The new face of Italian populism

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The new face of Italian populism

ROMEIn the last week of October 1922, Mussolini marched on Rome and took control of Italy. In the last week of October 2022, Giorgia Meloni completed her own journey from the fringe to the center and closed a circle in Italian history. On Sept. 25, Meloni’s party, Fratelli d’Italia (the Brothers of Italy), won the largest share of the vote, 26%, in Italy’s general elections. A month later, on Oct. 25, Meloni formed a government with two other parties of the Right: Forza Italia, which is led by the hard-partying Silvio Berlusconi, and Lega Nord, the Northern League, which is led by Matteo Salvini.

Fratelli d’Italia is the ideological descendant of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, via three generations of politicians and two successor parties, the National Alliance and the Italian Social Movement. Meloni is a populist and nationalist who says Italy is besieged by immigrants, the family is under attack, and Italians are being turned into “perfect consumer slaves” by “financial speculators.” Is history repeating itself, or, as Mark Twain said, only rhyming?

The resonance is loud enough for foreign media to call Meloni a “neo-fascist” (PBS), “far-right” (New York Times), or, even worse, “not so much the heir to Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement as the first European copycat of the US Republican party” (the Guardian). The European Union’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she believes Meloni represents a threat to democracy. Before Italians voted in September’s general elections, von der Leyen warned of exemplary punishment: “If things go in a difficult direction — I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland — we have tools.”

Von der Leyen is not elected by any public. The EU president is selected in closed-door negotiations by the leaders of the EU’s member states. There are no public records of any of these negotiations. That is not how liberal democracy usually works. Meanwhile, Italian media call Fratelli d’Italia centrodestra, center-right, and Meloni is Italy’s first elected prime minister since Berlusconi in 2008. The previous six prime ministers all won the job through coalition deals, and four of them were not even elected to Parliament when they got the call. Meloni is also Italy’s first female prime minister. All this sounds like liberal democracy. It also evokes the philosopher John Gray’s observation that “populism” is a derogatory term for the unintended consequences of liberalism.

Still, this is Italy. Having one of Mussolini’s grandchildren in your party is unfortunate. Fratelli d’Italia has two. That may look like carelessness, but Fratelli d’Italia is very careful to separate itself from Mussolini’s shadow. Meloni said her party has “no place for those nostalgic for fascism, racism or antisemitism, which are light years away from our DNA.” But the story of Meloni’s climb from the working-class Roman neighborhood of Ostiense, where she was an ISM youth leader, is inextricably part of the ISM’s long and deliberate effort to enter the political mainstream.

The ISM was founded in 1946 as a frankly fascist party, dissolved itself in 1995, and promptly revived itself as the National Alliance. Postwar Italian politics had broken down in 1993 amid corruption scandals. A referendum approved the reform of the electoral system from proportional representation to a mixed system that combines elements of both proportional and majoritarian (“first past the post”) representation. The 1994 elections brought Berlusconi to power. The ISM’s rebranding as the National Alliance was part of the general reordering of parties and alignments that followed, but it was also an attempt to cross the threshold of legitimacy.

In 2007, the National Alliance merged with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to form the People of Freedom party. The 2008 elections produced a three-year coalition between the People of Freedom and the Northern League. It could be argued that the People of Freedom was more centrist, or at least less likely to destabilize the republic, than the Northern League, some of whose members want to secede from the Italian republic. Fratelli d’Italia formed in 2012, following the usual splits between the true believers and the triangulators.

Meloni was born in 1977. By 1992, when she joined the ISM youth movement as a 15-year-old, the ISM had disavowed racism and antisemitism. In 1998, she was elected as a local councilor in Rome for the National Alliance, which specifically called its program post-fascismo, post-fascism. Yet the ISM logo, a flame taking the form of the Italian tricolore flag, survived the transition into the National Alliance. The same symbol lives on in Fratelli d’Italia’s logo.

When Meloni took office on Oct. 25, she was adamant: “I have never felt any sympathy or closeness to anti-democratic regimes: for no regimes, fascism included. In the same way, I have always considered the [antisemitic] racial laws of 1938 the lowest point of Italian history, a shame that will taint our people forever.” She pledged to “fight against any form of racism, antisemitism, political violence, discrimination.”

