Andalusia And Tuscany: How Two Red Regions Turned To The Right

Could Spain be the next Italy?

Nerea Heras, Head of 1989 Generation Initiative Scotland
Riccardo Venturi, Founder and Managing Director of Italics Magazine

Andalusia, in Spain, and Tuscany, in Italy, have historically been hotspots of socialist movements. Interestingly, they have both only recently turned significantly to the right, and even to the extreme right. What could make decade-long left-wing areas to suddenly demand right-wing governments? Although both areas differ strongly in terms of social structure, economic organization and cultural and intellectual tradition, they seem to have arrived to a similar socio-political standpoint. Region-specific and nationwide developments in the past decade have drawn substantial parallels between these two Mediterranean countries.

Both Spain and Italy have been heavily affected by the 2008 economic crisis, the precariousness of the welfare state, and its consequent overall disappointment with mainstream parties. Along those lines, both countries have witnessed the creation and establishment of new populist parties, Podemos and Movimento 5 Stelle, respectively. Similarly, they have both taken much of the responsibility in the migrant and refugee crisis, which has caused growing xenophobia and migration-scepticism amongst their populations. Nevertheless, in order to understand why and through which means such a remarkable political transformation takes place, it is worthy to analyze each case separately, by trying to decipher the particular factors that brought about the current situation.

The crib of Spanish socialism

Andalusia is characterized for being one of the red regions in Spain. With an economy based largely on agriculture, Southern Spain became one of the centers of growing anarchist and socialist movements in the 19th century. During the francoist dictatorship that followed the civil war, Andalusia was one of the areas to suffer economic decay the most. The state model was highly centralized around Madrid, implying that peripheral areas were often disregarded with regards to economic improvement, infrastructure development or social welfare. This precarious state contributed to the maintenance of left-wing values and revindications in Andalusia. Once democracy was re-established in 1978, the region recovered its red spirit at the polling stations. For the past 36 years, the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) has governed in Andalusia, as well as in most of the main cities, provinces, and in numerous smaller councils. Much of the steps forward in transport, workers’ rights, housing and education (namely, a sharp reduction of analphabetism) is to be attributed to their governance.

PSOE’s decay and VOX’s rise

Yet the elections held on December 2 might very likely mean an end to the socialist tradition. PSOE obtained a record-low number of votes, 28,0 percent, which grants them 33 out of the 109 seats in the regional chamber. Even with the 17 seats of Adelante Andalucía (Podemos and United Left coalition), this is not enough to form a government. The recent elections received the attention of international media, as the extreme-right party VOX entered the regional parliament for the first time with 12 seats. What is more, the conservative People’s Party (PP) and Ciudadanos signed on January 10 a coalition agreement with them. This leaves us with a puzzling question to answer: What possible explanations are there to such a marked turn from the left to the right in Andalusia?

The causes: migration, nationalism and corruption

There is clearly no straightforward explanation, and a number of factors, both at a regional, national and European level might have played a role in the upsurge of both the extreme and the mainstream right in Southern Spain. The years since the last parliamentary election in 2015 have been marked by two crises: migration and Catalonia. As for the former, Andalusia has for decades been the first arrival point for many migrants and refugees coming from the Maghreb. However, much of the intake was controlled by the two autonomous Spanish cities situated within Moroccan territory; Ceuta and Melilla, and compensated by the other routes to Europe along the Mediterranean coast. Some sort of reluctance towards migrants has always been present in Andalusia, consequence of the substantial proportion of them working in the agricultural sector.

However, hostility has intensified in the past months as an outcome of the Italian government’s hostile reactions to NGO boats bringing refugees and migrants to national coasts. Consequently, Andalusia has become a relevant alternative path. This has incited fears of both economic and cultural kinds amongst Andalusian voters, which have been strongly exploited in VOX’s and PP’s electoral campaign. Migrants are portrayed as a cultural threat because even if Southern Spain has a left-wing tradition, it is also one of the most catholic communities in the country; which makes the threat of Islam resonate particularly.

