Italy: The Right Has Won but the System Remains Unstable

The results of the 25 September Italian elections confirmed many of the predictions contained in the principal opinion surveys. The right-wing coalition won 44% of votes and within it the party with the most radical tradition, Fratelli d’Italia, led by Giorgia Meloni, prevailed with 26%.

With this electoral result it seems inevitable that Palazzo Chigi, the seat of government, is destined for the first time to host the party that is the inheritor of the neofascist tradition. Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) was founded in 2012 as a split from the Popolo della Libertà, the formation that arose from the unification of Forza Italia (the party founded and led by Silvio Berlusconi) and Alleanza Nazionale (a development of the preexisting Movimento Sociale Italiano that had assembled veterans of fascism and people nostalgic for it).

A minority of the leadership coming from Alleanza Nazionale maintained that the historical heritage of Italy’s extreme right would have been definitively annulled within a party structured like a business in which Berlusconi’s control was impossible to call into question. Moreover, Meloni’s new-old party rejected any form of alliance with ‘the left’ (indentified with the Partito Democratico – PD) even if justified by the need to confront the deep crisis of public debt which became evident in 2010-2011.

FdI has always maintained this oppositional stance toward various governments ever since the substitution of Berlusconi by the technocrat Mario Monti, although there was some internal impetus to become involved in the first Conte government formed by the Lega and Five Stars, and also to support the Draghi government.

Meloni has ridden the various expressions of discontent within the right-wing electorate, managing to attract support principally away from her coalition partners: Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, both of which emerged from the 25 September elections considerably downsized. If in the case of the party still dominated by its elderly leader the 8% it received may be considered almost a success that slowed down, even if it did not reverse, its ongoing tendency to decline, the Lega’s somewhat higher result can be seen as an abrupt defeat, above all because it was particularly significant in some of its northern strongholds, such as the Veneto.

Meloni aimed to present herself as a conservative force but without ever openly repudiating her roots in the history of Italian neofascism; on several occasions, rather, she claimed continuity with it, retaining the flame symbol used by the Movimento Sociale Italiana to indicate a wish to rise up again from the catastrophic collapse of Mussolini’s regime, and continuing to glorify the figure of Giorgio Almirante who was MSI’s leader for many years and always laid claim to the ideal of fascism.

Rather than repudiating fascism (except for its most indefensible aspects, such as the introduction of anti-Semitic legislation) Meloni simply consigned it to history – which is what she would like to do with antifascism, which FdI has never endorsed, instead always expressing hostility toward symbolic manifestations that link the Italian Republic to the values of the Resistance.

FdI has succeeded in bringing together at the polls various social tendencies that obviously go beyond those milieus openly nostalgic for the fascist regime. Sectors of social conservatism, xenophobia, and fear of the effects of immigration (some of it artfully fomented), demands for ‘law and order’, clericalism, and Euroscepticism. Classic right-wing anti-tax proclamations funneled toward FdI the support of a part of the world of small and medium-sized enterprises, artisans, and shopkeepers – all of this with declarations of adherence to liberalist articles of faith, which insist on the primacy of the enterprise that needs to be liberated, according to the formula circulating in Italy for decades now, from the ‘red tape and obstacles’, among them the presumed excessive rights of workers. 

FdI’s success was favoured by two specific features of Italy’s political system:  the majoritarian electoral law, which was something the PD specifically wanted five years ago to make Five Stars’ success more difficult, and the plural composition of the right-wing coalition since its formation after the collapse of the historical parties of Italian democracy. Based essentially on three parties, this coalition has withstood the change in the balance of power between its components as well as the change of leadership. The decline in Berlusconi’s popularity opened the space for Salvini’s rise who, committing a long series of political errors, rapidly neutralised his own popularity, which then shifted the vote toward Meloni. The election numbers do not show an expansion of the right’s overall electoral approval as much as a shift within it and its obvious rightward radicalisation.

A very complicated scenario is in store for the coming right-wing government. The effects of the multiple crises underway combine with the specific characteristics of Italian capitalism, which if it, on the one hand, retains a certain vitality of industrial sectors based on small and medium-sized enterprises, confirms, on the other hand, a long-term tendency to stagnation, paid for above all by the working classes in terms of rights and wages.

