Case-study: Cagliari (Italy)
Fieldwork: Summer 2011
Authors: Ugo Rossi (local researcher) & Sara Gonzalez (guest researcher)
Title: The unravelling of neoliberal urban regimes at the margins of Europe:
towards a progressive shift?
The global financial crisis in Cagliari, the capital of the Sardinia Island in Italy, has weakened the existing industrial fabric. The heavy manufacturing sector has seen important closures with many workers losing their jobs. At the same time, small and independent businesses, partly dependant on this industry, have also suffered. This has given rise to a context of growing social discontent. Cagliari as the capital city of the Sardinia Region has offered a stage for social movements protesting against regional government, being held responsible for not supporting weaker social groups coping with the effects of the economic crisis. National media have reported on local struggles in Sardinia, particularly those of shepherds as well as small artisans and contractors from the Sulcis region (all groups known for being unaccustomed to collective action) staging mass demonstrations, some of them leading also to violent clashes with the police in the streets around the regional government headquarters in the middle of Cagliari’s city centre. This social discontent has opened the door to demands for local political change.
In May 2011 an emerging and still young (in his mid-thirties) leftist politician won local elections, becoming the new mayor of Cagliari. Since the early 1990s, a centre-right coalition had always been successful in Cagliari. For nearly twenty years, Cagliari’s ruling political coalition has been supported by a loose alliance of interest groups, comprising property builders (also owning the most influential local media), those varyingly involved in the healthcare business as well as a closed circle of professionals historically monopolizing the service sector (lawyers, accountants, building engineers).
Cagliari has not been alone in this unexpected political turning point at the municipal level. In the much larger cities of Milan and Naples newly formed centre-left coalitions have achieved equally triumphant successes against their centre-right rivals originally favoured to win the elections. This turning point has been interpreted by progressive commentators as the outcome of a burgeoning political and cultural movement in Italian cities drawing attention on the pitfalls and false promises of urban neoliberalism in Italy, involving both the right and the mainstream centre-left parties: an Italian-style type of pro-growth machine based on real estate-led urban development, a clientelistic management of public utilities, and the shaping of ‘rent-seeking coalitions’ forming around the organization of hallmark events and infrastructure projects.
In Cagliari, the global economic crisis is not seen as particularly a turning point in a city and region that are customarily described as disconnected from the global financial flows and where “international” trends “arrive” with delay within an economic context of permanent stagnation. The local and regional political arenas have a much stronger role in shaping the narratives and debates. In this case study we are particularly interested in the changes triggered by the recent local elections in May 2011. Our case-study interrogates the possibilities and limits of a post-neoliberal, progressive shift in Italian cities, one which goes beyond the electoral moment, proving able to trigger qualitatively notable changes in the local structures and modes of urban and regional economic governance.