Moreover, Berlusconi’s “entrance to the pitch” also set off a new political language, a mix of populist rhetoric and a massive amount of football terms. At the same time, Berlusconi’s “crusade” against the alleged communist threat, which he said was posed by the parties of the Left and the corrupted judiciary, was a clear attempt to attract ex-DC voters, playing on their 40-year-long fears. The distribution of votes of the FI clearly showed the party’s nationwide character. From the richest part of the north to Sicily, Berlusconi managed to turn Italy into his own territory.

Nevertheless, on the Left, due to the end of the Cold War, the PCI was also forced to transform; the party winded up flowing into the social democratic Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS, Democratic Party of the Left). Anyway, after a long and painful party makeover, which involved many new names until the latest Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) could stay, the Left succeeded to stem the “blue flood” and to maintain its unassailable control on the previous PCI’s domains. The fall of the old political ideologies and the territorially more fluid politics also gave the Left the chance to intermittently won support in other areas such as southern Italy that traditionally used to belong to the DC.

The succession of “blue” and “red” governments was welcomed as a healthy sign for the Italian political system, and many experts even stated that the country definitively moved on to a stable two-party system, as Giovanni Sartori put it in its definition. That was quite true until the 2013 general elections, when a new colour emerged. This colour has become even stronger after 2018’s outcome.

The results of the Italian general election in 1994
Source: Wikipedia, author: Lochness, licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

In fact, this year, the previous blue & red competition failed, because a new player has emerged: this was the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, Five Star Movement). This movement got a significant result in the 2018 elections, where it gained the 32.6% of all votes and became the most voted single party painting the map of Italy with a new colour—yellow.

The colour of the stars on the M5S’ flag is also used by its supporters during their rallies. The M5S, just as the FI, wants to appeal, drawing greatly on the Web, to a nationwide electorate. In fact, the good result of the movement owes to its ability to gather the voice of all those Italians that have lost their faith in parties, elites, and faraway European bureaucrats, while are afraid of a wild and uncontrollable immigration. Small wonder that the M5S attracted broader support in southern Italy, as the gap between this area and the wealthiest northern regions became more evident since the 2009’s economic crisis.

The M5S’s main opponent in the last elections was the centre-right, whose previous leader, Berlusconi, was forced to give the primacy to the Lega’s new frontman, Matteo Salvini, whose strong populist and anti-immigration rhetoric ended up being attractive at those territories that were historically administrated by the Left—but also in the south. At the same time, the word Nord was thrown out from the party’s name, as its leaders tried to give the party a more national dimension.

However, the most striking outcome of the last election was the almost entire disappearance of the red colour form the map. In fact, 2018’s biggest loser is the centre-left coalition, as it experienced a consistent loss of votes also in those regions that historically belonged to the “red belt” of the country.

Winners of the first-past-the-post constituencies for Chamber of Deputies in 2018 (the blues are the centre-right regions, the yellows are those won by M5S, while the oranges are where the centre-left managed to prevail)
Source: Wikipedia, author: Thern, licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

So, with a fading red, an even vaster blue, but this time under the Lega’s leadership, and an unrivalled yellow, the political map of Italy has changed once again. However, it is striking to see how precisely the borders of the regions won by the Lega and of those won by the M5S correspond to the geographical dividing line between the northern and the southern part of the country. In fact, the last elections bluntly echoed back to the strong link between politics and territory, showing once again the deep cultural and social differences that distinguish Italian political behaviour. The blue area corresponds today to the richest part of the country where the need for a more dynamic and liberal economy matches the features always dear to the Right, like law, order, and security. The yellow area, however, delineates the regions with the highest unemployment and poverty rates, where the need for a material support from the state is stronger and people wanted to show their discomfort casting a protest vote.

To sum up, if one observes the results of Italian elections since 1948, he can conclude: the link between the country’s different territories and politics continues to stay firm. Although the market of political offers and Italian voting behaviour has changed a few times since the middle of the last century, the main boundaries dividing the Italian society and their territorial representation are here to stay and continue to influence Italians’ political preferences.

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