Grant Amyot is a professor emeritus in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University in Canada.
Aaron: So first of all, at any general election, you need to analyze what happened before it. So talk me through the aftermath of the 2018 election and how we got to things now?
Grant: Oh well, a lot has happened since the 2018 election that’s for sure. In that election, basically it resolved in 3 blocks in Parliament: the left-wing coalition led by the Democratic Party, the right-wing coalition composed of the league (the right-wing populist party), Forza Italia (which is Berlusconi’s party) and a very small party at the time, the Brothers of Italy (led by Meloni), then in the middle was the Five Star Movement (which is a populist movement that you could call a pure populist movement because so much of it is centered around a criticism of politicians and the political elite).
The first coalition that was formed was between the Five Star Movement and the right-wing parties except of the Brothers of Italy, which did not join cabinet. The leading force in this, on the right, was the League and so for a year and a bit they tried to pursue a populist policy that would satisfy the centrist populists and the right-wing populists and in the end, that government fell apart largely because of internal jockeying. The League thought, because they were high in the polls, it would profit from an early election and they thought they’d get it, and they failed. For the second part of the Parliament, you have a coalition between Five Star and the left. That worked a bit better for a while but then along came COVID-19, and the pandemic came to rise to a real emergency situation. The third government of this Parliament was a government headed by a technocrat, Mario Draghi, a very respected former President of the European Central Bank. It was an all-party government apart from one party, which was the Brothers of Italy. Meloni was the only opposition. This all-party government, which above all carried through the measures allowed Italy to get the €200 billion from the European Union, but obviously they did a lot of things which irritate people a lot. Not just the public health measures to control COVID-19, but also accepting the conditions attached by the European Union like budget discipline to the recovery funds. As the only opposition party, Meloni’s opposition party, was able to reap a lot of the benefit of the discontent, they became the channel of it in a lot of sense.
Aaron: Five State Movement did extraordinarily worse, did they take the hit the most following this time?
I think they’ve shared in the blame because they were a part of the coalition supporting DraghI and before that with the left. I think in large what’s happened with them is they have disappointed their electorate, almost inevitably. They promised a lot, they did deliver the guaranteed basic income in some form, which has been very much appreciated. But, by in large they seem to be disorganized, they lacked strong leadership, they first went with the right and then with the left, as they had in some of the city governments they controlled, like in Rome, they showed to be pretty incompetent, or at least not strong. I’m not sure it’s that they were blamed particularly, it’s more they were suffering from their own internal problems and lack of definition.
Aaron: Obviously there’s been lots of speculation surrounding the Brothers of Italy, and its leader. How would you politically describe them, because lots of people have been trying to place them as far-right, I know Piers Morgan and a few Conservatives have tried to put them as center-right. Is there more nuance?
Grant: It’s very nuanced. It’s obviously a key question and I’d say the answer is that it is very nuanced. As we’ve heard so many times in the first few days, Meloni and her party are the descents of the neo-fascist party that was founded right after World War II by the die-hard Mussolini loyalist.
That party, the Italian Social Movement, changed its name in the 90’s to National Alliance. Under Gianfranco Fini, the National Alliance did an awful lot to try to de-demonize itself, create a less scary image, get rid of a lot of the fascist trappings. For example, he was very insistent on taking a trip to Israel to dissipate any criticism that they might be antisemitic and prove they had changed. So a lot of the movement towards the more moderate center occurred before 2012 when the Brothers of Italy was founded. Meloni founded it out of the remnants of the National Alliance. Therefore, they’ve done a lot to move beyond their fascist origins but they still have, as a component of their support, some people who are nostalgic neo-fascists, people who aren’t strong anti-fascists.
Having said that, Meloni’s party is being contrasted with the other right-wing populist party, The League, led by Salvini. Compared to the League, they do look more moderate, and a bit more responsible as well. They’ve supported Ukraine, more or less consistently, more so than Salvini, they have pro-Nato, pro-EU stances at least verbally. They appear to be a safer, more moderate alternative than The League, Salvini has demonstrated friendship to Putin on several occasions in the past. He’s made himself less popular in the last while. The largest transfer of votes in this election to the Brothers of Italy which came from The League. Salvini turned off a lot of his supporters with his rhetoric, so in some ways they look more moderate.