Having chosen and affirmed a line that is fundamentally pro-system at the economic and financial level as well as participation in NATO in sending arms to Ukraine, it is possible, in view of a social situation that is in danger of quickly deteriorating in the next months, that the next government will focus primarily on questions of identity and values – and on denouncing the conspiracy of the ‘powers-that-be’ and the ethnic ‘population exchange’ led by the usurer Soros (a phrase Meloni herself used a few years ago), ideas propagated by FdI – even if during the electoral campaign a substantial willingness was conveyed by these ‘powers-that-be’ to readily accept a future Meloni government.

The relation to the EU is more complex. If Italy’s extreme right views the supranational dimension of the European project with a certain hostility while it looks with more favour on the requirements of the ‘free market’, the economic and financial constraints will impose a certain prudence. However, this is a balancing act that Poland’s right (with which FdI is closely connected) has been able to manage rather deftly. 

The defeat of the Partito Democratico 

With about 19% of votes, the PD has finished at the same level it reached five years ago when it was led by Matteo Renzi. Bearing in mind the great increase in abstentionism this translates into a consistent loss of voters. Since the 2018 vote was considered a heavy defeat, the current repetition can only be seen as another failure of the party.

The PD stood in the election after having broken with the party that should have been its principal partner in a potential coalition – Gisueppe Conte’s Five Star Movement. It is only this alliance that could have been competitive against the right-wing coalition. The PD did not accept Five Star’s decision to engage in a critical debate with the Draghi government nor Five Star’s timid distancing from the massive military support to Ukraine, wanted by NATO and accepted by the EU.

The second potential ally was the new centrist pole formed by Carlo Calenda, an ex-minister and European Parliament deputy elected in the PD list. This alliance was based on celebrating a continuity with Draghi’s policies and on a strongly centrist and liberal programmatic agreement. The agreement fell through (perhaps also for opportunistic motives on the part of Calenda) when Letta, the PD’s leader, signed another agreement with the alliance consisting of the Greens and Sinistra Italiana (Verdi-SI), whose declared objective was merely to aggregate the votes in a single list for the third of Parliament elected with the first-past-the post system with a view simply to oppose the right.

The latter agreement, which did not require an alignment around programme, was not without ambiguities, for when Letta publicly declared that he did not want to govern with Verdi-SI, Angelo Bonelli (Greens) claimed he wanted to participate with his own ministers in a possible government led by the PD.

The result of these manoeuvres was the formation of a coalition around the PD with, to its right, the party +Europe, led by Emma Bonino – who, besides advocating more European integration, has ultra-liberalist positions and an iron-clad support for Atlanticism – as well as a small and hardly relevant centrist split (Impegno Civico) from Five-Star, and, on the left side, with Verdi-SI, which is traditionally seen as an integral part of a traditional centre-left alliance.

In view of Five Star’s electoral recuperation, the PD’s secretary attempted some programmatic tacking to the left, for example, promising to overcome the Jobs Act (a law advocated by the PD itself and which increased work precarity), which proved not to be very convincing. Nor was there much gain even from the pretextual use of antifascism or the depiction of an Italy destined under Meloni to fall prey to Putin – arguments that mostly seemed a way of dodging a balance sheet of policies enacted by the PD in a decade in which it almost always played leading roles in government.

The PD’s problem, however, has not only to do with electoral tactics or mistakes committed by its secretary (the party has already seen many changes of leader without significant effect) as much as with the very nature of the party as a catchall with the goal of covering the entire electoral spectrum of the centre-left.

Almost all the premises underlying the party have proven to be fallacious, starting with the consolidation not only of a bipolar but of a two-party system based on a majoritarian electoral system – and also on the success of an economic globalisation that helped consolidate the support for progressive policies on the level of civil rights while it was liberalist and pro-business in the economic domain.

The PD has gradually become the party of the middle-upper stratum and of sectors with social security coverage, a part of society that rather than growing quantitatively and maintaining its social hegemony is continually shrinking. In addition, the party’s ambition to be the uncontested leading force of a centre-left coalition (in contrast to the plural nature of the right-wing coalition) has produced an ongoing reduction of the forces that are its potential allies. If the goal of dominating the centre-left coalition has favoured the marginalisation and defeat of the radical left, the same operation did not succeed with Five Star nor, to a lesser extent, with the neo-centrist area. The PD, a party created with the ambition to be everything, is coming face to face with the dilemma of having to call into question the very reasoning that motivated its founding. 

The Five Star Movement 

A populist formation with ambiguous content and great success, the Five-Star Movement has had to implement numerous metamorphoses. Its fragmentation has given rise to various small groups that have sought to take up one or another of the original issues put forward by the Movement, for example, the idea of exiting from the Euro. Another component has tried to become normal by placing itself squarely within the establishment policies it originally wanted to combat, but in this case too without being able to find its own political space.

