The Future Mel­oni Gov­ern­ment and the Long Drift of Ital­ian Democracy

“Rome wasn’t build in a day” – and nei­ther is a rad­i­cal right-wing gov­ern­ment like the one now form­ing in Italy fol­low­ing the elec­tions held in Sep­tem­ber 2022. The result of the elec­tions, while sure­ly not unex­pect­ed, offers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make some reflec­tions about the long-stand­ing drift of Ital­ian polit­i­cal and insti­tu­tion­al con­text. And its pos­si­ble – albeit how unde­sir­able – future(s).

I divid­ed this short piece of analy­sis in three moments. I begin with some brute facts about recent elec­tions in order to put the seem­ing­ly rise of the right back in its place. Sec­ond, I pro­vide for a short note on the his­tor­i­cal evo­lu­tion of Ital­ian polit­i­cal sys­tem in order to sit­u­ate this last elec­tion with­in the broad­er parabo­la of Ital­ian democ­ra­cy. Final­ly, I offer some ten­ta­tive con­sid­er­a­tions about what-to-expect from the per­spec­tive right-wing gov­ern­ment: actu­al­ly, while this short piece is being writ­ten (Octo­ber 2022), the gov­ern­ment has not yet been formed and the list of min­istries is not ready.

First the facts. The elec­tions have con­se­crat­ed the “post-Fas­cist” par­ty Fratel­li d’Italia (FdI), led by Gior­gia Meloni,as the first par­ty in the coun­try. It is part of a larg­er coali­tion com­pris­ing Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Mat­teo Salvini’s The League, both in a phase of polit­i­cal decline. Over­all and impor­tant­ly, the right-wing coali­tion has not enlarged its total share of votes: rather, there is an inter­nal elec­toral flow from the two (declin­ing) par­ties to FdI – thus, most­ly a reshuf­fle towards a more right-wing ori­ent­ed polit­i­cal force. It is also worth not­ing that FdI, dif­fer­ent­ly from Forza Italia and The League, is the only polit­i­cal force that remained at the oppo­si­tion of the gov­ern­ment led by Mario Draghi and com­posed of both experts and politi­cians. On the oppo­site front, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (cen­ter-left) con­tin­ues to lose impor­tant shares of votes at every elec­tion and lives in a per­ma­nent iden­ti­ty cri­sis. The Five Star Move­ment, the oth­er main par­ty now at the oppo­si­tion, man­aged to reduce the enti­ty of its decline by los­ing “only” 6 mil­lion votes since the pre­vi­ous elec­tion (2018, when it obtained more than ten mil­lion votes and reached 32%), and set­tling at 15%. Final­ly, the wor­ry­ing ele­ment of this elec­tion, which def­i­nite­ly marks the cri­sis of trust in repub­li­can insti­tu­tions and in the polit­i­cal class, is absten­tion­ism. To be sure, absten­tion­ism is in a phase of sus­tained growth at least since the post-2008 cri­sis – but hav­ing this said, the elec­toral turnout has decreased by almost 10% since the pre­vi­ous elec­tion (72% in 2018 vs. 63% in 2022), with rates of absten­tion of about 50% in some south­ern regions.

Since the 1990s there has been a con­tin­u­ous process of cen­tral­is­ing deci­sion-mak­ing through the strength­en­ing of exec­u­tive pow­ers in the name of “sta­bil­i­ty”.

