Last week we looked at realignment in Britain, where the main centre-right party, the Conservatives, is trying to decide just how far down the “populist” road it wants to go – and, relatedly, just what “populism” means in that context. Italy’s right-of-centre forces have some similar but also different problems.
Readers will recall that Italian prime minister Mario Draghi resigned last month after losing the support of the Five-Star movement – “populists” in the original, ideologically amorphous sense – and two right-of-centre parties, the League and Forza Italia. An early election is scheduled for 25 September.
The League and Forza Italia will again run in coalition with the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy. But this time Brothers of Italy, which was never part of the Draghi government, is clearly the senior partner: if the Coalition wins a majority, as the polls suggest is likely, then its leader, Giorgia Meloni, will almost certainly become prime minister. (She would be the first woman to hold the job.)
Not surprisingly, a lot of commentary has focused on the fascist threat, although describing Brothers of Italy as “infiltrated” by fascists is a bit odd, since it’s actually their natural home. And in recent times the post-Fascists have mostly behaved themselves; as I said a year ago, “in practice they have worked within the framework of liberal democracy and achieved a certain respectability.”
It’s the League, led by Matteo Salvini, that has usually seemed the more serious threat to liberal values: more “populist” in the new meaning of the term, in which it functions as a euphemism for far-right. Salvini confounded expectations when he joined the Draghi government, alongside the supposedly more mainstream Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi, but he does not appear to have changed his ideological spots.
It’s not foolproof, but one of the best ways of distinguishing the far right from its more mainstream allies over the last few years has been the question of Russian patronage. European far-right parties have fairly consistently been the beneficiaries of direct or indirect Russian support, which (at least until this year) they have repaid by generally aligning themselves with Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy interests.
The invasion of Ukraine changed the calculation for those parties. Most of them soft-pedalled their Russian connection, and denounced the invasion in more or less convincing terms. But they clearly remain pro-Russian at heart. More mainstream centre-right parties, by contrast, have generally been a reliable part of the pro-Ukrainian consensus (Britain’s Conservatives have been among the strongest).
And this difference now divides the Italian right. Meloni, despite being out of office, has given strong support to Draghi’s pro-Ukraine policies. Salvini, on the other hand, is the one who has stood by Putin, and is now accused of forcing the election in Russia’s interests, with outstanding questions about the role of the Russian embassy in the recent weeks of political crisis.
Berlusconi meanwhile, although he has always been relatively moderate in policy terms, continues to have a soft spot for Putin, and clearly intends that a future right-of-centre government will move towards a less confrontational position on Ukraine. But that seems unlikely to happen if Meloni is the one calling the shots.
So the Italian right, finally on the threshold of power, sees itself menaced in two ways: firstly by the risk that the centre and left will be able to seize on the tales of Russian interference and the sabotage of Draghi’s government to rally public support over the next seven weeks and deny the right a majority.
And secondly by the risk that, even if the first danger is successfully warded off, a successful right-wing coalition will be torn apart by its opposing views on the leading geopolitical issue of the day.
This, of course, is how realignments happen; new issues appear that cut across the divisions that have previously defined the party system. But with the post-Fascists and the centre-left being the two most strongly pro-Ukrainian forces, it would take a real political earthquake for them to end up together.