The Shadow of the Past, the Challenges of the Future
A First Glance into the Italian General Election
Italy woke up on 26 September with a new governing coalition led by Brothers of Italy, a far-right party, together with the League, Forza Italia and Noi Moderati (a small center party).
We are facing something that even only a few years ago nobody would have predicted. In the 2018 election, Brothers of Italy won only 4% of the vote, but now, four years on, it gained 26% of the vote and so became the party that received the most votes in Italy. The election showed the highest abstentionist rate in a general election of Italian history, a relevant feature that must be taken into consideration when analyzing the electoral results.
The outcome of this election has caused worried reactions and general alarm both across Italy and internationally. It is the first time since the dark days of fascism that a right-wing party has won the general election and will likely head the government. It is undoubtedly a turning point in Italian politics and history, a radical shift in the political spectrum. Additionally, the next prime minister looks set to be a woman for the first time in Italy––making it another groundbreaking moment in the political landscape.
Is Italy’s constitutional system resilient enough to deal with the post-fascist legacy of Brothers of Italy? Is Italian democracy in danger? Three days after the elections we have to be cautious with any such predictions, but I think some preliminary answers are possible already at this early stage.
The Italian Election in Context: The Rise of Brothers of Italy
Giorgia Meloni’s success is just the last unforeseen outcome in recent Italian elections. Let us not forget that in 2018, the elections saw the rise of an anti-establishment, populist party and a right-wing party: respectively, the Five Star Movement, which emerged as the leading political party (32% of the vote) and the League, which was then the leading party (17% of the vote) in a center-right coalition supported by 37% of the electorate.
Like in 2018, today’s victory also went to an “anti-establishment” party: Brothers of Italy was the main opposition party during the Draghi government, and Meloni was the only proponent of right-wing populism after the League joined Draghi’s technical executive and became part of the government. This space left open by the League was occupied by Brothers of Italy, which ended up winning twice the number of votes of its coalition partners combined. It is worth noting, though, that the center-right coalition has been present in the Italian political space since the Nineties, with Forza Italia being initially the leading party, followed by the Northern League (and then simply the League) rising to prominence more recently. The major change brought by the 2022 election is that the leadership of the coalition has now been taken over by Brothers of Italy, a right-wing party, which inherited the heavy legacy of the original post-fascist parties (MSI). Yet, once again, from a comparative perspective, this is not entirely new as “far-right parties (and ideas) have been part of the European political mainstream for at least two decades” (C. Mudde).
However, the post-fascist legacy of Brothers of Italy has raised more serious concerns about possible democratic backsliding in Italy, a rule of law crisis, and a potential anti-European attitude that is shared with other governments challenging the European Union in its current form (particularly Hungary and Poland). Even the French prime minister (!), in a pretty unusual declaration, affirmed that France would monitor the protection of fundamental rights in Italy.
Are such fears grounded? What will be the impact of the new right-wing government on the constitutional system? Will the new coalition change the constitution? What will the approach be towards the EU? Will this electoral outcome even lead to an autocratic, illiberal regime?
Constitutional safeguards and the role of the EU
Three days after the election we must still be cautionary in our approach; however, there are at least three aspects that can be considered when trying to sketch an answer to these questions:
1. Lack of a two-thirds majority in Parliament
Unlike Hungary, in which the ruling party pushed forward constitutional reforms, the Italian constitution is safe from being changed by the ruling coalition alone. Despite holding a clear majority in both chambers, the right-wing coalition is far from reaching the two-thirds threshold, the majority needed to approve, in the second round of voting, a constitutional reform. This provision guarantees that constitutional reform has to be agreed on by far more parties than the ruling coalition alone. If reforms are approved by a simple majority, the proposal can be submitted (upon request) to a popular vote, in a confirmative referendum.
In essence, a constitutional amendment that is not supported by the opposition or by the people is unlikely to pass. This should prevent forms of “abusive constitutionalism”, which are very common in autocratic systems led by a large majority of the ruling party.
