Its first woman leader is also the furthest right since Mussolini, and its once mighty far left has been wiped out in the elections — but just how much danger does this new situation represent for Italy and the world, asks NICK WRIGHT writing in the Morning Star
THE results of the elections to Italy’s parliament and senate make grim reading.
The right-wing alliance took a majority of the votes with Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) on 26.1 per cent, having cannibalised much of its allies’ support. Lega, Matteo Salvini’s outfit, took just 8.9 per cent – down from 17 per cent – while former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia limped in on 8.3 per cent, down from 14 per cent.
This new architecture on the right sets the scene for an internal challenge to Salvini’s leadership, while for Silvio Berlusconi mother nature’s clock is ticking away behind the Botox.
Together, this alliance won 44 per cent and is set to form a government — and will set a post-war precedent with the first woman and the first fascist to be prime minister.
On the so-called “centre left” the perennially fractious Partito Democratico (PD) stalled on 19 per cent while the performatively neoliberal mini-alliance of Carlo Calenda and the Blairite ex-PD leader Matteo Renzi clocked up a somewhat surprising 8 per cent. The PD placed its hopes on an appeal to electors to cast a “useful vote” to keep the right out of government. Its vote remained static.
On 15.5 per cent, the populist Movimento Cinque Stella (M5S) vote was halved. The party survived a fissiparous year which saw defections to all political destinations.
The governmental crisis which precipitated the elections came about after tensions emerged between prime minister Draghi and M5S over austerity measures. M5S leader Giuseppe Di Maio formed Together for the Future and backed Draghi with a rump of M5S deputies.
By doubling down on its anti-austerity income supplement policy M5S retained a significant portion of its former support and strengthened its oppositional status among voters, particularly in the south, while Di Maio’s pro-Draghi split vanished.
Both M5S and FdI benefited from their status as oppositional forces. FdI because, unlike Lega and Forza Italia, it is not compromised by participation in the unending series of makeshift government coalitions that succeed each other without changing very much — and M5S because it reinforced its oppositional character and anti-austerity credentials.
Giorgia Meloni is an unusual figure in Italian governmental politics, hailing from a troubled, dysfunctional and not especially prosperous Rome family that was deserted by her father. She was a teenage adherent of a fascist youth organisation. After rising through the ranks, she was elected as Italy’s youngest ever deputy, and became the youngest ever minister in Berlusconi’s cabinet.
Her elevation as prime minister is thanks to a carefully cultivated if superficial anti-system image with a successful strategy of capitalising on the decline of the two main right-wing parties in a situation where the credibility of the PD-led bloc was equally compromised.
Her tactics are effective, but nevertheless the election failed to inspire enthusiasm. Turnout was down nine points at a historically low figure with four out of 10 Italians abstaining.
The new parliament consists of 400 deputies and 200 senators. The new electoral system is significantly less proportional after an electoral reform reduced the number of seats by a third and introduced new parallel first-past-the-post constituencies. The right-wing alliance won almost all these first-past-the-post seats.
The immediate effect of this is to greatly amplify the right-wing representation, depress the number of “centre-left” and left-wing deputies and senators elected and completely exclude the competing and more radical left-wing lists — all of which fell below the 3 per cent threshold for taking seats.
Unione Populare — which tried to emulate the NUPES initiative in France — won a disappointing 1.3 per cent; an odd alliance of Marco Rizzi’s rump Partito Comunista and right-wing sovereigntists, Italexit and the Partito Comunista Italiano running alone in a few constituencies with the hammer and sickle emblem gained very small votes.
From both the European Union and the Italian political establishment there is anxious hand-wringing about the result with much media comment fretting about the emergence of a right-wing nationalist and “sovereigntist” trend.
However, in Italy the presence of fascists in government is not unknown. Berlusconi’s earlier administration included Gianfranco Fini’s Allianza Nazionale which was a direct descendant of wartime fascists.
Its symbol was the “flamme tricolore” taken from the vicious fascist regime set up with Nazi support in Northern Italy after Italy changed sides — and which today appears as FdI’s symbol.
