Italy: here anything is possible

There are two prescriptions for the Italian crisis. A neoliberal one, assuming in advance reforms imposed by Brussels. With this package, there come also elites and political parties supported by the Union. On the other side we have populist forces. All that is known now is that the Fratelli d’Italia are leading in the polls, with roughly twenty-eight per cent support. Even though polls cannot be published in Italy two weeks before an election, the breath of hegemony of Meloni and her party can be felt everywhere – says Daniele Stasi, professor of the history of political doctrines at the Università degli Studi di Foggia, about the upcoming election.

Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.

What is the reason for such a large support for the right-wing coalition, what are Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni building their popularity on? After all, all but the Fratelli d’Italia were in Mario Draghi’s government? Some argue that the popularity of the right is due to its opposition to the Draghi Agenda, the reform package proposed by the last government and Brussels.

It can be said that there is a polarisation of the political scene in Italy, with its roots in the last years of my country’s history. On the one hand, we have a group of parties characterised by a certain pro-European ideology. As such, it can be pointed out that their main demand is to stabilise the relationship between Italy and the Union by implementing structural reforms welcomed in Europe, above all regarding the reduction of the colossal public debt. Mario Draghi is the guarantor of the implementation of these reforms, which are also linked to Next generation EU measures of strategic importance for Italy.

Daniele Stasi

In terms of polarisation, it is worth mentioning that in 2011, Silvio Berlusconi became Prime Minister of Italy and received an informal letter from the European Union, in which he was essentially asked to step down – because he was unable to ensure Italy’s economic security from a Brussels perspective. Then Mario Monti was asked by President Giorgio Napolitano to form a government, a man who was to play the same role, only in a different historical context, as Draghi. The polarisation stems from the fact that some political forces see the role of guarantor and the policy line imposed by the EU as unjustified interference. “The Draghi agenda”, which is in many ways also the culmination of a certain idea of cooperation between the EU and Italy, will have its verdict in the elections on 25 September. The polarisation will not only continue, but will deepen considerably.

Why did it fall to Draghi last time?

He was someone who openly supports the ideas of modernisation imposed by the EU, i.e. reforms worked out de facto in Brussels. Draghi is an excellent economist, a person of trust and prestige both in the EU institutions and in the financial world.

De facto, the EU has greatly reduced Italy’s sovereignty. The forces of the Lega of Salvini, Fratelli d’Italia of Giorgi Meloni or the Movimento Cinque Stelle led by Beppe Grillo, then introduced a new narrative into the discourse, talking precisely about the loss of Italian sovereignty and independence in the clash with the Brussels bureaucracy.

This polarisation is precisely the result of this Rome-Brussels friction. On the one hand we have forces supporting and backed by Brussels, on the other political parties opposing the Union’s policies. It must be stressed that this is the result of the imposition of neoliberal economic reforms.

Mario Draghi.

What is their content?

The reforms seek to modernise certain branches of administration in Italy and to cure my country’s old political ills.

Let’s start by pointing out that we have two Italias, the north and the south. The issue of the south has been present in the history of our country since the unification of Italy in the 19th century. The South is characterised by a different level of civil culture, democracy and approach to institutions and economic development than Northern Italy. As a result, there is a great deal of clientelism, corruption and lack of any kind of openness. It is therefore a question of bridging the economic gap, through infrastructure projects dedicated to the regions there, but also of raising the democratic culture.

Secondly, the Brussels reforms are supposed to drastically reduce the intensity of the state’s social interventions. This is due to Italy’s huge debt. According to Brussels, the remedy for this is cuts. The cost of the reforms, which aim to rationalise the political and economic system, is modernisation from above, i.e. realised, one might say, by a foreign hand: from Brussels and not from Rome.

The parties demanding a return to full national sovereignty do not, moreover, countenance the fact that the old form of national sovereignty no longer exists, not least because of globalisation.

However, all of the parties mentioned, apart from Fratelli d’Italia, actively supported the government of national unity under Draghi’s aegis. Moreover, it also enjoyed the support of Berlusconi. At the moment, Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi are going for power together, directing the frustration of Italians against Brussels and the Draghi agenda.

And here it is already a question of our political culture, which allows for all kinds of instability and, so to speak, fluidity of views. Let Salvini’s Lega be an example….

The party of the once secessionist Northern Italians and now nationalists.

Exactly! It was a federalist party that sought the separation of Northern Italy. Today, however, it is a nationalist and centralist party. Their slogan is Italiani prima di tutto, meaning Italians first… similar to America first! Trump. But why did these parties support Draghi? It seems to me that it was the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic that complicated our situation. Firstly, the former Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, who has now become the leader of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, worked very closely with Donald Trump. The neo-liberal agenda formulated under Mario Monti, was modified in a more American direction, reflecting the twist of affiliation of our government. The fall of Donald Trump simultaneously resulted in the defeat of Giuseppe Conte, thus opening a new window of opportunity, which is a return to the past. 