In the meanwhile, a part of the electorate that had flocked to the Movement founded by Beppe Grillo, coming from right-wing parties, has returned to its original alignments. The change in the party’s composition, largely reflecting its parliamentary groups, has led to the result that it is, above all, those with an orientation that can be called progressive who have stayed in Five Star. Moreover, ‘progressive’ is the word used by its leader Giuseppe Conte, former head of two governments with differing profiles, to identify the party’s agenda, which he prefers to the word ‘left’.

Conte, who in the electoral campaign, as the reassuring manager of the pandemic, sought to project a more populist image in line with the traditional identity of the party whose political leader he casually but skilfully became, has, however, rejected proposals to launch a broader coalition located to the left of the PD, a project made more difficult also by the Greens’ and Sinistra Italiana’s refusal to go this route.

The Five Star Movement presented itself to voters as the principal promoter and supporter of a ‘citizen’s income’ that has allowed a broad sector of the population in conditions of poverty to withstand the effects of the crisis. This gave Five Star the ability to retain important support in southern areas, those in which poverty and unemployment are most widespread. The Movement, which has by now assumed the form of a party but which remains fundamentally an aggregation of institutional components without a mass base, also in part distanced itself from warmongering rhetoric regarding Ukraine, although not accomplishing any real rupture with this by way of deeds. Thus it gave expression, at least in part, to a pacifist sentiment, or one of doubt, in terms of the possible catastrophic results of the conflict, a sentiment that remains broadly shared within Italian public opinion.

Reaching about 15% of votes, even though it lost well more than half of its 2018 voters (some of whom became non-voters) the Movement has confirmed the existence of an area of the electorate oriented to the left but which has no faith in the PD. However, the political profile of Conte’s party remains fluid and contradictory and could move in diverse directions even opposed to each other. In any case, the wager of being able to arrest and invert the tendency to Five Star’s decline has for now been won. What will be decisive for the future of the party is the possible upcoming clash with the new government over citizen’s income, fiercely opposed by Meloni’s party. 

The radical left 

In Parliament, it has been possible for the group of the Greens (which for many years remained outside the institutions) and Sinistra Italiana, after various attempts at fusion followed by splits, to affirm itself, assembling the part of Rifondazione Comunista that chose to play the role of left flank to the PD, with an alliance hegemonised by the latter party. This list occupies in great part the space (little more than 3%) which in 2018 had been occupied by Liberi e Uguali (LEU), a formation into which had merged a group that left the PD, now on the way to returning to their original home. During the last years LEU split in various directions.

Up to now the idea of constituting a left section of the centre-left, even if it made it possible to guarantee at least a minimal institutional presence, has not produced a stable political project nor a significant aggregation of social components. Nor did it demonstrate at the local level, where the operation did have a certain electoral success, as in Emilia-Romagna, an ability to influence the PD’s predominant policies. However, it has certainly made it more difficult to construct a left that is not subaltern to liberal hegemony, without even helping to reach the minimal declared goal: to halt the coming to power of the radical left in Italy.

The left that regards an alliance with the PD as impossible, given the by now unbridgeable distance on questions of programme and social base, ran on the Unione Popolare list. Launched in July 2022 around the figure of Naples’s ex-mayor Luigi De Magistris, with the participation of Rifondazione Comunista, Potere al Popolo, Dema (an experiment that came out of the experience of the Naples municipality), Manifesta (formed by parliamentarians that exited Five Star from the left), intellectual groups, and other social actors, it had to confront an election before the project was sufficiently rooted. The result (1.4%) in the Camera dei Deputati (the lower chamber) is certainly below expectations although it marks a small increase in absolute numbers in comparison to the analogous list in 2018.

Certainly, Five Star’s break with the PD and its regaining of credibility in the left has reduced the possibility for Unione Popolare to catalyse a part of the disillusioned electorate of the movement founded by Grillo. Unione Popolare’s still slight presence in the regions and in society did not even permit it to offer a politics sufficient to convince at least a part of the newly abstained.

Unione Poplare has, however, demonstrated a greater capacity for developing programme (even if this still remains the property of milieus that are too limited) and for better use of social media. Post-vote comments indicate a common wish to pursue this coalition project – all the more so that the political system and even the broad orientations of public opinion have by no means been stabilised, which can open new opportunities, although these need of course to be seized by offering appropriate political proposals.

     Italian General Election Deputies Single Member Seats. Source: Wikimedia Commons (edited)