Italy's elections: what is going on? I think we f****d up

Italy's elections: what is going on? I think we f****d up

You may not know it, but Italy has just undergone a major election. Why do I bother? First of all, it's my country, and second of all, what happened may be one of the most interesting European examples of a new form of politics. Also, I won't hide it; I do not like the outcome. Not purely because the right or far right scored a substantial win, but mainly because of how this victory was achieved. There is an electoral void, and the far right managed to fill it while the left stood aside, giving credit where it's due. However, the shape of far-right politics, as it will become clearer later, is made of unsubstantiated slogans and the creation of a detached sociopolitical reality in which, they claim, their agenda is the only reasonable one. This is where the case at hand becomes more interesting, as the far right gathered around a new candidate: Giorgia Meloni. And she was extremely efficient in filling this void. To give you an idea of how quick this populist discourse gained consensus, bear in mind that her party in the last elections had less than 5%. Today, her party is above 26%.

This is what I will discuss here. Meloni's politics revolves around the usual tropes we all know, but the mechanism through which these politics are established is far more interesting, I believe. Opposition to LGBTQ+, women, and reproductive rights (abortion included), or the xenophobic suspicion towards immigrants or diversity more in general, these discourses are far from new in Italy and elsewhere. While criticising and resisting these conservative views should be a priority, what I find often excluded from the public discussion is an analysis of how these agendas became so electorally powerful. To put it simply, supporting the right to abortion is vital, but understanding how the pro-life discourse works gives us the high ground.

This is indeed the aim of this brief writing: giving the reader an idea of what's happening in Italy and how this political discourse is gaining momentum. What I introduced above as "a new form of politics" refers precisely to this. Among political thinkers, this is far from new, but the political arena is shifting. The new political wars are fought on different themes compared to the past: identity, sovereignty, and representation. If anything, this election showed that we lack an understanding of how to "fight" in this new arena. So far, as Meloni's triumph demonstrated, the right is winning by a wide margin precisely because it understood this new form of politics. The right gives a simplified solution to a complex reality and to the new questions of a post-modern world in which transnational economic and political forces are the new protagonists. What do these solutions look like? A conservative and backward agenda aiming at exclusion: basically what the right does best.

But as a leftist, I hope that we start taking this result seriously and go beyond the usual excuses we offer. We need to start analysing this new form of politics because, at the moment, we are not even present in the political arena.

How did we get here?

I'll start with a necessary detour. It will better explain why I am talking of a political void in which historically established patterns of support and alliance are shifting. These reasons, as it will become clearer later, are partially a contemporary issue and partially a structural problem. I'll start with the latter. When it comes to elections and government, Italy's legislation is in a peculiar position. The country's constitution is fairly young (1948), and it was written with profound attention to avoiding the rise of a second totalitarian phase. On a political level, this means a very volatile landscape in which governments rise and fall and in which alliances are continuously redrawn. Since the foundation of the republic and its constitution, there had been 30 PMs (and 67 governments), one every 1.3 years. As you may imagine, the formation of a new government is a very complicated and time-consuming matter. Political parties need the support not just of the other members of the coalition, which is not always a certainty but often also of parties outside their coalition.

Incumbent Giuseppe Conte’s term ends prematurely following disputes over the post-pandemic economic recovery route
Incumbent Giuseppe Conte’s term ends prematurely following disputes over the post-pandemic economic recovery route. From: The Telegraph.

This is the case of the last few years, and bear with me because the whole thing is very convoluted. Giuseppe Conte, who served as PM from 2018 to 2021, was given the role of PM after weeks of discussions between the two major winners of the 2018 elections, a populist party (the 5 Stars Movement, or M5S, with 32.7% of votes) and a far-right party (the League, with 17.4% of votes). Conte himself was working as a university professor and therefore was not affiliated with either. He represented a bridging option. Neither party leaders, Matteo Salvini for the League, and Luigi Di Maio for M5S, could be elected PM as the election of one would almost certainly imply the exiting of the other party from the coalition and, consequently, the collapse of the government before its establishment.