In the European Parliament, they belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists, which is the party founded by David Cameron when he left the mainstream European Conservative Bloc so they’re not in the even further right populist groups. However, it’s clear from all her statements, Meloni shares many of the attitudes and policies of those right-wing populists; anti-immigration, she’s made a real point of stressing culture war themes like LGBTQ rights (opposed of course), they have several planks in their platform about the family including tax breaks for each child. She accepts the European Union just like Viktor Orban does, he doesn’t want to leave the European Union, they give Hungary too much money. But he wants a European Union that stays out of the internal affairs of member states that ideally espouses Christian European values as he sees them. On the one hand, she and the Brothers of Italy are moderate, or look more moderate than their neo-fascist roots, and look more moderate than The League on many questions, but nonetheless the basic attitudes on most issues are shared with the far-right.
Aaron: When I hear a lot of people talking about this party, they mention the fact surrounding the EU being in the same party that Cameron created, they bring up the plans surrounding LGBT rights and adoption, there’s also been a claim that Meloni has been guilty of praising figures such as Mussolini, what are really going to expect from this government, and how much will the coalition partners Impact the policy decisions?
Grant: The speculation is all around this. In political science, we say we don’t have a crystal ball, there’s no definite predictions. There’s been predictions in various directions, I guess I was thinking about this because I knew you were going to ask it. I think Meloni in her first period of government will try hard not to take extreme anti-European, pro-Russian positions, at least in other words, on the outside she will try to keep her credibility with the European Union and with the western world as long as she can. How long will that last? It’s a good question. I think there is unfortunately a chance that, she together with Orban and with the Polish government, will form a right-wing populist bloc in the European Union and will be able to exert a considerable influence at least in breaking any progressive initiatives. For example I can easily see them having influence in the EU’s common immigration policy. There are a lot of other countries which aren’t inclined to go in a Liberal way anyway.
As far as internal affairs go, I think she will be a little less restrained. Probably feels, rightly, that other countries are not be as concerned about what she does with on issues like gay adoption. So, I wouldn’t be surprised she introduced “pro-family” policies for instance. Similarly, as I was suggesting, on immigration. I think she’s going to understand that on the European level, there’s not going to be as much appetite for cracking down on a country that decides it’s not going to allow refugee ships to dock in its port for example. There’s going to be a little bit of a bifurcation when she’s going to be able to move a little bit freer to move according to her instincts domestically, but she’s going to be more careful what she does at the EU level with respect to the Ukraine situation.
Aaron: You’ve already kind of hinted towards possible reasons of why they’ve done really well. One of them being that they weren’t in this technocratic government, and being The League dispersed itself and the voters moved over. From an outsider perspective looking into Italy, what are the major variables that we can look to seek to understand from irrelevance to the new government?
Grant: The reasons I already gave are somewhat negative, they weren’t in the government, they weren’t The League, so you’re asking about the positive side. I think Meloni, compared to the other leaders, is a fairly strong and a convincing leader. She is a good communicator. A lot has been said about her so-called working class accent. It is not a working class accent, but it isn’t an upper-class accent either. It’s sort of a Roman lower-middle class accent, which is shared by a lot of people in Rome. It gives the impression she is a straight-forward, straight-talking woman of the people. It’s certainly in contrast to most of the political class which speaks in a very convoluted way. It’s in contrast to Salvini because she’s smarter and more controlled. Salvini makes outrageous statements on purpose about the Pope, when the Pope opposed The League’s policy on immigration, Salvini didn’t make any friends by criticizing the Pope. So, she’s more careful than that. So leadership would be one factor that helps to explain the Brothers of Italy’s success.
Beyond that, they did have an organizational network and structure. That sounds like something every party has, but in Italy that hasn’t always been the case so for example, the Five Star Movement struggled to make a grassroots campaign because so much of it was online. That was fine up to a point, but when they had to grow, it wasn’t enough and they were not managing their online presence as much as they could anyway. Similarly, Berlusconi, with his party being so focused on Berlusconi, lacks the kind of grassroots organization as well. They inherited the grassroots organization and militants from the old neo-fascist party, the National Alliance, and so forth, and that’s significant when you have to organize a get out to vote campaign, or put up local candidates, so that’s probably another reason, I’m not sure how Important. Leadership is most Important. Policy choices as well, she’s made smart policy choices by not going too far in the extreme right-wing populist direction, but by appealing to the common sense ideas of ordinary Italians, and purporting to have solutions to their problems. I suppose those are the major factors I’d mention.