The second major reason that could explain VOX’s successful breakthrough is the surge of the Catalan movement for independence, the referendum in October 2017 and the perceived weak response from the former Mariano Rajoy government (PP), as well as the current one led by Pedro Sánchez (PSOE). What has been worded by VOX as rebellion and a coup d’état has strengthened Spanish nationalist sentiment in Andalusia, combined with a feeling of unfulfillment from the part of traditionally strong parties.

Another crisis that could explain the rise of the right is the 2008 economic recession. Although the left managed to stay in government, it has met strong criticism for its alleged inability to reboost the regional economy. To paraphrase Betz, Andalusians can somehow relate to the losers of modernity and globalization, whose precarious living conditions are a golden mine for radical right parties. To this can be added corruption scandals within the regional PSOE branch (casos ERE), which further jeopardize their legitimacy in front of voters and the search by the electorate for alternatives to the mainstream.

What’s in the near Future for Andalusia?

Both the PSOE Federal Committee and its Andalusian delegates have publicly called for the establishment of a cordon sanitaire, a pact amongst mainstream parties to keep the extreme right out of government and compromise not to negotiate with them. It might have worked well in Belgium or Sweden, but the Spanish right does not seem convinced. Already during the election campaign, both PP and Ciudadanos were reluctant to classify VOX ideologically, even more to openly call it an extreme right party. Similarly, they both hardened their discourse substantially, resembling that of VOX more than superficially. Short after the election, leaders softened their attitude towards the extreme-right party by emphasizing points of the electoral programme that they have in common. On January 10, a coalition agreement was signed that ensured VOX’s support for a regional government led by Andalusian PP leader Juan Manuel Moreno, and with Juan Marín from Ciudadanos chairing the vice-presidency.

Could Tuscany be the next Andalusia?

Going back to the initial consideration, Tuscany and Andalusia could be linked to each other for the incredible parallelism in their countryside landscapes that, despite being different, both iconically represent the most stereotyped pictures of their two countries. They are also world famous for the excellent cuisines and products, while the parochial banters and the local strong accents are amicably imitated in the other regions of Italy and Spain. However, if one looks beyond these superficial and apparently coincidential points of contact, we can solve a puzzle made of similar histories, where agriculture, small industries, trade unions and aversion to fascism had a central role to play in both contexts.

Tuscany and its long tradition of self-management

As for many realities in Southern Spain, Tuscany — and to a lesser degree the rest of Central Italy — was historically considered a majority-leftist area until a few months ago. Not for nothing, already since the end of the 19th century, Tuscany developed a strong tradition of trade leagues, socialist-like municipalism and production cooperatives due to its specific and diversified social structure.

Indeed, differently from the rest of the young Italian nation state, Tuscany could boast a tradition of self-management deriving from its fragmentation in powerful city-states. Just think of the powerful Tuscan republics and duchies like the Maritime Republic of Pisa, which ultimately conveyed in the greatly influential Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Here, the feudal tradition left a softer footprint compared to the rest of the peninsula, where less enlightened monarchs did not bring as much human development as the ruling Tuscan families did in several centers of the region that, inter alia, gave birth to Dante and Leonardo Da Vinci, to then become the actual cradle of the Renaissance.

After the unification of Italy, this historical tradition inevitably favored the maintenance of those social structures and political culture that turned out to be a perfect breeding ground for the revolutionary momentum affecting the whole continent. Easy to say, with the advent of the fascist regime, Tuscany became one of the bloodiest battlefields. After the liberation, its role in the resistance consolidated a heartfelt leftist mythology which not only crossed, but went well beyond an era of crystalized ideological affiliations, overcoming in time both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the new cult of personality surrounding Silvio Berlusconi and his cheap yuppie rhetoric.

The beginning of the end of the left

Nonetheless, from the second decade of the 21st century, Tuscany showed similar creaking that, as in the case of Andalusia, is gradually bringing to an end the governmental hegemony of the left. However, the situation already broke out in 2013, when the epicenter of the Italian communist tradition par excellence, the port city of Livorno, was conquered by Filippo Nogarin, a candidate mayor who was running as underdog for the self-proclaimed post-ideological Five Star Movement.