While most actors on the Italian right tempt voters with a public flirtation with euroscepticism, they rarely deliver anything but seductive words. Salvini, when in government, backed away from his earlier criticisms of the EU. Already Meloni’s outfit has people talking to former premier Draghi about the measures that must be taken before divvying up the EU’s Covid recovery funds.
Italian governments have relatively little freedom of manoeuvre. Bound by treaty commitments to Nato, their foreign policy is greatly circumscribed. Italy’s highly indebted economy is always at the mercy of the spread — the difference between the yield on Italian government bonds and that of German bonds over their respective 10-year maturation.
Italy’s high debt-to-GDP ratio — greater than 130 per cent — demonstrates the continuing weakness of the Italian economy where low economic growth and the accompanying increase in the level of public debt is blamed on economic policies pursued by successive Italian governments and on structural factors like tax avoidance, relatively low productivity, low levels of capital investment and infrastructure spending and a distinctly dodgy justice system.
These factors are the stick by which Italian voters are beaten into periodically tolerating technocratic administrations which are substituted for the inability of the established political formations to resolve Italy’s endemic crises.
In the chaos of Italian political life, the continual presentation of Mario Draghi as the referent for stable government is best seen as capital personified in his person personally (as Cattarella might say to Commisario Montalbano).
FdI has risen partly because it is not directly compromised by prior participation in government. It appeals to eclectic and atavistic tendencies present in Italian politics, capitalises on Catholic approaches to family, sexuality and morality, is rhetorically critical of finance, financiers and banks and appeals to the morbid hangover of fascism with an openly racist anti-migrant lexicon.
Nevertheless, there is no real sense that the anti-system rhetoric of any of the parties on the Italian right translates into a challenge to the established order.
Each of the elements on the right who previously developed clientelist relations with Putin’s regime are having to backtrack since the invasion of Ukraine.
It is Nato’s prosecution of this war which is intensifying Italy’s crisis.
Meloni herself — if she wants to stay onside with Nato and the EU — will have to retreat from her assertion that Christianity in the Middle East owes its survival to Assad and Hezbollah and make her peace with Atlanticist verities.
The range of political forces in Italy that want an intensification of the conflict — to send arms to Ukraine, oppose a negotiated settlement, search out new energy sources, and intensify sanctions against Russia — have to deal with the problem of the social and financial costs this imposes on the Italian people and the inevitable response this engenders.
Inflation and energy costs are escalating and Russian gas imports are down from 40 per cent of consumption to 25 per cent. In this sense the Italian right, and FdI, have been given a poisoned chalice and the established parties of “responsible” government, as well as outriders like M5S, may think this is a good time to take a break from governmental responsibility.
Italy’s weak economic position ill fits it for the stresses of a rapidly restructuring global economy where war is again an active and decisive factor in international relations.
The new government will immediately confront a tight economic policy timetable without much time to prepare.
Parliament assembles on October 13 and in short order needs to send its budget to the EU. The following month Brussels runs a check on the numbers and the European Central Bank measures the numbers against the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.
This is the mechanism whereby Italy’s adherence to the conditions attached to the €750 billion Covid recovery package is monitored. This is a six-year programme with a rigorous compliance mechanism.
A good number of the targets have been met by previous governments but ahead lie problems for a government coalition that relies on its base among Italy’s class of undercapitalised small and medium businesses who demand robust protection from monopoly capital and avaricious banks, operate on narrow margins and constantly seek public subsidy and privileged local conditions.
An already deeply disillusioned Italian public with a rising tide of working-class militancy may prove unwilling to bear the costs of war.
Italy’s highly fragmented left — which has lost contact with much of the working class — licks its wounds and is compelled to undertake a period of reflection.
If this is conducted in the midst of growing industrial and social struggles it may be possible to find a way to reach a principled unity based on a rejection of the capitalist rules of engagement which forbid a challenge to the two institutions headquartered in Brussels.