A little more than a year after, Salvini, despite being Minister of Internal Affairs in this government, withdrew the support of its party (the League), jeopardising the cohesion of the government and thus forcing Conte to seek other allies. At this point, the first Conte government (League/M5S) was replaced by the second Conte government, this time composed of M5S and the Democratic Party, the "new ally". Do you think it ends here? Nope, it gets worse. Because in 2021, the support to the second Conte government was withdrawn from another ally, a former member of the Democratic Party. The government barely survived this crisis, but Conte himself handed in his resignation soon after due to an important measure that was soon to be rejected by the same parliament that supposedly supported him as PM. And this is where the currently outgoing government took charge. Mario Draghi, former Director of the European Central Bank and therefore not politically affiliated, was "called" to serve as PM (a "technical PM") due to the very precarious economic and sociosanitary situation of the country (remember Covid?).

Now that the reader has in mind the basics of this painfully complicated situation, we are left with one major question: what is happening now?

What happens now?

This is where the void manifests itself: a young constitution for a politically split country that less than a decade earlier was home to one of the deadliest dictatorships of the XX century. However, the usual post-war political struggle between the communist and conservative parties structured the political discussion of our contradictory political history. But those juggernauts of political discussion dissolved. We are left with a void, and this void is the theatre of shifting alliances and memberships, an unstable stage for protagonists to appear, disappear and change their masks. It is evident in our recent electoral history.

It might be an overreaction, might be whistleblowing: the right seemed to be able to cleverly fill the void, with the League in the last election and with Meloni now. There was a somewhat clear winner in these last elections, but, as you have probably realised by now, this means little. On a general level, however, it means a lot. The country is shifting towards the right.

Three major characters stole the scene in these elections; the aforementioned Democratic Party and its allies (centre-left, with 26%), the right-wing coalition (comprised of Meloni's Brothers of Italy, the League, and Berlusconi's Forza Italia, with 44%), and Conte's M5S, with 15.6%. Individually, Brothers of Italy is the first party both in the right-wing coalition and overall, with 26%. Consequentially, Giorgia Meloni is very likely to become our next PM in a right-wing government, far-right even, in which both Berlusconi and Salvini's League will have a say, as the government will be able to survive as long as this coalition remains intact. And this is not certain, as there are already signs of instability in the coalition. And this is where we are now, and you must learn who Giorgia Meloni is, what it will mean for the present or future, and, more importantly, how her politics fabricated an artificial response to fill the political void.

Who's Giorgia Meloni?

A little disclaimer: when describing the technicalities of the country's electoral position, I tried to be as neutral as possible. However, when talking about the political position of our new government, I am thoroughly not. Giorgia Meloni will be our first female PM ever, but do not get too excited. Her likely election to the most crucial political role in the country is not good news for equality, nor women's rights more specifically. Meloni is a conservative politician and not in a bland sense. Over the years, her position on social questions has been clear and, even more worryingly so; her ideals have been accompanied by more or less overt reminiscences to the typical populist far-right discourse: a deep intolerance towards immigration and more generally "foreigners"; a strong conservative position on reproductive rights and the "ideal" shape/representation of the concept of family; and a spread distrust, often rephrased as direct opposition, to minority rights, including LGBTQ+. As the reader may imagine, the political substance of these positions is often based on angrily shouted slogans, oversimplification and polarisation, thus creating and reinforcing stereotypical and unsubstantiated fears of diversity.

Giorgia Meloni meets with fellow right-wing leader, Hungarian Viktor Orbán
Italy's likely first minister meets with fellow right-wing leader, Hungarian Viktor Orbán. From: Hungary Today.

In addition, Meloni herself has never hidden her appreciation for her political inspirations and allies around the world. She has been a strong supporter of former POTUS Trump and Victor Orbán and, in the past, has defined Putin as a "defender of the values of the West". Since her entrance into the political sphere, our new PM has been dangerously close to fascism, both directly and indirectly; from her initial participation in the public political sphere, she has been working with and within far-right movements, whose political stances are questionable, to say the least. Her initial entrance into the political domain traces back to her youth, when she joined the Front of Youth, a neofascist militant organisation whose more violent members had founded the NAS (the group responsible, among other things, for a terrorist attack in Bologna that killed 85 people). Her climb through the ranks was fast, and towards the end of the millennium, she was designated Secretary of Youth Action, the student organisation based upon National Alliance, whose members founded after the "troubles" of the 80s to regroup the neofascists' voices of the right. She was later elected to parliament with National Alliance. In 2012, together with other members of far-right and neofascist organisations, she founded Brothers of Italy, her current party. As mentioned, this political force is now the voice of the far-right, replacing Salvini's League in the last few years while also gaining votes from traditionally centrist voters.