At the time, Livorno seemed to be the emblem of a new revolution whose aim was to punish a proto-Renzian Democratic Party which was already showing signs of a structural crisis due to its incapability of explaining the complex causes of long years of economic crisis and of dealing with the first large number of migrant crossings. Voters thus, following the general climate that challenged all the past theoretical assumptions on local politics, not so surprisingly relied to a breaking force whose premises were primarily based on the fight against a corrupted political class depicted as the root of all evils, but also on generic left-wing thematics such as welfare state, public housing and ecology.

Political scandals and ideological loss

However, the real breakthrough in Tuscany was represented by the hidden derivatives scandal that hit like a lightning bolt Siena and the giant bank ambiguously close to the Italian left-wing circles, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), just when the new Democratic leader Matteo Renzi, born in Florence and former mayor of the capital of Tuscany, was appointed Prime Minister.

When the entanglement between politicians and managers who caused the crisis (and the subsequent public bailouts) was revealed, a direct association between the Democratic Party and all the recent financial scandals surrounding banks started to take root in the imagination of the historically left-wing electorate. Impoverished areas, unpunished prominent figures and a Prime Minister who fell short of the promised rottamazione, the process of “scrapping” through which he wanted to dismantle from scratch the unpopular establishment, are the main reasons why the left gambled itself away in a region where its predominance appeared to be in principle uncontroversial.

From that moment, the left began to lose one by one its historical strongholds, such as Grosseto, Pistoia, Pisa, Siena, Massa, Carrara, plus the above mentioned Livorno. Only in 2013, the Democratic Party was governing 10 out of the 11 Tuscan provincial capitals. In 2018, it only maintained Firenze, Prato and Lucca. However, the municipal elections of the first two are approaching later this year, while the regional vote will take place in 2020.

The rise of the League

In the meanwhile, the right-wing leader Matteo Salvini managed to consolidate his nationwide support and Tuscaners, widowers of all their past ideological references, started to show sensitivity to transverse themes that in the last few years were strategically put at the heart of the political debates.

Indeed, as we explained immediately after the 2018 general elections, the outbreak of the migrant crisis is the main raison d’être of the booming Northern League. This party, as its name suggests, was founded at the beginning of the so-called Second Republic in the early ’90s, as a regional force whose aim was to separate the rich and industrial North (Padania) from the rest of Italy — including Tuscany — for mere fiscal reasons.

However, as the years passed, the party formed periodical coalitions with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, but was then engulfed in different corruption scandals that reduced it to extremely low levels. In 2013, Matteo Salvini, a rising young political figure, took over Umberto Bossi’s leadership after more than twenty years, marking an existential turning point in its history. Indeed, Salvini understood that in Italy there was room to launch a new nationalist, eurosceptic, anti-migrant political force that grew to the right of Forza Italia, along the lines of what the Front National did in France, finally outweighing the Populars.

Not surprisingly, the “Salvini effect” is now finishing the job of the left, as in Tuscany the old ideological parameters came apart in favor of widely perceived security situations due to the Mediterranean crisis and the numerous migrant crossings.

Could Spain be the next Italy?

As mentioned before, Tuscany and Andalusia might seem two worlds apart at first glance, as Southern Spain is relatively poorer and less politically engaged compared to the rest of the Iberian country, while Tuscany is historically richer and its social structure is itself the upstream cause of its ideological tradition.

However, the common grounds between these two European regions with deep socialist traditions are more than they appear to be and, especially in the last few years, their similar political drifts towards the right lie exactly in the same narratives which dominated the electoral discourses both in Italy and Spain: the economic and the migrant crises.

Moreover, Tuscans and Andalusians have been disappointed by the change in the nature of the traditional socialist parties and by the scandals surrounding the local administrations. The rejection of the traditional ruling parties followed the already underway shift of the political debate from the classic left-right spectrum to a globalist-nationalist divide that is now broadening even more the cleavage between the cities and the rural provinces.

This structural and not-so-post-ideological genetic mutation, together with the ageing of the post-war generations, is what makes the crisis of the left even more marked and irreversible right where it had always been strong.

And where the left can no longer escape its existential crossroad, due to its own faults and to other uncontrollable reasons, people find an immediate personal identification in reassuring answers to complex issues, namely illiberalism, securitization and anti-globalism. As Tuscany is showing the same signals that brought Andalusia to choose the far right, we now need to turn the whole matter on its head, widen the frame and ask ourselves: could Spain be the next Italy?