A Populist Shift or Business as Normal? In
Italy the constitution says that ‘General Elections to the Italian Parliament
take place every five years’ but with the proviso ‘or in the event of its
In most people’s living memory, it is this
proviso that has shaped the nature of Italian politics. Since the end of WWII
the country has had 69 new governments … that is, on average, a new one every
As I imagine every reader of this blog will
know, the country’s latest General Election took place a few weeks ago, on a
Sunday as they invariably are, the 25th of September.
The election was caused by the abrupt
withdrawal of support by junior coalition parties in the generally popular
caretaker government of Mario Draghi, the third unelected banker-technocrat
recruited to run the country since the 1990s.
The big winner was something very different
for Italy and Europe: 45-year-old Giorgia Meloni, the first woman in Italian
history to lead a major political party, the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli
d'Italia), who many see as the main heir of the Italian neo-fascist
movement. Her appointment, as Prime Minister heading a government that will be
the most far-right since Mussolini, is currently in progress with the country’s
President, Sergio Mattarella, in charge of the process. It is likely that Meloni
will be officially nominated as premier and will start making appointments by
the end of October.
Here in Cortona …
For the day of the election, between the
hours of 7am to 11pm, an old and large stone building in the tiny hamlet of Teverina
in the hills above Cortona, proudly flew a brand-new Italian flag when it
became Polling Station 29, one of hundreds in Tuscany and thousands in Italy’s
27 electoral districts.
Polling station 29 - Pro loco Teverina
For over 100 years this has been where the local
Pro Loco has met to organise community events, where the areas squadra gather
before their wild boar hunts, where local festa’s are staged with waltz-type ballo
liscio dancing on its large concrete terrace to the sounds of Raymondo’s fisarmonica
The autumn mist was clearing in the valley
below as I arrived as a non-voting observer only to interrupt an impromptu
picnic lunch being enjoyed by Station 29’s officials: four couples, including
two young men from the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian financial police,
and a representative of the commune in Cortona. This being Italy, they insisted
I tried their homemade salami and goats cheese and quizzed me about where I
lived before I could get them talking about the country’s often confusing
Italy’s parliament is made up of two houses
holding equal powers: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Under its General
Election laws Italians get two votes, one for each house.
Following a constitutional referendum held
in 2020, this time the number of Deputies – and therefore seats available – has
dropped from 630 to 400, while the number of Senators reduces from 315 to 200.
Italy has a hybrid voting system in which
three-eighths (about 36 percent) of members are elected via a
first-past-the-post system in single-member constituencies. The rest are
elected by proportional representation according to party lists of candidates,
with seats reserved for voters abroad. Parties must secure at least 3 percent
of the vote to get in.
Once all the lower and upper house seats
are allocated through this system, the head of state, Italy’s President, starts
consultations to choose the new Prime Minister and their Council.
Finally, the President assigns the role of
Prime Minister to the political figure who enjoys the support of the winning
parties and is thought to be able to receive the parliament’s vote of
confidence. The remaining ministers are named immediately after.
My Teverina hosts talked about how Italy’s
extraordinarily large number of political parties mean that the country is
often run by broad coalition governments that feature numerous groupings with
mind-boggling names that are rarely known outside of the country – and often
only in one of its regions.
But this time they all agreed that it was
just three far-right parties that seemed to be making their mark in the run-up
to the election: Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League (Lega)
and Forza Italia, led by the 85-year-old former premier, Silvio
It also seemed that other parties who have
been major players in previous governments, including the centre-left
Democratic Party, led by Enrico Letta, and the anti-establishment Five Star
Movement, made little impression.
As the officials explained to me, only
Italian citizens over the age of 18 were eligible to vote in the election. They
had to vote in the town in which they were registered to vote, i.e. their
municipality of residence or commune, and at a specific polling station
assigned to them.
During the morning about 30 people cast
their votes at the Teverina polling station. While I was there a neighbour
arrived and I saw how the system worked. Giuseppe was asked to show a valid
identity document and his personal voter’s card, a tessera elettorale,
which contained his full name, date of birth, address, and allocated polling
station. This was stamped, as it is every time he casts a vote in an election.
He was then given two ballot papers, pink
for the Chamber of Deputies, yellow for the Senate, and was asked to indicate
his choice by leaving a mark next to his chosen party.
‘I’m a Woman, I’m a Mother, I’m a
Although policies and issues featured in
the campaign, such as Italy’s spiraling energy bills that are compounding
already existing economic difficulties, it all seemed to be about a new and
female political personality, famous for being small of stature and loud of
In the lead-up to Sunday’s election the one
thing that most Italians seemed to agree upon was that the next government
could be far-right and that the front-runner was Georgia Meloni.
Whereas at the last General Election in
2018 the Brothers of Italy obtained just 4 percent of the vote this time
Meloni’s party secured 26 percent. This means that her right-wing alliance,
which includes the far-right League (Lega) and the centre-right Forza
Italia, will take control of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies
with around 44 percent of the vote. This is despite her allies performing
poorly, with Salvini's League party slipping below 9 percent - it was polling
at over 40 percent after the last General Election - and Berlusconi’s Forza
Italia even lower.
