“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.