Veneto, the dilemma of the “political dwarf”

Author: Zoltán Vörös
ANALYSIS. By Stefano Zambon*. Sergio Romano once described Veneto as “the economic giant [that] is still a political dwarf”. This is surely one of the most compelling summary of the recent history of Veneto.

Four main characteristics have driven the extraordinary economic development of Veneto. First a general entrepreneurial attitude of Venetians which produced the second factor: an economic fabric almost entirely composed of small and partly medium-sized businesses, providing companies with a strong flexibility in terms of organisation. Thirdly, the interconnections between a traditional system of production and highly technological enterprises and fourthly the ability of these businesses to internationalise their products on the global market.

However, as Romano’s quote points at, this development lacked a political class able to drive and organise this economic revolution. As a result, the development of Veneto has been disorganised and chaotic. In the last three decades it has been driven by a reduction on the ecological cost, thus, seriously endangering the environment of Veneto. One of its manifestations in urbanism is what Venetians call the emergence of the capanon, a Venetian word referring to aesthetically dubious industrial facilities. The capanoni spread throughout the entire territory of Veneto, seriously impacting the environment and the landscape.

The north-eastern region of the Italian peninsula, better known by internationals for its capital, Venice, has been characterised in recent years by this: strong economy, weak politics. While Venetian economy has steadily affirmed itself as a centre for industry and commerce in Europe, Venetian politics has never been able to affirm itself as an independent centre of power.


The last 20 years of Venetian politics have been dominated by two major political actors: Giancarlo Galan and Luca Zaia. The first, representing the centre-right party Forza Italia led nationally by Silvio Berlusconi, governed Veneto for 15 years. It did not end well, Giancarlo Galan was arrested for corruption charges for billions of euro for contracts relating to the construction of public infrastructures in Veneto. The latter, exponent of the North League, elected first in 2011 and currently on its second mandate after winning with an absolute majority the Venetian Coucil’s election in 2015.

An analysis of their electoral base helps understanding a key factor in Venetian politics: the persistence of vote. In fact, Venetians’ vote has been steadily on moderate centre right coalitions. They both represented an anthropological stereotype of Venetians: the self made man, or as Venetians call it, the paron. If Argentina from the 50’s had Peronism, it should be argued that the right term for the past 30 years of Venetian politics is Paronism. Very much like Peronism, Paronists are particularly inclined to populism and corporatism.

A more significant factor for our analysis on the other hand, is their lack of political independence. Indeed, despite the Venetian culture of political independence, which historically lasted for more than a thousands year, and big cultural centres, such as the university of Padua (one of the oldest university in the world) it can be argued that since its forced unification with Italy, Veneto has never had its own political class.

The eras of Giancarlo Galan and Luca Zaia have been characterised by a political commuting: firstly to Rome and then to Milan. As Renzo Mazzaro puts it: “the entire Venetian political class takes orders from outside”.

Galan depended entirely on Berlusconi’s agenda and by his appeal to Venetians. Luca Zaia and his party, the North League (started as federation between the Lombard League and the Venetian League) promoted themselves as the party of “Veneto First”. However, they suffer a physiological and ideological dependence from Milan, from the Lombard League which entirely control the central party political agenda. Internal fights, between the Venetian and Lombard component of the party have been mitigated by the sanctification of the party leader, Umberto Bossi. However, these internal struggles are expected to increase, as the North League is increasing its appeal in the centre and south of the Italian state, switching from a regionalist to a far right political message.

This dependence is even clearer looking at left wing politics in Veneto, as we will discuss later.

A contentious national identity

The effects of this dependence and subordination of Venetian politics has had its effects on Venetian culture and identity. The Venetian governing class, weakened by these dynamics, never had the cultural and political strength to implement policies directed to Venetian culture and identity. It would be enough to point for example at Ermanno Serrajotto, regional councillor for culture and Venetian identity during the Galan era, which was found not to have visit in his entire life and carrier the Accademia gallery, house to the most important Venetian painters of the renaissance.

The North League, despite their lack of a cultural agenda for Veneto, has been able to hegemonize the theme of Venetian culture and language. A process helped by the myopia of the left in Veneto to promote these subjects. This hegemony has produced a dynamic which Paolo Balboni describes as following: “Who does not want to be identified as a ‘leghista’ (i.e. militant of the North League) in the right and left wing, does not commit to defend, valorise and promote the Venetian language”. This is coupled with a general Italian-wide adversity towards “regional” identities, cultures and languages (for instance, Venetian is still not recognised by the Italian state as a language).

