Cablegate: Pre-Election Landscape: Dominant Center-Right And

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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MILAN 000021


E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/15/2020


Classified By: Consul General Carol Z. Perez for reasons 1.4(b) and (d)

1. SUMMARY: (SBU) Heading into the March 28-29 regional
elections, the political landscape in the Veneto, one of
Italy's most politically and economically important regions,
displays a dominant center-right coalition headed by a
Northern League (LN) candidate and a weak and disorganized
center-left opposition. The Northern League party is strong
and growing stronger both in relation to the opposition and
within its center-right coalition, due to increasing popular
support for hard-line positions on security and immigration;
the election of LN Agricultural Minister Luca Zaia as the
region's next president is a foregone conclusion. The
outcome of the regional election in the Veneto and elsewhere
could change the balance of power between the LN and Popolo
della Libert (Pdl), Prime Minister Berlusconi's ruling
party. In contrast to the center-right's strong and unified
front, the center-left opposition is in disarray. In
addition to its almost certain loss in the upcoming regional
contest, the center-left Democratic Party (PD) faces the
potential loss of the mayorship of Venice, a position that it
has held for over twenty years.

Northern League: Strong Venetian Roots, and Growing Stronger

2. (SBU) With gubernatorial elections coming up on March
28-29, the Northern League (LN) party is in an extremely
strong position in the economically and politically important
Veneto region, both within its center-right coalition and
vis--vis the center-left opposition. The center-right
coalition has chosen an LN candidate, current Agriculture
Minister Luca Zaia, to stand for election next month and
officials from both the center-right and from the
center-left, composed primarily of the Democratic Party (PD),
agree that the LN has outmaneuvered its opponents in the
region, reading the popular mood and appealing to an
ever-broadening segment of the electorate.

3. (SBU) Crucial to the LN's regional appeal is its
connection to the territory and its use of a unique,
sometimes crude political rhetoric that appeals to Veneto
voters. Home to the historically powerful and independent
city-state of Venice, the Veneto maintains an identity that
is proud of its achievements, especially in the economic
realm, and is wary of outside interference. Northern League
founder and leader Umberto Bossi has successfully parlayed
the LN's flagship issue, fiscal federalism, into a broader
platform of security and protection from outside threats,
linking the rise in immigration with crime, unemployment, and
a general degradation of Italian cultural identity. This
political formula holds continued appeal for the LN's
traditional electoral base, the small- and medium-sized
business owners who make up the economic fabric of the
Veneto, but this savvy platform fusing fiscal federalism and
immigration has also had growing resonance with workers, a
traditionally leftist bloc, whom LN leaders assert no longer
feel ""protected"" by the PD and other parties. The LN has
made an increasingly convincing argument that unfairly high
taxes imposed by Rome put people out of business and that
immigrant workers take Italian jobs. Recently this second
claim has been especially compelling, given the ever higher
number of immigrants arriving in the Veneto and the global
economic crisis, which has led to many job losses in the

4. (SBU) LN rhetoric about immigration ranges from slightly
protectionist to overtly xenophobic, and the LN has
successfully linked immigrants to crime in the minds of an
increasingly large swath of voters. LN policies at the local
levels often focus on expelling illegal immigrants and
""cleaning up"" the often run-down neighborhoods in which they
live - measures that citizens often perceive, in practical
terms, as cleaning up the streets, reducing crime, and
generally improving the quality of life. The opposition
refutes the logic behind these measures as well as claims
about their effectiveness, but even they admit that on the
issue of security, the Northern League is king. A PD
official from the city of Treviso noted that economic
insecurity in Italy is the more salient issue, especially in
the recent downturn, but that the LN has seized on physical
security as its issue, which is easier to explain to voters,
and has translated it into political gain.

Party of the People - and the Young

5. (SBU) Although many LN leaders would be reluctant to admit
it, the Northern League in the Veneto draws heavily from
Italy,s former communist tradition and has retained that
close, grass-roots connection to the electorate; supporters
across the region refer glowingly to the LN as the only

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""party of the masses"" and ""party of the people"" currently in
the country. The LN has continued to expand its physical
presence with numerous, accessible party offices and outposts
that also double as community centers. LN leaders and voters
alike boast that their mayors and councilmen are always out
and about, talking to people and maintaining a personal
relationship with their constituents - practicing what hugely
popular Verona mayor Flavio Tosi has termed ""supermarket
politics."" The LN,s pervasive reputation for good public
administration seems to stem directly from this
responsiveness, accessibility, and visibility. Furthermore -
largely due to its strong physical presence and proactive
outreach in the region - the Northern League has successfully
courted the youth vote and seems to be making great progress
in cultivating the next generation of LN voters. A Treviso
Pd official said that in 2009 he organized a visit to
Strasbourg for area teens to learn more about the EU
Parliament, the first arranged by the region,s Democratic
Party in 15 years; over the same period, however, the
Northern League has organized multiple similar trips per