The crucial question: How did this happen?

A far-right politician and skilled populist, Meloni has been at the centre of questionable statements over the years, which is, to some extent, the very reason for her success and the rapid political ascension of her party. Her polarised statements managed to create a simplified representation of reality and the depiction of her political party as pure and unwilling to compromise, contrary to the supposed weakness of her adversaries: "Snowflakes" or "Buonista" (its Italian version), you get the gist of it. Her political position is not just violent and reactionary; it is also unwilling to accept any discussion or compromise precisely because it is an unsubstantial polarisation of complex matters, which are dismissed in the process of oversimplification. Meloni herself, to give an example, argues that a plan is in place "to dismantle our society through migrants", that "children have the right to have a mother and a father" or that "surrogate motherhood should become a universal felony", the existence of "gender ideology" or the need for a limitation of abortion rights or the need to oppose the bestowal of citizenship to second-generation immigrants born and bred in Italy.

Nonetheless, what is most worrying is not her position on social issues per se but what these beliefs are based on. Her political position glosses over the complexity of contemporary sociopolitical realities: the enormous depth of a phenomenon like contemporary migration, gender, reproductive rights or, even on a more general level, what society and culture mean, or Italy and Italian for that matter. The overarching concept is "God, Homeland (better translated as Fatherland) and Family", but with a rigid and simplified definition of what these concepts meant and mean in post-modernity. This political discourse gets hilariously absurd in the ways in which it shows how unsubstantiated, simplified and ignorant it is. In the new government, for example, the Department of Agriculture gained a new name: Agriculture and Alimentary Sovereignty. What service "Alimentary Sovereignty" performs for the country is yet to be decided: Recognising cappuccino after 11 am as a crime against humanity? Removing every piece of pineapple from pizzas on European territory? I do not know. But as it often happens in populism, comedy and tragedy are two sides of a coin. They painfully represent how detached from reality and its complexity the basis of this political agenda is.

Meloni is not alone here, but she will represent one of the first examples of a major European country collapsing in these new forms of politics. It has been clear for some time that politics and its discourse has been rapidly changing, and as much as Donald Trump, Meloni incarnates this trend. I do not simply refer to the shift towards the right we are witnessing in many European countries at the moment, but beyond political affiliation, how politics is being done differently. The fabrication of heterogeneous national and cultural identities around simplified and polarised concepts whose introduction poses a supposed threat to life as we know it. Meloni's opposition to gay marriage and adoption, for instance, is less about what these questions are and more about what they supposedly represent: a crystallisation of fears. But this fear is not truly about gay marriage per se, about what it would imply for the people in question, for cis citizens or even for equality itself, but a generalised fear and worry for one's current existence and an artificially created enemy. Gay marriage, for example, would not have any consequences on Meloni's life or mine, except maybe seeing people I love recognised with the same rights I bear. Her politics is not concerned about the actual impact of politics. It is about the creation of a banner under which one marches in defence of a homogenised and simplified idea of oneself: "Italian identity", "Christian values", "Western values", "God, Homeland and Family" etc. Anthropologically speaking, definitions of identity, especially when these include a multitude of actors, are already understood as "imagined" and have been for nearly forty years. The question, however, is not whether saying "Italian identity" actually means something (spoiler alert: it doesn't) but what perceptions and actions stem from saying it. And Giorgia Meloni is the perfect example of it.

Dismissing this new form of politics as delusional (which it is) runs the risk of missing the point. We cannot treat it lightly purely because it's an absurd crystallisation of fears. The supposed contemporary "Italianness" means little, but it can have very real consequences. We need to ask ourselves, in Italy and beyond, what we want these consequences to be. What banner do we want to march under?

Matt Donno
Matt Donno

Anthropologist and translator interested in social issues and human behaviour, what do we think and how do we think, this is what fascinates me most.

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