Giorgia Meloni looks set to become Italy’s next Prime Minister. Charismatic, serious and unapologetic in her simplicity of message: “God, family and homeland”, her popularity has risen constantly since the Italian general election campaign began.
Meloni heads the hard-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) party, which according to latest Ipsos figures is polling at around a quarter of the vote. The second-highest party, the centre-Left Democratic Party (PD) is expected to win around 20% of votes.
Following a debate between the PD’s leader, Enrico Letta, and Meloni on Tuesday, the election seems more of a referendum between left and right rather than a multi-hued choice expected in a proportional system.
Letta posted a cartoon on his Twitter account stating that there are two Italy’s which don’t understand one another, to which the reply goes: “One of them is talking in Hungarian”, in reference to the influence of Viktor Orban on FdI’s social conservatism.
Perhaps Italy’s elections on Sunday week would always have populism at their heart. For a start, this will be the first election since the country reduced its parliamentarians by a third following a constitutional referendum back in 2020. The campaign in favour of the reduction was driven, predictably, by the “anti-politica” that has characterised much of the country’s electorate since comedian, Beppe Grillo, turned his roadshow into a major political party, the Five Star Movement (M5S). Even the so-called centre-Right and centre-Left governing blocs in the elections do not seem worthy of their names. The Right-wing coalition is led by the FdI and League, which is polling at around 12%, with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia trailing behind consistently, such that Meloni seems to be the Dea ex Machina much like Berlusconi himself appeared back in 1994.
Behind the resignation to populism lies a more complex picture, or at least some hope. The Right is on track to win, but Carlo Calenda, Secretary of Italy’s centrist Action party, claimed on Saturday that ruptures between Brothers of Italy and the League will make any government of the Right last “less than six months”. In such a situation parties will call for a return to the technocrat Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank dubbed “Super Mario”.
Technocracy has a particularly strong history in Italy. A high-level view of its recent political and economic history makes this understandable. For example, in 1992 the colossal bribery scandal known as Clean Hands (“Mani Pulite”) saw the entire post-war party-political system crumble; Prime Minister Bettino Craxi famously told an enquiry that a significant part of financing of all parties had an “irregular or illegal” provenance. It was in this context that former Governor of the Bank of Italy Carlo Azeglio Ciampi was called to preside over a government of technicians in 1993. In the throes of the eurozone debt crisis in 2011 it was economist, Mario Monti, who was called by Italy’s Head of State to form a government.
In January 2021, the Italian government suffered from widespread disagreements over the EU-funded solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, the two ministers belonging to minority coalition partner Italia Viva, the centre-left party run by former PM and PD leader Matteo Renzi, resigned from the government of M5S’s Giuseppe Conte. This forced Conte to hand in his resignation to Italy’s President, Sergio Matterella.
Draghi’s accession to the role of Prime Minister in February that year was greeted by cautious optimism among the mainstream Italian press and politicians due to the severity of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Many feared that a technocrat could only be a temporary solution to the political divisions which preceded his appointment.
Indeed, it goes without saying that an unelected technocrat means that, no matter how talented, the undemocratic nature of the appointment remains hard to dispel. In July 2022, Draghi lost a no-confidence vote by 63 votes out of a 133 total. FdI called immediately for elections.
Since then, as has been reported everywhere, FdI, in the hands of Meloni, has skyrocketed in popularity. The party has attempted to differentiate itself from Neo-Fascist movements although there is evidence that many of its representatives, including its leader, have been affiliated with the Italian Social Movement, a successor to the Fascist Party, with Meloni having led its student branch while at university.
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FdI has taken on a range of highly socially conservative stances, including opposition to abortion. It has been unashamed in its campaign against the feature of LGBT identities in the country’s culture: last week Meloni attempted to get an episode of Peppa Pig featuring two female parents banned from Italian TV. On Sunday, two other politicians, although not of FdI, presented a formal complaint to a Ministry of Culture committee against the episode.
The rise of FdI is contrasted with a fissiparous Left. It is remarkable that the centre-Left coalition contains two former PD Prime Ministers: Letta, who briefly served as Prime Minister between 2013 and 2014, and Renzi of Italia Viva, which has in turn joined forces with Calenda’s Azione. Letta maintains that the PD is the only viable option for voters who do not want the Right in power, while Renzi has been unerring in his description of his former party as being dominated by Letta’s “personal rancour”.
As Calenda has hinted at, none of this is to say that a right-wing government would be exempt from in-fighting, although Berlusconi countered his remarks by describing all parties of the Right as linked with “affection” on the radio on Monday. On sanctions against Russia, Meloni and League leader Matteo Salvini were diametric opponents at a conference in Cernobbio last week, where the latter described the measures as only harming Italian businesses and people. More recent Ukrainian developments have given him pause on this matter. Even though parties of the Right are seemingly united in their proposal of a so-called “flat tax” on income, the realities of this are still to be decided, with the League proposing 15% and Forza Italia 23%.
As if this weren’t enough, the Italian legislature is in the process of approving a decree to help businesses meet rising energy costs to which Italy has been particularly exposed. Berlusconi even blames Letta’s government on Italy’s dependence on Russian gas, which underpins the testy sanctions debate between Salvini and Meloni. The decree’s latest iteration looks to add together August tax surpluses with extra profits of energy companies to reach €13.6 billion of aid, according to business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.
The contrast between bitter party politics and the dire need for unified parliamentary action on the cost of living sums up the challenges for any government in Italy. In that sense, no matter what form the new government takes, the crisis footing amid which it will be elected suggests it will have to be technocratic at least to some degree.
Whether the parties themselves will explore this mode of governing is another matter. It may be that Italy’s much-lamented political chaos is simply locking the country into another cycle of powerless coalitions and unelected technocrats to be helicoptered in to deal with the mess.
The author is a freelance reporter and researcher who focuses on Italy.
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