It is less clear how post-fascismo some of Fratelli d’Italia’s leaders are, let alone some of its followers. Ignazio La Russa mentored Meloni as a youth activist in the ISM, managed the 2007 merger of National Alliance and Forza Italia, and served as Berlusconi’s defense minister in the 2008-11 coalition. In late October, La Russa was elected as speaker of the Senate. Meloni praised him as “an irreplaceable point of reference, a friend, a brother, an example for generations of activists and leaders.”

La Russa is an avid collector of fascist-era memorabilia. In 2018, he was foolish or confident enough to show it to a film crew from Corriere della Sera. During this year’s election campaign, his brother Romano suffered an involuntary spasm of the right shoulder and let slip a fascist salute. It could happen to anyone, I suppose.

In Romano La Russa’s case, it happened to a man who had served as a National Alliance MP in the European Parliament between 2004 and 2008. During these years, Romano La Russa sat on the EU’s committees on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs, Economic and Monetary Affairs, and Industry, Research, and Energy, and he joined delegations to Iran and the Gulf States. He holds the post of security councilor to the regional government in Lombardy.

SYMBOLIC GESTURES

“Meloni’s party is technically neo-fascist or post-fascist,” said Gianluca Passarelli, a professor of political science at the Sapienza University of Rome. “It’s different from the wave of radical parties, the ‘New Right,’ that were born in the ’70s in Norway and France. It has direct descent from the fascist party.” But Meloni, he suspects, is a pragmatist. She is “playing a role” and may turn out to be “more moderate than she acts.” She is a postmodern post-fascist, exploiting the gap between rhetoric and reality.

“There is not, at least not immediately, a risk of fascism or a threat to democracy,” Passarelli said. “Italy has solid institutions, a solid democracy, a solid and pluralist society, and a tradition of consolidated democracy. I don’t expect Meloni will try to alter any fundamental rights.”

Passarelli said he does expect, however, “symbolic” acts, with illegal immigration the obvious target. Meloni has made promises to her voters. Many of them are first-time supporters, and many of them have defected from her coalition partners. Fratelli d’Italia’s share of the vote rose from 4.4% in the 2018 elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, to 26% in this year’s election. This surge does not only derive from the decline of the Northern League, down from 17.4% to 8.8%, and Forza Italia, from 14% to 8.1%. A substantial cohort of voters migrated to Meloni after the electoral collapse of the Five Star Movement, down from 32% to 17.3%, which began on the anarchist Left and rose on a wave of popular disgust at Italy’s political paralysis and economic decay.

The new coalition’s first actions were symbolic gestures. Turning migrant ships away from Italian waters asserts national sovereignty, and clamping down on illegal rave parties demonstrates the rule of law. But Meloni will need more than symbolic gestures to satisfy her voters. Deporting migrants and arresting rave promoters will not arrest Italy’s demographic and economic decline. It is unclear whether she has the authority or the means. Does Meloni possess a mandate for drastic change?

“She leads a party that won 26% of the votes with a turnout of 64%,” Passarelli said. “This means that about 15% of Italian adults support Fratelli d’Italia. That is not a mandate for the radical transformation of Italian society. She cannot go as far on the fundamentals of the economy as she can on the culture war.” What the voters do want, he said, is economic development and getting out of debt. “They want a sense of the future.”

Italy’s public debt-to-GDP ratio had already exceeded 100% when the crash of 2008 happened. By 2010, combined public and private debt was equivalent to 330% of GDP. Since then, real GDP growth per capita, a reliable measure of the standard of living, has declined steadily. The EU has imposed a debt repayment schedule that places Italy’s politicians on permanent probation. Meanwhile, the Italian population peaked in the late 2010s, and the population of working-age people will decline sharply in the next two decades unless it is supplemented by immigrants.

“Politicians can say whatever they want, but Meloni has to follow the Draghi agenda,” Passarelli said. Mario Draghi was Meloni’s predecessor as prime minister. In 2021, Draghi was drafted in, unelected, to hold the government together and, his enemies said, to forestall a reckoning with the voters. This, though, was a late encore in an extraordinary career of unelected influence. Draghi, a trained economist who worked at the World Bank in the 1980s, was governor of the Bank of Italy during the 2008 crash. In 2011, when the Eurozone went into a balance-of-payments crisis, he was chairman of the Financial Stability Board, which the G-20 nations had set up after the crash to avoid further shocks to the global economy. From 2011 to 2019, Draghi was president of the European Central Bank, which manages the EU’s monetary policy.

