In early March, Italy was the first European country to experience the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted the Government to order Europe’s first regional and national lockdown. Two months later, shops and restaurants slowly started to reopen, restarting aspects of a severely damaged economy. Across this changing context, Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted four polls to assess how the Italian public perceive their government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
We found that, compared to mid-March, Italian voters continue to hold the view that the government’s actions to respond to the coronavirus outbreak were adequate. A small dip of just 3 points separates results in March from those in June.
For those who had voted for Matteo Salvini’s opposition party Lega in the 2018 elections, however, approval of the government’s response fell from one third of respondents in March to 25% by June.
Although Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte still has the approval of the majority, the proportion that approves of his handling of the crisis has fallen during the past three months. In March, as lockdown was implemented, around three quarters of respondents approved of his handling of the coronavirus crisis. By late June, however, 56% of respondents approved of Conte’s handling of the pandemic, a fall of 20 points in 3 months.
Likewise, while a plurality of Italian respondents continues to say that they have a more positive view of the Prime Minister as a result of his handling of the coronavirus crisis, we noted a five-point decline between March (45%) and June (40%).
Giuseppe Conte and his government should also be wary that popular support may continue to decline gradually in the coming months. Indeed, while Italians continue to be supportive of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, a majority of respondents stated that they are pessimistic about the general direction in which Italy is heading.
Pessimism about Italy’s future reflects fears over the looming economic crisis. Indeed, we found that a plurality of respondents in June answered that they were pessimistic of the future of the Italian economy.
In particular, a large majority of those who had voted for the Lega (League) in 2018 expressed their pessimism regarding the Italian economy, which may provide an opportunity for Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini. Nevertheless, it is clear that two major obstacles stand in Salvini’s way:
First, a plurality of respondents do believe that Giuseppe Conte can get the economy going again. Conte could perhaps even try to grab the third of respondents who voted for Silvio Berlusconi’s opposition party Forza Italia in 2018 and who agree with the statement.
Second, although Conte’s approval rates have somewhat declined in the past three months, Matteo Salvini’s unpopularity has also grown. Back in April, Salvini occupied the Italian parliament to protest against lockdown measures which were supported by an overwhelming majority of the Italian public. By June, half of respondents disapproved of Salvini’s behaviours and actions over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Particularly concerning for Salvini, we found that in the northern parts of the country, a long-time bastion of the Lega, around 47% of respondents disapproved of his behaviour.
Salvini’s Lega colleague and President of Lombardy Attilio Fontana likewise suffers from low approval ratings. Fontana faced strong criticism following his alleged mismanagement of the crisis in the region, especially in the cities of Bergamo and Milan, where thousands of deaths were tragically recorded.
In contrast with Salvini and Fontana’s low popularity, the President of Veneto and fellow member of the Lega, Luca Zaia, enjoys high approval ratings for his behaviour over the course of the pandemic. Of those who voted for his party in 2018, 58% approved of his actions. Zaia successfully implemented systematic Covid-19 testing in Veneto, which effectively enabled him to “flatten the curve” in the region.
Overall, the decline in Prime Minister Conte’s approval ratings since the peak of the coronavirus crisis indicates that his overwhelming popularity in March may have been a temporary boost, associated with widespread support for the lockdown and a general support for the government at a time of crisis. If Conte hopes to maintain, or strengthen, his current approval ratings, the Prime Minister should pay close attention to economic recovery, which is of increasing concern to Italian voters. Matteo Salvini, meanwhile, should be wary of his declining popularity rate, especially among his traditional base. In September, Veneto will vote for its next regional governor. If Zaia wins re-election, he could become a potential rival to Salvini’s leadership of Lega.