There was a strange energy in Rome on the 25 September. With the on-and-off drizzle, the weather had not made its mind up on the day the Italian people had to. The Pope gave an address at the Eucharistic Congress in which he referenced the World Migrant and Refugee Day, the same day that Giorgia Meloni, whose party Brothers of Italy is characterised by anti-immigration rhetoric, was to be the biggest vote winner. “Meloni takes Italy”, bellowed La Repubblica’s dramatic front page.
People seemed tense on the day of the vote. The poll station nearest my flat, at a local school, was quiet in terms of both numbers and general noise. Stefano, the concierge for the apartment block, declined to say whether he would vote for Meloni, but simply gave the enigmatic answer: “Something has to change”. Originally from Basilicata, he had been in Rome for thirty years and missed the unspoiled nature of his home region. He implied a dissatisfaction with an Italy which was “out of control”, although he stopped short of bringing up immigration. He shook his head and said that, alas, it would only be around half of Italy who would decide the government, such was the low expected turnout.
At 63.91%, turnout was indeed nine points lower than the last general elections in 2018, although not as low as Stefano had predicted. The South of the country saw the lowest turnout. There are a range of reasons for this, beyond the immediate one of the wave of storms which has buffeted the south and centre of the country. First, the 5 Star Movement (M5S) had gained its voter base as an “anti-political” party. Now that it has governed with both the mainstream centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the hard right League, it cannot seriously pose as being outside Italy’s political mainstream, thus pushing some of its disappointed former voters back to apathy. It remains the strongest party in much of the South, however, which has been attributed to its backing of a universal basic income. Another theory is that, back in September 2020, the constitutional referendum which meant the reduction of Italy’s parliamentarians by a third may have compounded the idea among Italians that politicians are less representative in the literal sense than the areas over which they preside are larger and therefore further removed from local communities.
Those I spoke to who fear Meloni are less concerned by her social conservatism in itself – exemplified by her celebration of the trifecta of “God, Fatherland and Family” – than by her plans to change Italy’s Constitution. Just off Piazza Venezia, I spoke to a café manager, Pietro, who was asking his customers if they had gone out to vote yet, keeping quiet his own intentions. That is, until I asked him. He was a long-standing PD voter and, before that, had backed the Italian Communist Party (PCI), one of the most electorally successful Communist parties in Western Europe. He told me how he cried for days after the veteran PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer died in 1984. That he disliked the right was expected. Particularly frightening for him, though, was the idea that a Meloni government would interfere unilaterally with the country’s post-War constitution, without a referendum as in 2020.
Specifically, Meloni has touted the idea of changing the Constitution to introduce a democratically elected Head of State, instead of the figure appointed by parliament under the current system. In some ways this is understandable: Italy has had four unelected technocrat Prime Ministers in the last thirty years, when the post-War political order broke down amid the Clean Hands corruption scandal which affected every party in the game. A system of “presidenzialismo”, say FdI’s supporters, will allow more decisive government without the need to bring in technocrats to pick up the pieces.
Pietro was fearful, however, that Meloni and other populist leaders would take advantage of the system to create a President who would wield too much power. The experience of Fascism had created a constitution which curbed executive powers; a more presidential system would risk a more populist identification between the leader and the people, creating a similar cult of personality, say its detractors. Along with many older Italians, for Pietro the constitution, a document over which many Resistance and left-wing groups had a significant influence, is sacrosanct. He pointed to his colleague serving coffee to a few Carabinieri at the busy counter and said that he, too, was a PD man. He positively beamed when I suggested I’d entered a PD establishment.
Meloni may have emerged as the winner, with 26% of the vote, but the way ahead is not clear. FdI will be part of a coalition with the hard-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which won 8.9% and 8.3% of the vote respectively. The fact that FdI has replaced the League as the main hard-right party in the North will lead to tensions between the two parties, despite Salvini’s press conference the morning after the vote in which he stated that he would be “with Giorgia for five years”. Berlusconi, too, will try to be the voice of moderation in an otherwise highly Eurosceptic bloc, having defended the European Union’s post-COVID-19 recovery plan for Italy which both FdI and the League have wanted to renegotiate.
The PD, on around 19%, is the clear loser of the campaign. Its leader, Enrico Letta, has stepped down. They will nevertheless be a force to be reckoned with in Parliament. Together with the non-aligned M5S, which surpassed expectations at 15.5% due to its sudden revival in the South, and the centrist Azione-Italia Viva (7.7%), the opposition will do all they can to frustrate a Meloni government.
The lack of economic expertise in the FdI, which is proposing high levels of investment alongside a flat tax on income, also leaves a Meloni government susceptible to no-confidence votes as Italy grapples with multiple crises – energy costs, historic droughts, poor employment prospects. Such a combination of both internal and external pressures will mean that Meloni is unlikely to deliver the stable government that many Italians, and most of all Meloni herself, wish to bring to the country.
The author is a freelance reporter and researcher who focuses on Italy.
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