Aaron: A lot of the focus has been on the Brothers of Italy, looking at the opposition, how do you see them picking up and trying to regain after this result? What’s the future for these parties in trying to overcome this new government?
Grant: The first thing to say, the reason why the right-wing won the election is that they were united as a coalition. They put up common candidates in the single member constituencies, whereas the opposition was divided. There was the center-left coalition led by the Democrats (which was the largest party) but there was also a center-left group that ran separately which got around 7-8%. And then the Five Star Movement, which now we have to say is more left-wing than right, they’ve lost lots of their right-wing voters to the Brother of Italy, in this election, and a lot of their policies they support, at least on the economic front, are left. The Five State Movement for 15%, so if you’d sum them together, you would’ve had almost as much of the votes as the right, probably would’ve denied them a majority.
The first problem for the opposition is to try and create more unity, not let matters of so-called principles divide them when the most Important thing is to present an effective front against Meloni and company. So that’s number one. The Democratic Party is going to choose a new leader – Letta has said he’s not going to run. The Five Star Movement on the other hand, Conte did better than expected, the 15% even though it was down from over 30% last tI’me, it was better than the polls were predicting. Conte has the wind in his sails, he may say to the Democratic Party “I offered you an electoral pact and you refused, rethink that.” Indeed, the Democratic Party should’ve thought about that because for them it was a matter of principle, because Conte and the Five Star Movement had brought down Draghi’s government by refusing to vote for some measures.
Now, we can all say that it’s fine to say that Italy is better in the EU than out, which is definitely true, and the EU stands for Important values. But, to feel mortally offended because a party could vote against DraghI and the symbol of Italy’s support for Europe, that was going a bit too far. I really think, in Italy Europeanism isn’t just a rational position for many people who are pro European and on the left. For them it’s a matter of faith, and it’s a matter of values. They let that get in the way, I think, the fact they were so offended the Five Star’s could ever vote against Draghi, they let it cloud their political judgement. I’m not saying they necessarily should have agreed to every condition the Five Stars were going to put forward, and maybe the negotiation would have succeeded but I think they need to rethink the whole idea of the alliance among the center and left-wing parties, speaking in terms of political calculation.
Part of this, I don’t know if it will, but should be to adopt a slightly more critical stance towards the EU on some issues, they’re not always right on everything, and particularly on economic matters and the kind of conditions on countries that need public finances have been too punishing. I think this issue will come up right away because the markets are not going to treat Meloni’s government kindly. The bond markets, and they will, despite what she says, decide her government is likely to break the EU’s rules and run big deficits and she might have to confront that issue sooner rather than later, and what the left becomes the representatives of the EU, it’s not going to play well with the voters.
Aaron: There’s been a lot of talk surrounding Italy, about constant constitutional change in terms of the manner of which politics changes. How much of a role have constitutional changes played a role in the right’s ability to form a majority?
Grant: The system was crucial, because the right did only get 44%, and if we still had proportional representation, that would not have given them a majority. The right-wing coalition won only 114 of the 245 seats assigned by PR, so would have fallen short of a majority under that system, but took 121 of the 147 single-member seats (split voting is prohibited; the other 8 members are elected by Italians abroad, using a form of PR too). So the fact that you have a system, that the details are not so relevant, since 1993, Italy has had various electoral systems that have essentially been half way between proportional representation and first past the post. The result that they have delivered has been half way. This one was no different and the right-wing coalition won the single member sets hands down because they were the single largest grouping. That’s what allowed them to gain a majority, so the electoral system was very significant. The current one was adopted for the 2018 election, and this is the second time it’s been used but it was absolutely crucial, it penalised the opposition forces, as I said because they were divided. The fact they couldn’t form a coalition and run common candidates in the single member seats was key in allowing the right to win.
Aaron: Looking forward, we have a party, a government that has come from nowhere that has come to be the major party in the government, we have division in the left. Italy in Europe is known as a country with a lot of political tension and often unstable, how is this country going to go forward? Are we going to be seeing a full term?