Again, we are back to the same situation. Mario Draghi was the representative of this pro-European trend in our politics. His premiership provided Italy with a gigantic support from the Reconstruction Fund.

Practically 25% of the total fund is to go to Italy….

Yes, this huge coalition of parties from the right to the left, from the Partito Democratico – now a decidedly liberal party – to Salvini, Conte and Berlusconi and the accompanying array of smaller parties, was intended to obtain these funds. Draghi was the guarantor of this. This resulted in a kind of political, ideological pastiche. Yet the logic behind it, the so-called Grosse Coalition, was exactly that, the objective was paramount, to bring the funds to Italy. It is precisely the southern regions that need this money, for example, my region, Puglia, where the Quarta Mafia, the mafia organisations operating in the country, are thriving and, like a cancer, they are metastasising to other regions of Italy. The post-pandemic situation has further intensified these phenomena. 

Hence the consensus across the divide. So now we have two prescriptions for the crisis, a neo-liberal one that presupposes the reforms imposed by Brussels. With this package also come elites and political parties supported by the Union. On the other side, however, we have populist forces. Here it should be noted that the populist parties in Italy have strong links with other such groups in Europe, including the Right and Justice. 

One can hear among Italian commentators that the model of illiberal, Orbanian democracy is a kind of inspiration for politicians such as Berlusconi or Giorgia Meloni. Is this also the case from an economic perspective?

In recent days, Poland and Hungary have been portrayed as evil in the election campaign. Politicians say that the path of these countries must be avoided from a political angle.

These voices regarding relations with Poland and Hungary are only coming from the Partito Democratico and the liberal Terzo Polo coalition?

Not only. Also from the populist camp, the Movimento Cinque Stelle, but also post-Marxist forces. In general, this opinion or strategy is applauded among the political mainstream and beyond. This is due to the strong emphasis on Euro-Atlantism in times of crisis, and the desire to portray Italy as a responsible democracy. 

And what does it look like from an economic perspective, non-liberal democracies have their solutions here too….

From an economic perspective, we have a total of three prescriptions that are subject to a vote on Sunday. The first presupposes a flax tax and will boil down to a drastic reduction in taxes for entrepreneurs and for the middle class; the second is basically the same as the Draghi Agenda: reforms along with some limited redistribution of public resources; the third is to strengthen redistribution, i.e. to increase de facto public debt. The first is propounded by the Right, the second by the Democratic Party, the third by Giuseppe Conte of the Movimento 5 Stelle. These proposals are intended to target certain parts of the electorate: from northern Italy as far as Salvini and his coalition partners are concerned; from southern Italy as far as Giuseppe Conte is concerned. The political and economic polarisation of political parties is a reflection of the polarisation of Italy: north and south.

However, the foreign media often describe the situation in Italy as a clash between the aforementioned Partito Democratico, enjoying over twenty per cent support, and Berlusconi, along with the rest of the right-wing coalition. 

Is this not close to the truth?

Of course the Partito Democratico wants to present itself as the party of order and moderation. A kind of iron-clad continuation of Draghi’s reforms without any renegotiation of the way EU funds are granted as proposed by the right. However, they are in coalition with the Sinistra Italiana, the Italian Left, and the Greens, all of whom together voted against Draghi in parliament more than fifty times. So this is unbelievable. The truth about the election is a little different.

There is also a third important actor here, playing on the north-south divide, drifting between the two camps I outlined earlier. This is Giuseppe Conte, who currently has around fifteen per cent support, but in southern Italy much more, around twenty-four. Our electoral system is very unclear, inconsistent, in a word mixed. Hence the fate of the Five Star Movement, Movimento Cinque Stelle, under Conte, could be very extreme. It is possible that the future government will also depend on his support, thus the south of Italy will have its say. 

In recent weeks Conte has adopted a very clever rhetoric, similar to that of Melanchthon of France. He began by presenting himself as a law professor, an ‘ordinary’ person, an academic, with moderate, Catholic views, without any links to the extreme right or left. A few months ago, his party’s slogans were almost perfect, fitting for a democratic, liberal party willing to fight for the social rights of Italians in the light of Brussels’ dictates. For the past few weeks, however, he has changed his stance towards the elites, talking about his party representing the people. Such speeches are increasingly supported. 

Such changes are probably nothing new in Italian politics, even though the former Prime Minister says so… Meloni, on the other hand, from strong anti-establishment positions, is now posing as a stateswoman at the head of the party of power. A party of responsibility and foresight. What is behind this?