Question of independence

A further homogenised theme in Veneto is independence. The North League, despite the failure of its federalist agenda when in the Italian government, is still the larger recipient of pro-independence votes. Aside from recent negotiations between the region of Veneto and the Italian state and the forthcoming advisory referendum for autonomy (Veneto is an ordinary region, i.e. with a very limited margin of self government), the process of self-government in Veneto has been an almost complete failure.

On the question of independence, a wide range of parties has been formed, with little if no result on the larger Venetian scenario. Fragmentations and lack of political skills and consistency have produced a multitude of pro-independence party without any electoral force. One of the topical example of the lack of political realism in Veneto is the online fraud referendum called in 2014 which further helped delegitimising the cause for Venetian independence. Civil society as whole, has had little or no reaction to the independence claim of this small parties.

On the other hand, the institutional path has had a critical stop from Rome. In 2014 the regional council of Veneto approved two law calling for a referendum. The first regarding autonomy and the second independence. It is worth noting that while the first proposal the referendum was economically financed by the region itself, the second would have been financed (for the incredible amount of 14 million euros) by the citizens of Veneto though voluntary donations. It comes with no surprise that this huge amount was never collected and the Italian constitutional court rejected both referendums. The sentence by the constitutional court allowed only a negotiation and a referendum (mentioned above) to take in place on a very small amount of competences.

Nonetheless, polls show a majority for independence in Veneto. A Demos poll in 2015 showed a 57% support for the independence of Veneto from the italian state. Hence, it might be argued that Veneto shows a majority pro independence stance, however, the support for the process is strictly passive. The cause of independence is not able to mobilise this passive majority in favour of independence.

The failures of the left

Unlike most of stateless nations in Europe, the left in Veneto has always been aggressively anti-independence and autonomy. A remnant of the democratic centralism theory which hides a more physiological failure of the left in Veneto.

Communist parties always failed to win support in Veneto for a particularity of this territory: estate ownership in Veneto, unlike most of the Italian peninsula, has always been fragmented and diffuse. Therefore, it comes with no surprise that communist parties and left wing parties in general have always been seen by Venetians as the expropriator of small land owners, i.e. most of Venetians.

Moderate centre left parties, on the other hand, always suffered a centralist legacy. The “democrats of the left” for instance, privileged throughout their history a top to bottom policy making system in which leaders and policies were always controlled by the party elite in Rome. As Renzo Mazzaro argues, centre left and left wing parties in Veneto are perceived in Veneto as “foreigners to the Venetian sensitivity”.

Valter Vanni, former leader of the Communist Party in Venice, summarised perfectly this issue by saying that the Venetian centre right is “a club, a club of Venetians who think in Venetian, who have a Venetian perspective on problems. For the centre right thinking in Venetian is automatic. For the centre left it’s not. That’s the point.”

Even when in the condition of winning an election, the centre left has been able to lose it. This is what happened in 1995, when a strong candidate was supposed to run for the regional election: Tina Anselmi, leader of the resistance movement and later first female minister in the history of the Italian state. All commentator agree that her candidature would have meant a victory in Veneto, the first for the left, the first for a female. Her candidature was silently repealed and annulled by the central party in Rome through the action of Rosy Bindi, nowadays president of the Democratic Party.

The most compelling attempt to change the centralism of the centre left in Veneto failed too. The  Movement of the North-East was promoted in 1997 by Massimo Cacciari, former mayor of Venice, and Mario Carraro, a businessman. The main aim of this newly formed political party was exactly to “avoid Veneto to carry on being governed by parties depending on Roman headquarters”. This attempt failed for internal struggles between the two promoters.

To summarise, the dilemma of this region is yet to be solved. An economic giant who has not been able, perhaps because of its economical significance, to develop itself as an independent centre of power and decision making. Venetian politics, because of his subordination to forces outside Veneto, has been able to put Veneto even more at the margins of the Italian state, but without no say about its own future. The ineptitude of this same political class has not allowed the development of policies regarding Venetian culture and identity, seriously endangering local culture in the first period of globalisation. The parties that should be more eager to promote these issues, pro-independence parties, are fragmented and incompetent (with the exception of few individuals).

The future of Venetian politics lies in the new generation of Venetians. It is going to be up to them to determine a new political status of Veneto in relations to the Italian state. Considering the material conditions of the territory, Venetian parties ought to be able to fight against the cultural and political hegemony of Italian political parties.

A new attempt to do so is the recently born Sanca (“left” in Venetian) Veneta. A pro-independence progressive party who is trying to bring a left perspective on the independence discourse.

* Stefano Zambon is a Sanca Veneta activist and promoter.