Opinion: what’s really cooking in the Northern Italian referendums?

During the 1970s, many of the richest regions in Europe rediscovered both their cultural peculiarities and their old intolerance towards central institutions. Northern Italy was no exception. Now, decades later, separatists claims to the legendary ‘Padania’ imagined by the secessionist party Lega Nord (LN) are still relevant. But is independence the only aim?
A campervan promoting Lega Nord in Tuscany, Italy.

Barcelona faced a contested referendum on 1st October, and now Milan and Venice are being called to the polls on October 22nd. The question, as phrased by governors Roberto Maroni and Luca Zaia – both important Lega Nord politicians – leaves little room for interpretation: “Do you want Veneto to be given greater forms and conditions of autonomy?” On the surface, it appears that LN could finally realise its 30 year old dream of a bright, more autonomous future. However, there is more to these referendums than you might think.

A hollow referendum? 

Both referendums are nothing but consultative, and a victory on the autonomists’ side may only lead to years of fruitless negotiations between the central state and these two wealthy regions. Indeed, acquiring a special status for Lombardy and Veneto might not be the real goal of this campaign.

Since its creation in 1989, Lega Nord – literally “the Northern League” – has claimed to be the voice of hard-working populations whose high revenues were, they claimed, unjustly redistributed to the lazy southerners. Backed up by imaginative legends of a common northern history and ethnicity, Lega’s ambition was to divide Italy in two at the Po river, leaving Southern Italy on one side and Padania on the other.

This program mirrored that of several other independentist parties all over Europe, says Italian researcher Emmanuel Dalle Mulle. In his recent book, Dalle Mulle points out how the common thread of all these different parties was “ending the economic ‘exploitation’ suffered by a wealthy nation and supposedly carried out by the population of poorer regions”. In other words, rich nationalism hoped to reshape Europe.

Towards a new strategy

This narrative is fed by the fact that Lombardy and Veneto contribute a significant amount to the national GDP, according to EUROSTAT. While the former produces goods and services worth €357 million, the latter generates an estimated €151 million, which is far more than any other region. It’s therefore easy to understand why the citizens of these northern regions might be tempted to ask for greater financial autonomy. But Lega Nord has since moved beyond their Padania narrative.

However, since Matteo Salvini took the reins of the Lega in 2013, the movement’s separatism ambitions have been overshadowed by a new strategy. Aligning with many other right-wing populist movements, Salvini decided to reshape Lega around Euro-skepticism and a strong critique of current immigration policies. The transformation was completed in April 2014 when, ahead of the European Parliament elections, the slogan “No more euro” replaced the historical “Padania” as the party’s national slogan. At the same time, Salvini launched a parallel movement, Noi con Salvini (Us with Salvini), to reach out to those Italian regions – especially in the South – where Lega previously didn’t have a wide following.

If Salvini’s massive operation did allow Lega Nord to reach – according to the latest surveys – 12.9% of the population, this abrupt restyling doesn’t necessarily resonate with northern voters, who might feel they’ve been abandoned by a movement that used to serve their interests. This is where the referendum card comes in handy.

Just a few years ago, in March 2014, the Italian institute for political and social research Demos published the results of a survey conducted in Veneto. The research showed that 80% of the local population would have opted for independence, had a referendum been held.

Three years later, this data is still relevant, and Salvini knows it: in the north, most voters are still attached to Lega’s old values rather than to its new goals. Although, at the moment, the party seems to be doing better on a national level, the leader risks losing the party’s hard core of loyalists, should the populist, euro-skeptical program lose relevance.

“This referendum is probably the result of a tacit agreement: Salvini accepts Maroni’s and Zaia’s regional nation-building policies and, in exchange, they don’t challenge him on a national level,” says Dalle Mulle.

The researcher, who’s been observing his native Veneto from the Graduate Institute in Geneva for the past three years, also believes the referendums has a more subtle objective: that of strengthening Lega’s positions in the Italian national and regional elections of spring 2018. As Italy now heads into months of tireless election campaigning, even a symbolic victory might alter the political balances within the country’s right wing parties.

“The referendum’s questions are so generic, their answer so self-evident that this might as well be just a purely symbolic issue at this point,” Dalle Mulle states. After all, whether voters will reach for such succulent (albeit low-hanging) fruit is a matter of little doubt.

This guest article was brought to you by Viola Serena Stefanello. Follow her on Twitter here.