The over­all sit­u­a­tion emerg­ing from this elec­tion offers a quite bleak pic­ture, com­pris­ing a weak oppo­si­tion (espe­cial­ly the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty), large dis­trust of the cit­i­zen­ship towards State insti­tu­tions, and the future most right-wing prime min­is­ter in repub­li­can his­to­ry. Yet, if we focus our atten­tion only on the gov­ern­ment to-be-soon-formed, and not on the regres­sive his­tor­i­cal arc of Ital­ian democ­ra­cy, we would be com­mit­ting a fatal error of per­spec­tive. Indeed, to under­stand the con­text of these elec­tions and its “his­tor­i­cal-struc­tur­al” her­itage, so to speak, it is essen­tial to under­stand Italy’s insti­tu­tion­al and polit­i­cal tran­si­tion since the 1990s. Of course, it is by no means an easy task to sum­marise a long and com­plex his­tor­i­cal moment char­ac­terised by numer­ous con­tra­dic­tions and dif­fer­ent “inter­nal” phas­es – more­over, these occur­ring with­in the dif­fer­ent phas­es of the Euro­pean inte­gra­tion process, which clear­ly has an impor­tant influ­ence on nation­al pol­i­tics and polit­i­cal econ­o­my. In short, I would like to high­light three – inter­twined – ele­ments that (among oth­ers) have char­ac­terised the past thir­ty years of pol­i­tics in Italy. The first is the con­tin­u­ous process of cen­tral­is­ing deci­sion-mak­ing through the strength­en­ing of exec­u­tive pow­ers in the name of “sta­bil­i­ty”. For instance, the use of emer­gency decrees, which emerged strong­ly in the ear­ly 1990s, has become an ordi­nary gov­ern­ment prac­tice. This has sig­nif­i­cant­ly com­pressed the role of par­lia­ment, now squeezed between the strong nation­al exec­u­tive and Euro­pean insti­tu­tions, with a now very mar­gin­al role in pol­i­cy-mak­ing. After all, the mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion of the main insti­tu­tion of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy has effects on the entire polit­i­cal system.

The sec­ond ele­ment is the long-stand­ing cri­sis of polit­i­cal par­ties. This is a com­plex process that touch­es upon dif­fer­ent vari­ables: the men­tioned elec­toral absten­tion­ism, declin­ing par­ty mem­ber­ship and trust in polit­i­cal class, elec­toral volatil­i­ty, declin­ing rates of cit­i­zens’ sat­is­fac­tion towards insti­tu­tion­al per­for­mance, par­ty de-ter­ri­to­ri­al­i­sa­tion, pres­i­den­tial­iza­tion with­in par­ties and thus inner-par­ty de-democ­ra­ti­za­tion. While, of course, such dynam­ics influ­ence dif­fer­ent par­ties in dif­fer­ent ways, what we can broad­ly say is that these over­all con­tribute to increas­ing the inher­ent insta­bil­i­ty lev­el of the polit­i­cal sys­tem and of the demo­c­ra­t­ic standards.

The last ele­ment that should be men­tioned is the issue of tech­noc­ra­cy. In short, tech­noc­ra­cy refers to the fact that experts (peo­ple out­side polit­i­cal par­ties), usu­al­ly com­ing from insti­tu­tions such as cen­tral banks, Euro­pean insti­tu­tions or acad­e­mia, hold key roles in the gov­ern­ment. Roles such as min­is­ter of econ­o­my and finance, or even prime min­is­ter. In this respect, Italy offers a remark­able record of tech­no­crat­ic gov­ern­ments, tech­no­crat­ic-led gov­ern­ments (i.e. gov­ern­ments com­pris­ing of a mix of experts and politi­cians), and tech­no­crat­ic min­is­ters – a fac­tor that, clear­ly not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, has been emerg­ing since the ear­ly 1990s and recurs at every major cri­sis and turn­ing point (the last being Draghi gov­ern­ment formed after the Covid-19 cri­sis). While resort­ing to tech­nocrats is yet anoth­er sign of the demo­c­ra­t­ic malaise and of the short­com­ings of the nation­al polit­i­cal class, tech­noc­ra­cy, on the oth­er hand, con­tributes to the cri­sis of con­fi­dence in pol­i­tics and insti­tu­tions. A vicious cycle, there­fore, involv­ing sev­er­al nation­al and Euro­pean actors.

