Our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Nick Startin, from John Cabot University, in Rome.
Nick, We last spoke back in April about Marine Le Pen’s result at the French Presidential election. You’ve now since moved to Rome, and as an expert on the Radical Right you were certainly well placed to observe the parliamentary elections in Italy. How do you read this election?
Perhaps before answering your question, we should take a step back and put the election result into a wider comparative context. Since we last spoke, the Rassemblement National went on to make a significant breakthrough in May, winning 89 seats in the National Assembly.
Subsequently, earlier this month, we have also seen electoral gain for the Radical Right in Sweden where the Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Akesson, polled 20.5% of the vote in the general election there, becoming the second biggest party. Something that’s been a little overlooked is that Akesson’s party had already polled 17.5% in the previous election in 2017, so to describe the result as a major breakthrough is somewhat misleading.
That said, with the backdrop of the cost of living and energy crises across Europe, it is clear that the demand-side conditions are certainly favourable for Radical Right ‘challenger’ parties, and this will have helped the Brothers of Italy to become the leading party in the Italian election.
So what is your take on Sunday’s election?
Well, the first thing to say is that significant electoral scores for Radical Right parties in Italy are not something new. The Radical Right is already very ingrained in terms of contemporary Italian political culture. For instance, The Lega polled over 17% in 2018 and was part of the Five Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte’s coalition government and then part of Mario Draghi’s ill-fated emergency government in February 2021. We should also remember that the Lega Nord, as it was called then, was part of the coalition in all four of the Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi’s governments in 1994, 2001, 2005 and 2008. And the National Alliance, the precursor of Giorgia Melloni’s Brothers of Italy party was also part of a Berlusconi coalition as far back as 1994.
What’s significant this time, however, is that the balance of power has shifted on the right of the political spectrum. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy – on paper the most radical of the three parties in the electoral alliance – is clearly the dominant player with 26% of the vote. It undoubtedly profited to some extent from the fact it wasn’t part of the Draghi coalition.
So one of the major takeaways from the election is that Berlusconi’s attempts to create a fusion and blend the Centre Right and the Radical Right into one electoral force, which goes back twenty years to his “House of Freedoms” coalition at the turn of the millennium, has proved ultimately successful!
But perhaps too successful for Berlusconi and for Matteo Salvini, as the problem for them is that they will now be the junior partners in a Meloni-led coalition. It is clear that the Lega is weakened after its time in government and that its attempts to reach out beyond the north of Italy have not really proved successful as loyal voters in the North have abandoned ship for Meloni’s party or for the Five Star Movement and voters in the South are still scared by the historical anti-southerner stance of the party.
No longer the same balance of power. What are your other major ‘takeaways’ from the election?
Well two things really.
Firstly, the turnout was incredibly low with only 64% of registered electors voting compared to 73% in 2018. This is not only the lowest turnout in the history of the Italian Republic but also one of the sharpest increases in electoral abstention compared to the previous election anywhere in Europe in the post-war period. While COVID might have potentially played a part, this is an unsettling development given the turbulent times in which Europe finds itself.
The second observation I would make is that we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Meloni will be the first woman Prime Minister in Italian history. This is a very significant moment. Given all the media discussion about the rightward shift, it is easy to overlook this fact. Meloni has succeeded in outflanking both Berlusconi and Salvini and was clearly successful in overcoming the so-called ‘gender gap’ often associated with the radical right.
That’s right. And What will a Meloni-led government mean for the EU?
That’s the burning question for many!
We know that Meloni is a Eurosceptic but what we can say is that her government won’t be calling for an Italian style Brexit, nor for a withdrawal from the Eurozone. There is no appetite for a return to the Lira in Italy and she knows that economically that is not an option.
What will be interesting to observe is how closely Meloni aligns herself with the Eurosceptic governments in Hungary and in Poland and to what extent she is prepared to upset the applecart in terms of EU decision-making. In economic terms Italy is tied into a significant EU financial package designed to boost the Italian economy after COVID and Meloni will be fully aware of this. Moving forward, the European question has the potential to divide her coalition and potentially derail the government as Berlusconi’s party remains part of the Centre Right pro-EU European People’s Party in Brussels and Salvini has been calling for the EU’s sanctions against Russia to be reappraised.
Interview conducted by Tania KORWIN-ZMIJOWSKI