What’s happening in Italy?

It’s been a few months since we looked at Italy, which back in February replaced its previous populist/centre-left coalition with a broad-based government led by technocrat Mario Draghi.

There was an interesting piece at Politico last week by Giorgio Leali arguing that with Angela Merkel retiring and Germany preoccupied with its election campaign, Italy was in a position to take on some of Germany’s traditional role as France’s partner in leadership of the European Union. He notes the similarities in background and outlook of Draghi and French president Emmanuel Macron, suggesting that they could co-operate to change some of the priorities of the EU.

But as Leali also notes, the window of opportunity may be relatively small. Germany’s election is in September, but Macron himself is up for re-election next April. So it won’t be long before France will be the one in pre-election mode while Germany, with any luck, will have a functioning government with a fresh mandate.

And while Italy’s next election is not due until early 2023, its parliaments do not have a good record of running their full term. (Although the last one did, to general surprise.) Lacking any parliamentary base of his own, Draghi is at the mercy of the politicians, who ultimately will be acting for their advantage rather than his. And no-one can really say what an election might throw up.

At the last election, in 2018, the right-of-centre parties ran in coalition, winning in aggregate 37.0% of the vote. Its two largest components – the far-right League, led by Matteo Salvini, and the centre-right Forza Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi – are both now part of Draghi’s government. A third, smaller, party, Brothers of Italy, has stayed out, and is now the main opposition party. Three years ago it had just 4.4% of the vote, but now the polls put it at around 20%.

A number of European parties can be fairly labelled “neo-fascist”; France’s National Rally is probably the most well-known example. But Brothers of Italy is distinctive in that it is actually the lineal descendant of Mussolini’s original Fascist party, which seized power 99 years ago. Rebranded after the war as the Italian Social Movement, it went through a couple of splits and mergers before settling on its current name in 2012.

Over that time the Italian post-Fascists, as we might call them, have had a sort of split personality; their history and ideology cast them as anti-democratic, but in practice they have worked within the framework of liberal democracy and achieved a certain respectability. They participated in centre-right coalition governments from 1994 onwards, and they currently hold the presidency of two of Italy’s 20 regions. In the European parliament they sit with the Eurosceptics, not with the National Rally.

Since Salvini took over the League in 2013 it has become the leading force on the Italian far right. Now, however, its participation in the Draghi government seems to have robbed it of some “populist” support. While the post-Fascists have been on the rise, the League’s support has been falling, to the point where the two, plus the centre-left, are in a virtual tie for first place in the polls.

I’ve remarked a number of times that the European far right is currently more of a threat to democracy because it has not been domesticated in the way that the far left has; far-left parties have established a niche where they participate in democratic politics without threatening the fundamentals of the system. The Italian post-Fascists are probably the leading example to suggest that a similar transformation may be possible on the far right.

So while it’s a common complaint on the right that Communism was not demonised after its fall the way Fascism was (here’s Mary Mycio making the point in Tablet), it’s possible that the fact that Communism was allowed to retain a degree of respectability has actually helped far-left parties to moderate their positions and to accommodate themselves to liberal-democratic politics. Italy, the one country where a Fascist party also maintained some historic continuity, may have had the right idea.

None of this is to suggest that we should view the possible advent to power of the post-Fascists with a sort of casual equanimity: the damage they could do to the Italian body politic is very real. Whether they get their chance may depend not just upon Draghi’s performance, but on whether or not he has permanently fractured the right-wing coalition.

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