Born in Rome, Meloni was just a year old
when her father walked out on the family. He was left-wing, her mother, Anna,
was on the right. This has prompted speculation that Giorgia’s political path
has been motivated in part by a desire to seek revenge on her absent father.
The family soon moved to Garbatella, a
working-class neighbourhood of Rome, to be close to her grandparents. There,
aged 15, Meloni joined the youth wing of Italy's neo-fascist movement, formed
after the war by supporters of late dictator Benito Mussolini. In her 2021
book, I Am Giorgia, she stresses she is not a fascist, but identifies
with Mussolini's heirs: ‘I have taken up the baton of a 70-year-long history.’
In 2008, aged 31, Giorgia Meloni became
Italy's youngest ever minister when she was given the Youth and Sport portfolio
by Silvio Berlusconi. Four years later she co-founded the Brothers of Italy
which arose from the ashes of Italy’s Movimento Sociale Italiano
(M.S.I.), the post-war reconstruction of Mussolini’s base.
While Meloni has no time for Russia's
Vladimir Putin and is pro-Nato and pro-Ukraine her hardline conservative social
policies worry many. She has campaigned against LGBT rights, has said she wants
a naval blockade of Libya, and has warned repeatedly against Muslim migrants
and how unnamed forces are guiding immigrants en masse to Italy in the name of
A key pledge of both the Brothers and its
right-wing allies in a new government is to renegotiate Italy's massive, 200
billion euro, EU Covid recovery plan and to have Italy's president elected by
Meloni often speaks about wanting a
different Italian attitude on the international stage but this does not mean
‘doing anything crazy’. In her decade as leader of the party she has, however,
advocated the dissolution of the euro zone. While some commentators claim she
is not a major threat to democracy, she is a danger to the European Union, and
many say she is on the same side as Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban. It is
claimed that she wants a 'Europe of nations', so everyone is basically alone.
The fascist label is something Giorgia
Meloni vehemently rejects.
This said, the Brothers of Italy maintains
the logo of post-war far-right parties: the tricolour flame, often perceived as
the fire burning on Mussolini's tomb. Those close to Meloni say that this is an
identity she can't escape from; it's her youth and, as such, she doesn't want
to drop the symbol. She also still embraces an old slogan adopted by fascists –
‘God, fatherland and family’.
There are wings in the party linked to the
neo-fascist movement. Many of her followers use the stiff-armed Roman salute
associated with Il Duce on the flimsy pretext that it is a hygienic
development in the wake of Covid! Mussolini’s
granddaughter is a Brothers party member, and sits on Rome’s city council.
As the only major party to have stayed out
of Mario Draghi's recent national unity coalition government, the Brothers led
the opinion polls in the immediate run-up to the election even though they have
no experience in government. One of the reasons for the success of the right is
that its parties were unified as a coalition while the left was not.
To visit any polling station on 25
September, even the one in my tiny local hamlet deep in the Tuscan countryside,
one could see how Italy is so hard for anyone to lead. It isn’t a simple matter
of voting left or right, instead there are always more than a dozen logos on
ballot papers each representing a party with its own narratives and ills of the
Up to the 1980s over 90 percent of Italian voters
went to the polls. At this election voter turnout was lower than ever before at
64 percent. It reflected the fact that many Italians weren’t particularly
enthused by any of the options that were going to be on their ballot papers.
I have a feeling that a large percentage of
those who made the effort to vote for Meloni had only recently jumped party and
were attracted by the fact she did not act or look like a typical politician
and was seen as something different. She was a mother with a young child, not
some old professional or political chameleon, and said things that ordinary
people could easily relate to. Seeing her in action at rallies and on screen, I
admire the way she asserted her female identity but did it in a macho,
political way. The dominant member of
most Italian families is the mamma. She is loved and feared, a knowing
and powerful figure who controls the kitchen. Meloni uses this smartly since it
goes directly to the core of the Italian way of life.
It is said Italians are attracted to what
is new and she certainly roused them from their political apathy. Matteo Renzi
was once new, then came comedian Beppo Grillo’s Five Star Party followed by the
once archetype of the modern European populist politician, Matteo Salvini. All
of them achieved great popularity in a short time and then lost it equally
quickly. Meloni is certainly the shiny
new object in Italian politics, but will she survive in a country where its
governments are so short-lived? Historically it is easier to gain power in Italy
than to stay on long enough to change it.
Will Italy become a police state with its
new far-right government? Will there be a big leap into extremism? I don’t
think so. But will Meloni’s government be able to achieve much before dissent
sets in? That is to be seen.
Italy’s political structure was created to
prevent any one faction from attaining the kind of power that Mussolini had.
Its constitution makes it very difficult to do very much. The concept of
coalition politics has mostly been reduced to one of the most common words in
Italian political commentary – ricatto, blackmail. The system has got so
complicated it often seems to me that no-one, especially the voting populace,
really knows how it works thus, possibly, increasing the view that casting a
vote is useless.
Roger Jupe is a writer and author. His
interest in the often-baffling nature of Italian politics and politicians began
22 years ago when he bought a run-down house in the hills above Cortona with his
artist wife, Val Archer. Roger is currently there completing his next book, ‘Tuscany:
Insights for the Inquisitive’.