First of all, the ambivalence you pointed out is again due to the political culture of right-wing organisations in Italy, which is tainted by Berlusconi’s legacy. Programmes, political slogans change all the time. Silvio Berlusconi is a close friend of Putin’s and presents himself on the side of the EU as a friend of Draghi’s and, at the same time, contributed significantly to depriving him of power.

Besides, a month ago he spoke to the Russian ambassador to Italy about the ‘truth’ regarding the invasion of Ukraine. 

Berlusconi seems to have ousted the Draghi government at the end of July for this reason. It is difficult to understand his political strategy. I think he was promised that he would become president if a presidential model was introduced. His strategy is his interest, which does not always mesh with the interest of the country. This ambivalence of Berlusconi, on the other hand, allows him to play different pianos. Similarly, it is again the case with Salvini and Meloni, despite the fact that they want to pretend to be responsible as of late, it was not so long ago that Salvini was parading in a T-shirt with Putin and Meloni was writing a book about the need for dialogue with him.

Anyway, the Poles heard about Salvini on the occasion of his visit during the war in Ukraine. Such embarrassment arising from his persona has become a sort of permanent feature of Italian politics.

Turning to the question of Meloni, who currently enjoys the most support in Italy, it seems to me that her party, Fratelli d’Italia, the Italian Brothers, is one of the most interesting political phenomena of recent years. First of all, it is a straightforwardly post-fascist party.This is clear and lucid. The party’s logo directly refers to the heritage of the Italian Social Republic, that is, the Nazi puppet creation of the Second World War. 

Besides, Meloni matured politically in the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a post-fascist party active after the war. 

Exactly right. The lines are clear and lucid. It was a party of former fascists. Directly from these circles, Meloni created Fratelli d’Italia. Today, this party balances between a certain factor of the extreme right within its own ranks, but also in an international context, here their collaboration with, among others, Spain’s Vox, and the European elite.

Meloni wants to reassure the Brussels establishment that her premiership will continue to ensure the continuity of Draghi’s reforms. On the one hand, she is very populist, but on the other she wants to present herself as the leader of a mature conservative party. Dozens of academic publications are already being written on this subject. 

What then, after the election? Revolution or long duration?

Nobody really knows. We in Italy do everything our own way. Personally, I do not rule out the emergence of a second Grosse Koalition. The right-wing coalition could fall apart, other parties, even liberal ones such as Terzo Polo, with those few percent of support, or the establishment Partito Democratico, could form a coalition with factions of the right. The future is very uncertain. 

After ‘Super Mario’, anything can happen. 

Yes. Mario Draghi has been portrayed as literally the superman of Italian politics, who will put Italy back on its feet, talk on an equal footing with Angela Merkel and Macron. The rest of the politicians, after all, are not at all close to his format, a worldly man and an expert respected in the salons of the world. And this was true. However, why is he not still Prime Minister? Obviously, Giuseppe Conte’s ambition and prescriptions for the crisis in the Italian economy played a role here, as well as pure jealousy towards the current Prime Minister.

 On the other hand, some talk about the war factor in Ukraine. 

Yes, it is pointed out that it was no coincidence that just after the visit to Kiev the government fell apart. After all, it took place moments after the delegation of Macron, Scholz and Draghi to Ukraine. Although Conte and his party are considered to be to blame for the collapse of the government on paper, in reality it was Silvio Berlusconi, who has made no secret of his contacts with Putin in his life, who was behind it. It was he who mobilised the right wing to coalesce and march for power. Here the Russian thread comes up again, which should be studied in the future.  

What is certain these few days before the elections?

The only thing that is known now is that the Fratelli d’Italia are leading in the polls, with roughly twenty-eight per cent support. Even though polls cannot be published in Italy two weeks before the election, the breath of hegemony of Meloni and her party can still be felt everywhere. In recent days, there have been leaks or rumours in the media that the right-wing coalition, with Salvini in particular, has been receiving cash transfers from the Kremlin to fund its election campaign.

The importance of the relationship with Moscow, and the possibility of Putin’s financial influence on the outcome of the Italian elections, is highlighted. The effect of these rumours, however, is poor. The electoral result is clear, but the fate of Italy is a mystery. In a normal country, the party with the highest result would then form the government. Here, however, anything is possible, given also what is happening in Ukraine and the world.

Daniele Stasi is a professor of the history of political doctrines from the University of Foggia. The title of his latest publication is ‘Polonia Restituta. Nazionalismo e riconquista della sovranità polacca’ (Polonia Restituta. Nationalist and the reconquest of Polish sovereignty).

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