So, another unelected Italian government is collapsing, and the putatively pro-democratic media are all calling it a ‘dark day.’ In many ways, it is. Mario Draghi’s resignation (his second in the space of a week and this time for real) is bad news for Brussels and the Eurozone. The war in Ukraine was the catalyst for Draghi’s fall as it tore apart Italy’s left-wing populist party, the Five Star Movement. That, in turn, destabilised Italy’s government. The Russian media will be ecstatic: first Boris, now this.
But it is a great day for Italy’s leading right-wing populist party – the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) – which is now in a very powerful position. Fratelli d’Italia continues to top the opinion polls and its leader Giorgia Meloni looks set to become Italy’s next prime minister. It’s an astonishing change of fortunes for a party that received just 4 per cent of the vote in 2018.
At the next general election, which could take place as early as September, it is likely that Brothers of Italy – in coalition with its traditional allies the Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, and Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia (which these days polls about 8 per cent) – would get enough seats to form a government.
None of this was meant to happen, according to the mainstream media and their experts. But the experts didn’t understand what the war in Ukraine would do to European politics.
Francis ‘End of History’ Fukuyama summed up the prevailing view back in March when he wrote on his website that the war in Ukraine would be a hammer blow to right-wing populists because their leaders had treated Vladimir Putin as an ally in their culture wars to defend traditional values and had thus acted as his useful idiots.
In Italy, however, the war has delivered what looks like the coup de grace, not to right-wing, but to left-wing populism. Last month, the left-wing Five Star movement split into two parties over whether to send arms to Ukraine. Its leader, Giuseppe Conte, and the majority of its MPs and senators, do not agree with sending weapons on the grounds that this will merely prolong the war uselessly.
Such views reflect a widespread opposition in Italy to America and Europe’s involvement in the war in Ukraine (prompted by a knee-jerk hatred of America), as well as cynical selfishness given that 40 per cent of Italy’s gas comes from Russia. There’s also an ingrained Italian pacifism which is partly a reaction to the country’s fascist past. A majority of Italians consistently oppose sending arms to Ukraine, according to the polls.
But Five Star’s founder Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s Foreign Minister, believes it is Italy’s duty to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invader. This is the official line of the Draghi government even though in practice Italy sends fewer arms to Ukraine than tiny Latvia whose population is similar to Milan’s.
So Di Maio and 51 of 5 Stelle’s 155 MPs, plus 11 of its 72 senators, quit Five Star to form a new party called Insieme per il Futuro (Together for the Future). Di Maio told a press conference: ‘We needed to decide on which side of history we wanted to be on — with those on the side of Ukraine which has been attacked, or on the side of the aggressor, Russia.’
Before the split, Five Star had the most MPs in Parliament. Now, the radical-right populist Lega has the most. But even before this schism, the alt-left Five Star was already in a sorry state. Just four years ago it got more votes than any other party at the general election (32.7 per cent), formed a coalition government and became the most talked about populist party in Europe.
In 2013, during the campaign for the first general election Five Star contested, its founder Beppe Grillo, a raucous, bearded comedian who is a Latino version of Billy Connolly, promised ‘if we get into parliament we’ll open it up like a can of sardines, we’ll let you see all the stitch-ups… where the money goes, where the contracts go, we’ll let you see everything… So stealing will be difficult, because when you put reflectors in there the thieves become as good as gold.’
His slogan was Vaffa! – eff off, roughly speaking – to everything, it seemed, except wind farms. His dream was to replace parliament with direct democracy on the internet. He built the movement which was run like a cult by delivering high voltage rants to packed piazzas and on his website, which attracted millions of followers. His was a movement, not a party, he insisted, because parties – like parliament – are corrupt. He instructed his followers – for that is what they were – to refuse to speak to the media for the same reasons. He swore blind that Five Star would never form a coalition with anyone else and withdrew from the frontline to play the role of guru.
Slowly but surely, it all began to unravel. Five Star’s politicians began to talk to the media. It became a party. And as it did not have enough votes to govern on its own, it agreed to take part in a coalition government with the unelected Conte, a law professor, as prime minister. Initially Five Star formed a coalition with its arch enemy the radical-right Lega and then once that had collapsed with its other arch enemy, the post-communist Partito Democratico, which also collapsed, and then finally, in February 2021, with both these arch enemies together, in Draghi’s emergency national unity government.
That Five Star agreed to participate in such a government led by Draghi – the ex boss of the EU’s Central Bank and ex director of Goldman Sachs, who is the epitome of Davos Man, and the Euro Establishment – shows just how far the party had travelled. It was only ever populist in words, never in deeds. Its one concrete achievement has been the introduction of automatic unemployment benefit for an unlimited period which had never existed in Italy. Previously, only people with full time contracts who lost their jobs received unemployment benefit and only for a limited period.
Nowadays Five Star is polling only 11 per cent and has lost 8 million voters since 2018. At local elections last October and in June it was virtually wiped out. What we are seeing in Italy is the death of left-wing populism.
Look at Five Star very beautiful Virginia Raggi, who swanned in from nowhere, aged 38, to be elected mayor of Rome in 2016. Five years later, with wild boar roaming the streets amid the uncollected rubbish and buses going up in flames, Raggi did not even make it to the second ballot. In Turin, where the outgoing mayor was another young Five Star woman, the party got just 9 per cent of the vote compared to 30 per cent in 2016.
In a desperate attempt at renaissance, Conte last week deliberately – it is certain – provoked a crisis for the Draghi government when Five Star Senators refused to take part in a vote last week on a welfare package. The pretext was their objection to a clause in the package authorising the mayor of Rome to start construction of an incinerator to tackle the city’s chronic rubbish crisis.
Draghi immediately tendered his resignation even though his coalition won the vote without Five Star’s support. President Sergio Mattarella refused to accept his resignation and Draghi agreed to report back to parliament this week. In theory he could govern without Five Star but he refuses on the grounds that his government was formed as a national unity government to tackle the Covid emergency.
Conte no doubt bets that the only way to recuperate his party’s lost votes is to abandon the Draghi government, however late in the day, and return Five Star to its origins as the scourge of corrupt elites and saviour of the planet. It is surely too late.
Meanwhile, as Italy’s left-wing populism collapses, support for right-wing populism – in the shape of Brothers of Italy – continues to grow. True, the other right-wing populist party, the Lega, has seen support collapse from a high of more than 30 per cent at the 2019 European Parliament elections to 15 per cent now. But it is not Salvini’s support for Putin that has lost him consensus. It was his decision to abandon the first Conte government in 2019 in a doomed attempt to force a snap general election which he thought he would win – followed by his participation in the Draghi government.
Brothers of Italy, in contrast, has reaped the benefits of remaining in opposition. It was the only major party to refuse to participate in the Draghi government on the not unreasonable grounds that it is yet another Italian government led by an unelected figure (five of the last seven Italian prime ministers were not elected politicians when appointed). The last elected Italian prime minister – in the sense of being the leader of the party which got the most votes at a general election – was Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned in 2011. That grim statistic is a terrible indictment of the state of democracy in Italy.
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