Giorgia Meloni’s rise to power doesn’t constitute a watershed moment but business as usual in Italy’s turbulent political culture
Giorgia Meloni in the past few weeks has been appointed as Italy’s first female Prime Minister having negotiated cabinet positions with members of her right-wing coalition. Her appointment comes a month after her party, Fratelli d’Italia became the largest group in the Italian Lower Chamber with 26% of the popular vote, which combined with her allies gives her a 37-seat majority. She joins a repertoire of right-wing parties in Europe who have swept to power in recent years. This has caused many in the media to frame the issue as a ‘rightward shift’ or a radical move away from the status quo. However, in doing so many are misunderstanding the nature of Italian politics and the key to Meloni’s success. That Meloni is just a symptom Italy’s continuing political reality, where radical allegiance shifts, and rampant distrust of the establishment are the norm. A trend which helped her get into power but will also see her demise.
Fratelli d’Italia, went from receiving 4.35% of the vote at the last election to being the largest party in the Italian Lower Chamber. Whilst many see this as strange or unusual if we look at Italy’s recent political history it becomes more comprehensible. Italy since World War 2 has had 68 governments in 76 years. Political turmoil is common. The main reason for this is Italy’s electoral culture and system. Italy suffers from a lack of major continuous establishment parties. Most parties elected to the Italian Parliament were only founded thirty or so years ago. This effect is complimented by the Italy’s electoral system where members of the Lower Chamber are mainly elected by proportional representation, meaning governments are formed of lots of small parties. This culminates in a rapid turnover rate of Prime Ministers, as even small disputes between parties can bring down the government. In this way, political maneuvering becomes the status quo not the parties themselves. Any party associated with the ruling government that collapses becomes equated with the establishment. When this happens, Italians become weary of the constant turmoil and look for new solutions where they find a plethora of new parties to replace them. This gears Italy towards populism.
Populism is a difficult term to define but Antonio Masala, a lecturer of Political Philosophy at the University of Pisa, puts it this way, paraphrasing from the Italian original, populism is the belief that there is a need to restore sovereignty back to the people which has been taken away from them in some form, in order to realise the popular will. Due to the constant instability of the Italian political system the electorate feels a disconnect between their vote and the resulting legislation in the Italian Parliament. Thus, anti-establishment politics becomes the key to election success. Parties that are classed as outsiders can gain large support very quickly. Luigi, a 72-year-old professor at the university in Pisa whom I interviewed as he was leaving the polling station, puts it well, ‘People are looking for simple solutions to complex problems’ in Italian politics.
We have seen this trend in the past, with other parties. For example, the Movimento 5 Stelle, or Five Star Movement in English, which was only founded in 2009, achieved 23.56% of the popular vote for the Lower Chamber at the 2013 election and then swept to power with 32.68% in 2018, with Five Star linked Giuseppe Conte being appointed Prime Minister. The Five Star Movement is left wing compared to Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, with the main flagship policy being a ‘citizens income’ for Italy’s poorest residents. The electorate was attracted to the novelty of Five Star, just like Fratelli d’Italia. The important factor isn’t their political policies but rather their populism, their claim to be a fresh start, a new alternative to the political chaos.
‘Traditore’ said a local Pisan nurse referring to the previous Prime Minister Mario Draghi. ‘No matter whom we vote for we always end up with the same result’, that being a government that doesn’t reflect the democratic will of the people, which Draghi came to represent with his impartial national unity coalition. Giorgia Meloni was the only political figure not to enter either into the ruling coalition led by Conte following the 2018 election or Draghi’s subsequent national unity government, unlike other parties such as Salvini’s Lega and the Five Star Movement. It is for this reason that so many Italians have placed their faith in her. She is seen as the simple solution to solve Italy’s fragile governance, as well as Italy’s rampant inflation and impending energy crisis in the face of the war in Ukraine. She was able to avoid the taint of being labelled an insider. Meanwhile Five Star and the Lega now viewed as insiders suffered and saw their vote tallies fall in the 2022 election. Five Star from 32.68% to 15.43% and the Lega from 17.35% to 8.77%.
However, populism is a double-edged sword. Masala says that populism thrives in times of crisis. The key to Meloni’s success was being an outsider figure, gaining popularity through rallying against the establishment with the backdrop of Italy’s current political and economic crisis. However, what happens when the populist becomes part of this establishment? They lose their novelty and subsequently their popularity. With economists forecasting a deep recession across Europe, a prolonged period of stagflation and high energy prices, those concerned about Meloni’s rhetoric on migrants and the LGBT community can be assured that it is likely that Meloni will suffer the same fate as her predecessors. That being, as the political and economic situation worsens in the country, the factions holding her government together will start to splinter and just like the previous 67 governments, those in her party and the electorate will look for a new face to challenge the status quo.
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