Final­ly, it is impor­tant to con­sid­er all these polit­i­cal fac­tors as occur­ring in a soci­etal con­text char­ac­terised by seri­ous and grow­ing imbal­ances and inequal­i­ties. The aus­ter­i­ty ther­a­py and fur­ther neo-lib­er­al­iz­ing poli­cies imple­ment­ed after the Euro­zone cri­sis have dealt a sig­nif­i­cant blow to the social resilience of the coun­try, espe­cial­ly in the south, where new mass emi­gra­tion, high unem­ploy­ment (of women and young peo­ple, espe­cial­ly), pre­car­i­ous­ness, black mar­ket labour and ris­ing pover­ty rates have become the hid­den face of nation­al and Euro­pean pol­i­tics. And yet, the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of Italy must be nec­es­sary read with­in this broad­er social context.

But, what to expect from Mel­oni gov­ern­ment? Mak­ing “fore­casts” does not mean, deter­min­is­ti­cal­ly, expect­ing them to actu­al­ly real­ize. Fore­casts, as cre­ative exer­cise, entail pro­vid­ing a map of pos­si­ble future direc­tions of a spe­cif­ic con­text. Yet the map – as Gre­go­ry Bate­son famous­ly put it – is not the ter­ri­to­ry: it only can help us to nav­i­gate in unknown waters. In addi­tion, future – whether short, medi­um or long term – is an open and unde­ter­mined space in which dif­fer­ent actors oper­ate con­crete­ly in the light of deter­mined rela­tions of forces and rel­a­tive hege­mon­ic strength.

In argu­ing about what could be poten­tial direc­tions of the first gov­ern­ment led by a “post-fas­cist” prime min­is­ter, it maybe use­ful to dis­tin­guish between sev­er­al ana­lyt­i­cal domains: polit­i­cal econ­o­my; cul­ture; for­eign pol­i­cy and the rela­tion with Euro­pean institutions.

(i) Begin­ning with polit­i­cal econ­o­my, from sev­er­al state­ments of Mel­oni and her entourage, it seems that a gen­er­al neolib­er­al direc­tion could be pur­sued. For instance, Mel­oni declared more than once her will to reduce or even erase the “cit­i­zens’ income” (red­di­to di cit­tad­i­nan­za), a wel­fare mea­sure intro­duced by the Five Star Move­ment; her state­ments also point to a rather rig­or­ous pol­i­cy con­cern­ing State bud­get and pub­lic finance, and seem to be def­i­nite­ly sup­ply-side ori­ent­ed. If we had to choose a sim­i­lar fig­ure, per­haps Mar­garet Thatch­er would be a use­ful com­par­i­son. On the oth­er hand, the prospec­tive gov­ern­ment will imme­di­ate­ly face an extreme­ly seri­ous sit­u­a­tion involv­ing ris­ing infla­tion and ener­gy prices, low salaries and pro­duc­tive stops. Over­all, giv­en the con­straints of Euro­pean eco­nom­ic gov­er­nance, it is rea­son­able to expect Mel­oni gov­ern­ment to con­tin­ue in the path­way of the EU “embed­ded neolib­er­al­ism”, to bor­row the def­i­n­i­tion coined by the polit­i­cal econ­o­mist Bas­ti­aan Van Apel­doorn. Final­ly, and inter­est­ing­ly, so far sev­er­al tech­no­crat­ic fig­ures have been designed as poten­tial min­istries of the econ­o­my and finance (thus, mark­ing a poten­tial con­ti­nu­ity in pol­i­cy choices).

