The far-right’s expected victory in Sunday’s elections masks worrying trends across Europe.
After all, elections in Italy are never boring. In fact, they reveal a lot about Italian politics – as well as the current political challenges facing the European Union.
Mario Draghi lost almost unanimous parliamentary support for his post as prime minister in July, including from the two populist parties Movement Cinque Stelle (M5S) and the Law, new elections will take place on Sunday. After just a month of campaigning, polls show that the right-wing bloc of Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), Forza Italy and the Law is on track to win a majority of seats with around 40-45 percent of the vote. Its leading force, the FdI (Brothers of Italy), is a far-right party seen as a natural successor Alleanza Nazionalewhich in turn emerged from neo-fascism Movimento Sociale Italiano Mid 1990s.
The legacy of the historic changes in Italian party politics over the last century still resonates in this election round. That Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) movement against political corruption of 1992-94, sparked after the April 1992 elections, brought about a collapse of the government in 1993. What followed was a “presidential government” made up of unelected technocrats and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a former governor of the Bank of Italy.
This crisis of “political logic” was the first clear sign of the “complete dismantling of the ideological canopy” under which Italian politics had been hiding since “the settled post-war conflict”. Once mainly the political parties Democracy Christiana and the Partito Comunista Italianochanged their purpose as the political arm of social groups, social ties to societies were dissolved, and parties and party members began to assume very different roles, including that of “brokers”.
Party membership among workers began to decline, while a new middle class began to occupy positions of power. Corruption and patronage by what has been called that partitocracy remained widespread, sparking a social crisis that paved the way for populist parties. The Maastricht Treaty and Eurozone membership, meanwhile, constrained democratically derived macroeconomic policies and brought the technocrats much closer to the domestic political arena.
These transformations, reflecting social fragmentation and the decline of party politics, brought about a rupture that opened space for both the technocratic and populist dimensions of "technopopulism". In 1994, with no political organization behind him, media tycoon and AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi won the election with a new movement. Forza Italy, echoing a football slogan. His strategy was very similar to today's - building a highly personalized campaign as the only alternative to the political occupation.
Berlusconi also claimed a personal "business" competence - rather than any actual economic policy - that would somehow work wonders for "the people": the honest, the marginalized and the poor. Still campaigning at 85, his pitch is repeated in the campaign of Giorgia Meloni, a former minister in his 2008 government and the founder of FdI in 2012. (Four ministers and eight secretaries of state from that 2008-11 government are now members of Law.)
Meloni is against it Reddito di cittadinanza (Citizens' Income) and claims that the €9 billion allocated so far has been misallocated - pointing to the misuse of public funds by the corrupt elite - and demands that the money be redistributed to the marginalized and vulnerable low-income families. Their position on migration now reflects that of the Law, led by anti-immigrant Matteo Salvini. And the Reddito di cittadinanza can be presented as a politics of welfare chauvinism that involves the logic of "neither left nor right".
It was the signature policy that helped M5S win the 2018 election. The M5S used it to present itself as a pro-social and pro-working class party committed to an essentially left-wing agenda, and it proved highly successful in rapidly building a mass support base covering the entire ideological spectrum. This illustrates the two dimensions of techno-populism and how, in the absence of a clear strategy to deal with the rift in the political system, it is associated with the rule of populist parties or technocrats, or both.
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This protracted rupture has another consequence for national politics. Meloni has also pledged a constitutional amendment vis-a-vis the President of the Republic, so that a hitherto largely ceremonial figure would no longer be elected by Parliament but by the public. This promise betrays the underlying societal strife, fractured partisan politics and unregulated partisan competition, which translates into rivalry over ultimate authority. The direct election of the president would obviously legitimize the exercise of power by the incumbent.
Such sovereignty conflicts are increasing in EU member states, bringing us back to their historical origins. In the case of Italy, the turning point of 1992-94 also marked an institutional transition from a parliamentary to a presidential regime. The last president, Giorgio Napolitano, was the first to be re-elected for a second term, as was his successor Sergio Mattarella earlier this year.
Since then, Italian presidents, including Mattarella, have exercised their constitutional authority on various occasions. They have given mandates to coalitions to form governments, including the Alliance of Populist Parties in 2018; they have appointed unelected technocrats like Dragi; and, as in 2018, they have even vetoed the composition of a future government.
So, alongside Italy's decades-long tensions with the EU over tax policy, we see competing claims to sovereignty – parliamentary, constitutional, popular – within the country that are not unique to Italy. They reflect broader changes in the political systems of EU member states, including the reduced scrutiny role of national parliaments in economic policy and the rise of the 'regulatory state'.
In the absence of clear organizational reforms of political parties and effective oversight that should expose the chains of accountability of institutionalized power exercised on behalf of the “people”, parties will continue to be increasingly detached from the same perpetual logic of politics-making and winning elections their citizens. Sunday's elections therefore promise no major changes in Italian politics in the coming years - but they will resonate across the continent.
Emilija Tudzarovska Gjorgjievska is a lecturer in contemporary European politics at Charles University in Prague and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences. She received her PhD as part of the PLATO project, which examined the post-crisis legitimacy of the EU.