If Italy is in an economic straitjacket, Draghi is one of the master tailors. The “financial speculators” who govern Italy’s fate are the German government and the European Central Bank. Meloni used to talk about leaving the EU. Like Salvini of the Northern League, her rhetoric softened the closer she got to high office. She now supports “European integration” but calls for the EU to reform itself and return power to its member states under a looser, federal system. Anything less would imperil Italy’s credit line in Brussels.

Meloni can keep her coalition friends close with symbolic gestures, but maintaining Italy’s economic credibility means keeping Draghi, her ideological enemy, closer still. “Defying Brussels on a parliamentary vote on what Parmigiano cheese is? They can do that,” Passarelli said. “But not when it comes to changing the EU’s debt structure for southern Europe.”

This is not the only pressure pushing Meloni’s rule toward continuity and the center. “The big threat to Meloni comes from the Right,” Passarelli said. These elections have damaged her coalition allies, and they now “must sink or swim.” Ukraine may be the key issue. Unusually for a right-wing European politician, Meloni is strongly pro-Ukraine. “Anyone who believes it is possible to trade Ukraine’s freedom for our peace of mind is mistaken,” she said when she took office. “Giving in to Putin’s blackmail on energy would not solve the problem. It would exacerbate it by opening the way to further demands and blackmail.”

The next day, Berlusconi, speaking in the same chamber, said it was vital to “bring Russia back into Europe.” Some might feel that Russia is already too far into Europe, and not just in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of “elite capture,” the corruption of leaders in politics and industry, has been a long game and won him a silent victory. The intimacy between Berlusconi and Putin is proof of it. So is the pact that Salvini and the Northern League forged in 2017 with Putin’s party, United Russia. So was the 2019 scandal in which, it is alleged, senior figures in the Northern League negotiated with Putin’s intermediaries on how to use imports of Russian oil as a cover for funneling tens of millions of dollars to the Northern League.

“If Meloni moves toward the center, she will get some support from small opposition parties, like Matteo Renzi’s party, Italia Viva,” Passarelli said. Like Renzi, Meloni calls for reforming the Italian state. “There is room for cooperation. They share the idea of having direct popular legitimation of the government by electing the president. Renzi especially is just waiting for the first onset of internal weakness so he can say, ‘Listen, we are here to save the country. We don’t vote with you because we are against you and all your rhetoric, but we are willing to vote with you because when it comes to foreign affairs, we cannot be divided. We are here for the good of Italy.’”

STABLE POLITICS

Italian governments resemble another of Mark Twain’s jokes, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” In the 76 years since 1946, 68 governments have attempted to govern the Italian republic. This average, 1.1 years per government, is slightly misleading. The highest turnover came before the reforms of 1993.

Since the reforms, Italy has now had 18 governments in 29 years — just over 1.5 years on average. Four right-wing governments have held power for 9.1 years, and seven left-wing governments have held power for 10.3 years. The remaining decade or so has seen coalitions whose ideological coloring defies conventional analysis. The average left-wing government has lasted 1.5 years on average. The average right-wing government has lasted 2.3 years, and none of them has ended in a snap election. Another way of putting this is that this is the average time it takes for Berlusconi, who led all four right-wing coalitions, to be disgraced and that if you have no shame, disgrace is no reason not to give it another shot.

This suggests that Meloni is probably not a flash in the pan like, say, Britain’s Liz Truss, who came and went as prime minister in 45 days. It also suggests that, just as Italian politics were more unstable in the decades of postwar growth, Italian politics have become more stable in the years of decline. Meloni may, like the Northern League and Five Star before here, be given enough time to demonstrate that, for all her rhetoric, she finds herself unable to revive Italy’s economy, let alone stem the tide of migrants that floods across the Mediterranean.

She may also find that coalition politics and structural pressures push her toward the center ground. An accommodation with Mario Draghi is already a necessity, and an accommodation with Matteo Renzi and the smaller reforming parties might become one. The voters are not looking for a government that will invade Albania. They are looking for a government that might restore the social compact in the way that the Christian Democrats did in the republic’s first decades. Meloni might have won power with the talk and symbols of a radical right-wing takeover, but her government could end more conventionally. She may turn out to be the unacceptable face of a familiar Italian dilemma.

Dominic Green is a Washington Examiner columnist and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Find him on Twitter @drdominicgreen.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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