(ii) The cul­tur­al field will like­ly be a ground of bat­tle for keep­ing or enlarg­ing con­sen­sus – as seen in many oth­er cas­es of right-wing forces in pow­er. This could mate­ri­alise in “anti-gen­der” cru­sades, fight against what they call “ille­gal immi­gra­tion”, plus anti-immi­grant dis­cours­es, defence of the so-called “tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly” and of “Chris­t­ian val­ues”, maybe a greater empha­sis on nation­al­ist tones – note that Mel­oni and her fol­low­ers usu­al­ly self-declare to be “patri­ots” rather than nation­al­ists (and of course “fas­cists”). It is uncer­tain to what extent the prospec­tive gov­ern­ment will dare to talk about (or sub­stan­tial­ly change) the right to abor­tion, because there is the risk of a vio­lent back­lash by a huge por­tion of Ital­ian women and cit­i­zen­ship more gen­er­al­ly. How­ev­er, focus­ing obses­sive­ly on this field may prove to be short-lived (as seen in the case of Five Star Move­ments and The League) if it is not fol­lowed by real improve­ments of mate­r­i­al con­di­tions. The elec­toral volatil­i­ty tes­ti­fies of how dif­fi­cult it is to main­tain sta­ble polit­i­cal con­sen­sus nowadays.

Insta­bil­i­ty - the best pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion for author­i­tar­i­an forces to reclaim their role in restor­ing “order”.

(iii) Final­ly, if in terms of for­eign pol­i­cy the posi­tion­ing into NATO is clear­ly not in ques­tion, the rela­tion with Euro­pean insti­tu­tions and the oth­er Mem­ber states rep­re­sent a ter­rain with sev­er­al pit­falls. Clear­ly, it is still extreme­ly pre­ma­ture giv­en the flu­id­i­ty and unpre­dictabil­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion. How­ev­er, in a very gen­er­al line, the nation­al­is­tic ori­en­ta­tion of Mel­oni, and her crit­i­cal stance towards the Euro­pean Union (more­over in a phase of inter­na­tion­al frag­men­ta­tions at least part­ly reflect­ed in the Euro­pean sphere), could pre­pare the ter­rain for increas­ing ten­sions. While it is rather unlike­ly that this will lead to a pos­si­ble “Italex­it” (Italy leav­ing the EU), on the oth­er hand Mel­oni may resort to the blame-game against the Union if things go wrong at the nation­al lev­el, or when nation­al inter­ests may col­lide with EU rules. For their part, Euro­pean insti­tu­tions will have to pay close atten­tion in how they deal with the prospec­tive Ital­ian gov­ern­ment, this also after more than a decade of increas­ing nation­al dis­con­tent towards the EU, which has tak­en Italy from being one of the most euro-enthu­si­ast coun­tries to high­er lev­els of euroscep­ti­cism. In this sit­u­a­tion many unknowns remain and con­cern rights, eco­nom­ic and mon­e­tary pol­i­cy, and polit­i­cal alliances with sim­i­lar forces in Europe. Only time will tell whether this real­ly rep­re­sents a pos­si­ble real break towards mild or advanced forms root­ed in grow­ing author­i­tar­i­an­ism in Europe.

If we were to choose just one word to describe Ital­ian polit­i­cal sys­tem, this would be insta­bil­i­ty. But such insta­bil­i­ty is part of a broad­er phase of tur­bu­lence root­ed in the con­tem­po­rary form–substance of cap­i­tal­ism and in intra-cap­i­tal­ist rival­ries, which brought the world and Europe in a long phase of sys­temic chaos: The best pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion for author­i­tar­i­an forces to reclaim their role in restor­ing “order” – as we already know from the his­to­ry of Italy.

Also lis­ten to the episode of our pod­cast series Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion on the resur­gence, his­to­ry and var­i­ous forms of pop­ulism fea­tur­ing Nadia Urbinati.


Adriano Cozzolino

Adriano Cozzolino is an assistant professor of global politics in the Department of Political Science of the Università degli Studi della Campania Luigi Vanvitelli and director of the Centre for European Futures of the Italian Institute for the Future. He is author of “Neoliberal Transformations of Italian State. Understanding the Roots of the Crises” published in 2021 by Rowman & Littlefield.