Moreover, we should not forget that Hungary has a mono-cameral structure, while Italy has a system of perfect bicameralism, which adds another safeguard in order to prevent abusive constitutional practices.
2. Overall constitutional system
Looking more carefully at the overall Italian constitutional system, the picture is less gloomy than it might first appear.
First of all, historically, the Italian constitutional structure provides for a “weak” executive which has been one of the causes of the political instability traditionally faced by the Italian system. Today, this feature may work as a constitutional feature to prevent an autocratic turn.
Moreover, the President of Republic, who plays a key role in the formation of a government and in the relationship with the executive, especially in times of crisis, can act as a guarantor institution to protect democracy. The famous “Savona affair”, in which the President vetoed the appointment of Prof. Savona as the Minister of the Economy and Finance due to Savona’s past criticisms of monetary union, especially his proposal to abandon the Euro, is the clearest example of the potential role the President of the Republic could play.
The role of President Mattarella will be crucial in the upcoming formation of the new government, especially for the critical ministries: Economics, Foreign Affairs and Defense.
A similar function as a guarantor institution may be played by the Constitutional Court, whose members are appointed – in order to guarantee independence and avoid them being controlled by the executive – partly by the President of the Republic, partly by the Parliament in Joint Session and partly by the judiciary.
Moreover, Italy has a solid regional structure, which may act as a counterpower in case of a constitutional crisis.
Italy’s constitutional structure, which without doubt represents a stable democracy, seems to provide a system of safeguards in order to mitigate and prevent the enactment of illiberal, autocratic, and anti-EU purposes.
3. Role of the EU
In the aforementioned Savona affair, it was clear that the commitment to the European integration project represents a fundamental issue for the Italian constitutional dimension. This is truer today than ever given the role the EU has played in mitigating the effects of Covid-19 on Member State economies. Italy is benefiting from a massive transfer of EU funds under the Recovery and Resilience Facility and, given the tricky moment the Italian economy finds itself in, it is very unlikely the new government will challenge the EU on such grounds.
However, Brothers of Italy might plausibly be more confrontational towards the EU project, adopting a narrative of respect for the Member States’ constitutional traditions and sovereignty. This may also change the equilibrium on the Council and on the European Council when it comes to voting on sensitive issues dealing with the rule of law crisis and the tensions between the EU and Members States. For example, Italy may vote against or show some resistance to the future approval of the Commission proposal on the suspension of funding to Hungary in the application of the Conditionality Regulation.
However, the concrete attitude to Europe will be also counterbalanced by one of the coalition parties, Forza Italia, which, despite some recent ambiguities, has traditionally been a robust pro-EU supporter.
Complex Futures and Scholarly Responsibilities
Is Italian democracy in danger? As I have argued, the overall Italian context makes me think this is not likely to happen.
The results of the Italian general election are, though, a clear break from the previous government led by Mario Draghi, whose widespread recognition as a reliable, authoritative counterpart and whose clear commitment to EU integration and EU values helped to improve Italy’s international standing and the management of a delicate phase of post-pandemic transition.
The new government will soon be called to act in an even more complex scenario marked by an economic and energy crisis, and by the winds of war and international instability. It will also have to deal with an even more polarized society – not only political and ideological divides but also economic, social and territorial fractures. Will they be able to deal with such multiple tensions and respond to the needs of a fractured society? I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is that in this complex, worrying scenario, in an age of acute polarization – Italy is only the most recent example – we, as scholars, need to make a constructive contribution to the public debate, tabling differing views, but avoiding feeding further polarization and ideological oversimplification. The shadow and the fear of a gloomy past should not prevent us from seeing the challenges we have to face in the future.
I am grateful to Matteo Bonelli, Giuseppe Martinico and Luca Pietro Vanoni for their comments and suggestions.
Baraggia, Antonia: The Shadow of the Past, the Challenges of the Future: A First Glance into the Italian General Election, VerfBlog, 2022/9/28, https://verfassungsblog.de/the-shadow-of-the-past-the-challenges-of-the-future/, DOI: 10.17176/20220928-110439-0.