Italy turns Trumpist?

As expected, Sunday’s Italian election was a clear victory for the right (see Friday’s preview here). The coalition led by the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy has won a substantial majority in both houses, and its leader, Giorgia Meloni, will become the first elected far-right prime minister in western Europe since the second world war, as well as the first female leader of Italy.

Despite those novelties, commentary on the election faces very much the same dilemma as in many elections of recent years, namely steering an appropriate course between alarmism and complacency. We live in dangerous times, and it will not do to pretend that everything is just business as usual: at the same time, exaggerating the problem is also unhelpful, and can breed despair or desperation.

So, on the one hand, we have right-wing pundits tying themselves in knots trying to deny that Meloni’s coalition has any connection with actual fascism – a difficult enough argument to make in comparable countries (such as Sweden, which voted earlier this month), but utterly incredible in Italy. It is simply beyond dispute that Brothers of Italy is the lineal descendent of Mussolini’s Fascist party, and retains elements of its philosophy and imagery.

On the other hand, many of the warnings about what’s happening lack context. The post-Fascists are not a new arrival on the scene; their previous incarnation, the National Alliance, participated in governments as early as the 1990s. The components of the new government will be identifiably the same as those of Silvio Berlusconi that governed the country for most of the first decade of this century.

The balance of power within the right-of-centre forces, however, has shifted. Berlusconi was a centre-right leader (albeit an idiosyncratic one) with the far right as a junior partner; now, Berlusconi will be the junior partner, with the far right in the driver’s seat. But even that description conceals the fact that the biggest loser on Sunday was not the centre-right but the far-right League: its support almost halved, falling to single digits.

Partly due to its history and partly due to the long and ultimately frivolous tenure of Berlusconi, modern Italy has failed to develop a strong centre-right party imbued with democratic values. And without such a party, as the United States demonstrated under Donald Trump, constitutional government can never be truly secure.

Comparisons with Trump’s election are inevitable; he and Meloni share a range of political values and allies. But there are important differences as well. Here, in quick summary, are four of them:

  • First, Meloni’s victory was fully expected; it was in line with what the polls had shown for months and is therefore already priced in to the expectations of the political class. Trump’s election came much more as a shock, catching his opponents off guard.
  • Second, Italy is a parliamentary system, not a presidential one. Meloni can only govern with the support of a parliamentary majority and can be reined in by her allies or her own MPs. While she retains their support she will be powerful, but her ability to go rogue is much reduced.
  • Third, partly for the same reason, Meloni is not an outsider the way Trump was. Although presented as a fresh young face, she has been in parliament for 16 years, three and a half of them as a minister. She is part of the system, used to working within the constitutional boundaries.
  • Fourth, she is not an apprentice of Vladimir Putin. Meloni’s instincts are certainly authoritarian, but she shows no sign of Trump’s indiscriminate infatuation with dictators, and with Putin in particular. On the contrary, she campaigned on a platform of strong support for Ukraine and NATO.

All those differences matter, although some could cut both ways – experience of working within the system, for example, could leave one better equipped to overthrow it. But there is also one extremely important similarity with Trump: neither was the choice of the majority of the electorate. Both victories were the products of bad electoral systems that distorted the will of the voters.

That’s a sufficiently important topic that it deserves treatment in a separate post. Stay tuned for that tomorrow.

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