CCC Blog - Giorgia Meloni’s triumphal march stops in Sardinia

Giorgia Meloni’s triumphal march stops in Sardinia: a regional election with national implications

Published: 29 February 2024

As I write this piece, the votes cast in the Sardinian regional election on 25th February are still being counted, nearly four days after the polls closed. This situation perhaps speaks to the state of democracy in Italy: a slow, convoluted, and cumbersome process, where citizens’ preferences are filtered through the bureaucratic lenses of a not particularly responsive state.

However, despite some missing votes in the total count, the outcome has now been accepted by all competing parties: the right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy (FdI), was defeated by a coalition comprising the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which in recent years has gradually shifted towards more markedly left-wing and socially progressive positions.

Seeking re-election in a swing region

Sardinia, the second-largest Italian island with 1.6 million inhabitants, is a typical ‘swing region’, characterised by constant government alternation: over the last thirty years, no incumbent presidents and their parties or coalitions have remained in power. This time was no exception. The incumbent president, Christian Solinas, was even dismissed before the election by his own allies on the right, who, under pressure from Giorgia Meloni, replaced him with Paolo Truzzu, a member of her party and the mayor of the regional capital, Cagliari. The hope was to at least partly break historical trends and, by removing an unpopular president, help the right-wing coalition maintain control of the regional government. However, this decision was also met with criticism and discontent, particularly from Matteo Salvini and his League, which governs with Meloni’s party in Rome and continued to support Solinas. In the end, the entire right-wing coalition agreed to support Truzzu, also believing that after a streak of significant election victories, Meloni would once again lead her party to triumph, thus further extending her honeymoon with Italian voters that began in September 2022.

Thus, despite some tensions, the right was widely regarded as the favourite in the regional election, also because more significant fractures emerged within the left. The PD and the M5S managed to coalesce around Alessandra Todde, a member of the M5S, marking a further step in building a ‘large progressive camp’ (campo largo), following various failed attempts. However, this coalition was accompanied by a rupture with a powerful figure in Sardinia, Renato Soru, a former PD member and former president of the region, who decided to run as an independent, thereby dividing the opposition to the incumbent right-wing government.

A setback for Meloni and her coalition

The results, still not definitive but clear enough, were shocking for Giorgia Meloni and galvanising for opposition parties. Once again, parties that governed the region for a term were punished by the voters, who instead rewarded Todde and her progressive camp. Surprisingly, despite the break-up with former President Soru, the centre-left coalition appeared cohesive and fully committed to supporting their selected candidate, who was eventually perceived as more credible by voters than Meloni’s candidate. Quite worryingly for the right, Truzzu performed particularly poorly in Cagliari, the city of which he is mayor, indicating clear discontent with the way the coalition is governing not only at the regional level but also locally.

Italian and foreign media were quick to draw conclusions from these results, marking a clear setback for Meloni, who until recently was considered to be in a rather comfortable position vis-à-vis both her adversaries and allies. The disappointing outcome of the regional election has made the Prime Minister more vulnerable to criticism from coalition partners. Clearly, her decision to change candidate did not pay off in Sardinia. Simultaneously, within the right, there were suspicions that Salvini and his party had plotted against Meloni’s candidate and resorted to split voting (voto disgiunto). This is an option available to voters in most Italian regional elections, allowing them to select a party from one coalition and a candidate for president from another coalition (regional presidents are directly elected in Italy). In Cagliari, for instance, one out of every three League voters used split voting to express their preference for Todde over Truzzu. This may have contributed to the election defeat for the right, as the results were very close: Todde won 45.4% of the vote against Truzzu’s 45%.

Between barometer voting and regional peculiarities

Overall, despite being an island with relatively strong autonomist (and even pro-independence) tendencies, Sardinia is not new in drawing attention for setting national trends. In 1999, a regional election there punished the parties supporting the then Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, less than one year before his downfall. In 2004, Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition lost there, anticipating their defeat in the 2006 general election. In 2009, the Sardinian PD led by the incumbent Renato Soru was defeated, resulting in the resignation of the PD national leader Walter Veltroni. More recent swings from left to right and vice versa have also been interpreted as a barometer of national politics. This should be a cause for concern for Meloni and her coalition.

At the same time, Sardinia remains a rather peculiar political environment. It features a highly fragmented party system, characterised by numerous local and regional groups vying for votes. The effective number of electoral parties in this election reached a record level of 14, with the largest party, the PD, securing just 13.8% of the vote, followed closely by FdI at 13.6%. Sardinia’s political landscape is also notably volatile; on this occasion, more than one third of the vote distribution shifted across parties from one election to the next. This volatility partly reflects the well-known instability of Italian politics but also constitutes a region-specific phenomenon, as two-thirds of Sardinian electoral volatility is linked to regionalist and local lists (often associated with specific candidates and personalities, and disappearing at the subsequent election). All of this was accompanied by low political participation, with turnout at around 50%, confirming a declining trend observed since the late 2000s. In summary, in a context of high uncertainty, swings, and slow vote count, citizens’ disengagement with the electoral process emerges, once again, as the undisputed winner.

Davide Vampa is Senior Lecturer in Territorial Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Co-Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. 

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