On 21 July 2022, Italy’s fourth technocratic government in 30 years collapsed. Amidst anguished wailing from Europe’s “moderate” press, Mario Draghi, once president of the European Central Bank and now unelected prime minister of Italy, conceded that he had lost the support of parliament and resigned.
But while we should celebrate the return of democracy in Italy, the political situation looks bleak. The post-fascist Brothers of Italy (FdI) – the only party to have steadfastly opposed Draghi’s technocratic government – is top of the polls, and their leader, Giorgia Meloni, is now favourite to become prime minister, heading a coalition that includes Matteo Salvini’s rightwing populist Lega (League) party and the indefatigable Silvio Berlusconi.
Meloni’s sudden rise to prominence has earned her comparisons to France’s Marine Le Pen. But there are key differences in the political context in which they operate, most notably that fascism carries far less stigma in Italy than in France: two direct descendants of Benito Mussolini have stood for election for the FdI in the past three years alone.
Opposing the rightwing trio of Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi is a disorganised and fissiparous centrist bloc. Led by the supposed heirs to Italian communism, Enrico Letta’s Democratic party (PD), the centrists have embraced Draghi’s programme of liberal economic reform and positioned themselves as the continuity candidates.
But the PD have struggled to form a coherent political coalition. Their first attempt lasted fewer than five days after an initial agreement with the more explicitly centrist Action party fell apart when Letta tried to bring a small green party into the mix. Action has now joined forces with former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Italy Alive party, creating two separate coalitions: one led by the PD and vaguely inspired by the green statism of Joe Biden’s Democrats; the other a more traditionally neoliberal rump.
While the centrists have been busy bickering, Meloni’s rightwing coalition has already announced a manifesto which includes many of the same policies being touted in the Tory leadership contest: lower taxes; blocking migrant boats; offshore asylum processing; and cutting welfare payments (in Italy’s case, the “citizens’ income” poverty relief scheme introduced in 2019). They have also moved to reassure their western allies on foreign policy, pledging allegiance to Europe, Nato and Ukraine.
In all of this, the left is nowhere to be seen. The strongest group is likely to be the People’s Union, a coalition led by former mayor of Naples and noted anti-corruption prosecutor Luigi de Magistris. At first, there were rumours that his leftwing group might ally with Giuseppe Conte’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), giving them a base in Italy’s poorer southern regions and amongst the working class generally. But it’s now clear that M5S will run on its own, and maybe even join the PD’s centrist bloc after the election is over. This has put the left in an extremely weak position.
The material conditions for the dominance of the Italian right are depressingly familiar. When Italy joined the Euro in the early 2000s, it rivalled Germany for being the wealthiest nation in Europe. But, since then, Italians have seen 20 years of falling living standards and longstanding resentments have bubbled to the surface.
The precise causes of this economic decline are disputed. What isn’t is that Italy’s political leaders took EU directives on neoliberal restructuring far more seriously than their neighbours in France and Germany. Deregulation of the labour market and attacks on unions drove down wages, while decades of austerity starved the economy of the growth it needed to pay off the debts built up in the 1980s. But the technocrats must also take the blame.
These experts justified their rule by an appeal to “competence”, something Italy has undoubtedly needed in the face of various crises over the last 30 years. But all four technocratic governments failed to grapple with the problem of long-term stagnation.
Instead, they shifted attention away from this generalised economic malaise and onto the discrete political crises they were intended to solve: a corruption scandal in 1993; Berlusconi losing a no-confidence vote in 1995 and again in 2010; and the collapse of Conte’s second coalition in 2022. In each case, rather than tackle the underlying problems, Italian politicians turned to an unelected outsider who could deliver a programme of basic neoliberalism that all major parties agreed on, while also offering a reassuring face to foreign allies and international lenders. (It’s no coincidence all four were central bankers or economists.)
This meant that while the technocrats were never that popular (Lamberto Dini’s Italian Renewal party won 4% of the vote in 1996, and Mario Monti’s Civic Choice won 10.5% in 2013), they were a useful pressure valve, allowing elected officials to dodge responsibility for the underlying social crisis and for the abject weakness of Italy’s ruling class and defusing any energy for change. Draghi may prove to be the last leader of this type.
Meloni’s manifesto includes a pledge to reform Italy’s constitution by introducing a directly elected president. The current president is chosen by the Italian Senate, and functions as an elder statesman insulated from day-to-day politics. But in their role as guardians of the constitution, Italian presidents have often wielded considerable power: inviting four technocrats into government; picking who would lead the grand coalition in 2013; and vetoing the prime minister’s pick for minister of economy and finance in 2018. Direct elections would completely transform the president’s quasi-judicial role and close down the traditional mechanism for summoning an unelected saviour.
But we should also remember that Draghi is the first technocrat to be brought down by parliamentary manoeuvrings and political disagreements. His unelected predecessors all resigned voluntarily and would claim that they had dutifully fulfilled their mandates. Draghi can make no such claims, and his failure to hold a coalition together suggests that the stultifying neoliberal consensus that has gripped Italy since the corruption scandals of the early 1990s might be starting to fracture.
Unfortunately, what looks set to replace it is something even worse.
Matteo Tiratelli teaches sociology at University College London.