Democratic Party Struggling for Coherence, Votes, and Venice

6. (SBU) In contrast to the Northern League,s rise, the
center-left in Veneto is struggling to put forward a cohesive
platform and communicate a strong party identity to the
electorate. The party is suffering from a declining share of
the vote, and its loss in March,s race for the regional
presidency is virtually assured. The Pd,s choice for
gubernatorial candidate displays the party,s internal
weakness and identity crisis; Venice city councilman Giuseppe
Bortolussi is far from a typical Democrat, with an
ideologically independent bent and a conservative,
pro-business stance. Bortolussi - who, well before the
announcement of his candidacy, told us that he did not want
to run, but would ""obey"" if his party,s leadership asked him
to - has for over thirty years served as the director of the
region,s largest union of small- and medium-size business
owners. In this capacity he has often led the charge against
higher taxes and central government interference, the LN,s
traditional political territory, and has clashed openly with
center-left governments headed by Pd Prime Ministers Prodi
and D,Alema. The PD,s obvious attempt to challenge the
center-right on its own terrain and appeal to the largest
possible electorate is not likely to succeed.

7. (SBU) Another potential blow to the center-left would be
the loss of the mayorship of Venice (which also holds
elections in late March). While not particularly important
politically, the city of Venice still has enormous cultural
and social significance, and it has for over twenty years
been a center-left stronghold. Outgoing PD mayor Massimo
Cacciari has already served three terms in total, and the
center-left candidate, elderly lawyer and former city
councilman Giorgio Orsoni, is in a close race with the
popular Minister of Public Administration Renato Brunetta
(from Silvio Berlusconi's Popolo della Liberta party).
Brunetta's mayoral run could be hurt by his stated desire to
continue serving as a cabinet minister even if elected, but
he remains a very popular figure among Venetians, and the
race is definitely open.

8. (SBU) According to PD officials in the region, the
party,s main problem lies in its inability to articulate a
platform and its lack of organization, not in the quality of
its governance. A PD official from Verona highlighted recent
achievements by numerous PD mayors throughout the Veneto, but
admitted that the party has been ineffective in communicating
its successes to the electorate and translating them into
votes. The party has also struggled to explain itself to
voters in the region, a communication failure that has
allowed the LN to take the mantle of ""reform"" from the PD.
Additionally, unlike the LN, the PD has not built a robust
physical presence, further removing it from the electorate
and particularly the next generation of young voters.
Lastly, despite several particularly talented Veneto PD
politicians, the party has not successfully drawn the link to
the territory that the LN has so masterfully done. Regional
PD officials stressed that tying its platform more closely to
the specific Veneto terrain is critical to any future level
of success in the region. The PD failed to inherit the
structure of the Italian Communist Party or the Christian
Democrats - the parties from which it descended - and after a
series of failures on the national and regional level, has
struggled to set new roots down.

Comment: Jockeying for Power within the Ruling Coalition
9. (C) Because the center-right,s victory in the regional
race is essentially assured, the real contest in the Veneto
is within the majority coalition, between the Northern League
and Prime Minister Berlusconi,s ruling Popolo della Libert
(Pdl). While they are allies in the coalition, their
relationship at the regional level and below is often tense,
and the two parties display very different positions,

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platforms, and political styles. While the LN has been strong
in the Veneto for some time, this election cycle could be the
first time that it actually overtakes the Pdl in the region;
a recent poll conducted by northern Italian polling firm SWG
predicts the LN will receive 33 percent of the vote, while
the Pdl stands around 27 percent. While polls are imperfect
predictors, the numbers are still striking to those both
within and outside of the majority coalition. Because the
parties in the winning coalition will divvy up positions
based on the percentage of votes they have received, the LN
is pushing to secure as many important regional political
posts as possible. Additionally, the result of the regional
elections in the Veneto and other Italian regions could shift
the balance of power between the LN and Berlusconi,s Pdl at
the national government level. In times of political
weakness or vulnerability Berlusconi has already had to give
concessions to LN government leaders in order to win support
for his personal legislative agenda. With a strong enough
showing in the March elections, and without a solid
opposition to block such measures, the LN could be in an even
more powerful position to influence Italian national policy
and assert its own security-based, anti-immigrant political

10. (U) This cable has been cleared by Embassy Rome.

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