Grant: I think Meloni will try to stick to this moderate policy. She has the two coalition parties to worry about though. I don’t think Berlusconi’s party will cause much of a problem because he wants to be in office, that’s the most Important thing for him and even as a junior partner. The League though is a bit more problematic, because Salvini feels humiliated by the defeat and wants to gain back the role of largest party on the right, and I don’t know how long he wants to be loyal ally, especially if, as I said, a crisis occurs sooner rather than later in the life of a government, or an economic crisis provoked a run on the Italian bonds. If Meloni responds by following the European Union’s directives and Imposes austerity again, if the European Union is big headed enough to do that, which they will probably will be, then will Salvini play along? I don’t know. For the moment, the coalition will hold together but it’s fragile in the face of any kind of serious crisis, even with Ukraine too. We don’t know where that’s going but if it came to a point where Italy had to make really serious sacrifices in order to support Ukraine, it’s hard to see Salvini go ahead with that too. I suppose in the coming five years, you can predict that there will be some crisis like this, I don’t think we can assume they will have tranquil sailing by any means.
Aaron: Italy is a country with a large regionality gap in terms of disadvantage, how did that affect this election?
Grant: The South has always been significantly poorer and less developed. This definitely affected the result this time, as the 5 Star Movement’s greatest appeal was in the South (it became more “Southern” in its base than in 2018). This is because, as a populist party, it has championed income support for the worst off, and what’s more delivered on that promise when it introduced the guaranteed annual income (“reddito di cittadinanza,” or RDC) when it was in govt. in 2018-19; the right-wing parties in the election promised to cut or scale back the RDC. On the other hand, the center-right’s strongest base is in the more prosperous North, but it is not weak in the South, either, and the left’s greatest strength is in the Center, esp. Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.
Aaron: A poll from IPSOS stated “Ipsos analysis shows that the Center-left alliance and A/IV are strongest among Entrepreneurs, Freelancers, Executives, Office workers and Teachers. Right-wing alliance and M5S are strongest among Traders, Artisans, Self-employed workers and Workers” Does this sound about right and if so, what are the reasons for this?
Grant: Not all polls agree with all the Ipsos conclusions, though they are grosso modo in the right direction. Points not confirmed by all polls: a) entrepreneurs don’t necessarily favor the center-left b) re: workers, they favor the M5S and to some degree the League, but not Fratelli d’Italia c) the self-employed, as always, favor the right-wing parties, but not necessarily the M5S. Otherwise I think Ipsos are largely right, and this is a fairly extreme example of the way the vote by social class has been evolving in the developed world: center-left and social democratic parties are increasingly supported by the educated, professionals, and even managers, while many working-class voters turn to (mostly right-wing) populist parties (or the Tories in the Red Wall seats in Britain). The Democratic Party’s performance among workers was no more than average.
In the Italian case, the causes are pretty clear too, and analogous to the causes elsewhere: in the neoliberal era, the conditions of the working class have come under sustained attack, in terms of pay, working conditions, and the availability of employment, and this has produced a simmering and rising level of discontent with the status quo, economic and political. But, unfortunately, the social democratic and other left-wing parties have too often failed to respond to the working class’s pain, and indeed have often essentially bought into the neoliberal consensus around globalization, free markets, etc. Tony Blair is a key example, but in Italy the Democratic Party has arguably gone further, for instance supporting the technocratic govt. of Monti that imposed austerity in the wake of the financial crisis, then, under Renzi (PM in 2014-17), itself pushing a series of neoliberal-style reforms (e.g. of the labour market).
More in general, the Democrats are seen as strongly supportive of the EU (which is a correct perception), and hence ready to endorse any conditions the EU will impose on Italy, whereas public opinion has been moving against the EU – Italians used to be among the most supportive of EU membership among the peoples of the member states, and now they are among the least. They feel that the economic stagnation of the 21st century is partly down to the euro, and feel the EU has punished them in the financial crisis, not supported them quickly over Covid, and failed to assist them with the refugee issue. To sum up all this, the mainstream left in Italy is identified in the minds of many with the educated elites, the establishment, and the EU – all potential “enemies of the people” in the populist framework. All this also helps answer the question why the right-wing populists in general (FdI + League) have done so well in this and other recent elections. The immigration issue is also important, but I’d say anti-immigrant views are on balance more a result than a cause of right-wing voting.