Italian Technocrats Allow the Right to Weaponize Democracy

Yves here. Please welcome John McGregor, who has lived in London, Rome, and is currently in Australia. He has a background in classics, international relations, and counter-terrorism. In addition to the work he mentions below, he has also done know-your-customer and anti-money-laundering due diligence for major international firms. So his international background and regulatory-related experience should provide for a new perspective.

By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher

Much has been made of the famed instability of post-War Italian governments, to the point that it has become a near constant of foreign political commentary. However, attempts to change the political system reveal that the much-critiqued instability is the crucial to the design of Italian politics, not a glitch.

Italy has been hit hard by the long-term economic effects of Euro integration and the acute effects of the 21st century financial crises. In recent elections, Italian voters have sought change by turning to ‘anti-establishment’ parties. But the reward has been unelected technocratic leaders and a worsening economic situation.

The Right wing has capitalized on this unresolved voter discontent by promising greater democratic involvement. As long as Italy remains a managed democracy, halting the rise of the Right will be a particularly difficult challenge.

The tenacity of the European establishment, euphemistically called a technocratic government of national unity when it feels the need to intervene openly in the political system, in refusing to relinquish its management of Italy’s democracy. has allowed the Right to flourish and exploit a desire for greater democratic involvement to promote its own agenda.

For instance, in an interview from 21 July, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right wing party Fratelli d’Italia, said, “…for me, presidentialism is the mother all reforms”, adding that revamping the political system was the starting point for the other reforms needed in Italy.

This is not the first time that Meloni has raised the theme of constitutional reform; it’s been a long-standing element of her political platform. She has also called almost continuously for elections throughout the life of the last parliament. FdI was the only national party not to join the technocratic Draghi government.

By positioning her party in this way throughout the most recent parliament, Meloni has been able to weaponize calls for greater democracy to promote her right-wing political platform. Its prodigious gains in popularity since the 2018 election reflect not only the longstanding discontent of Italian voters with the political establishment but also the more recent discontent with the politicians chosen for their promises to enact change, such as the Right-wing Lega and the ostensibly anti-establishment 5 Star Movement.

The 5 Star Movement itself, first brought to power alongside the Lega, has throughout its short history made direct democracy central to its platform, even as it has deluded much of its voter base in successive governments.

In the most recent legislature, Meloni was the first signatory on a bill to introduce a semi-presidential system similar to the French model in Italy. The proposed reform would have reduced the minimum age for the Presidency to 40, introduced direct elections using a run-off, and substituted a constructive vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister for the current system. This would have required the parliament to pre-emptively establish a successor as Prime Minister before one could be removed.

The Constitutional Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies effectively rejected this plan using amendments in March 2022, and in May 2022 the Chamber of Deputies voted down the proposal. On both occasions, the Partito democratico (Pd), 5 Star, and Liberi e uguali (as well as former 5 Star deputies) voted against the proposal, while the Lega, FdI, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia voted in favour, albeit with some key deputies on the Right inexplicably absent. In the larger vote in the Chamber, 19 deputies from Italia Viva (IV), the party formed by Matteo Renzi after his split with the Pd, abstained.

The rest of the political spectrum and the press have had mixed reactions to Meloni’s constitutional reform efforts. On 27 July, La Repubblica published an interview with Rino Formica, a Socialist former Minister, in which he warned that Meloni’s presidentialism is a “hidden card” designed to replace parliamentary democracy with an authoritarian presidential democracy. This type of response seeks to stoke fear, as does a recent New York Times opinion piece by David Broder, ‘The Future is Italy, and It’s Bleak’, which warned:

Perhaps we will not all burn together in the fire. But if the far right takes over the government, in Italy or elsewhere, some of us surely will.

In another recent NYT opinion piece, ‘Mario Draghi’s Fall Is a Triumph of Democracy, Not a Threat to It’, Christopher Caldwell argued:

But there is an odd thing about Mr. Draghi’s role as a symbol of democracy: No voter anywhere has ever cast a ballot for him. He was installed to break a political impasse in early 2021 at the request of President Sergio Mattarella, who is himself not directly elected. Honorable and capable though Mr. Draghi may be, his resignation is a triumph of democracy, at least as the word democracy has traditionally been understood.

The difficulty that the pro-EU establishment, in Italy and abroad, now faces with the Italian electorate is that Draghi’s fall will demonstrably lead to a more democratic outcome. It has resulted in elections on 25 September, but the further rise of Meloni’s FdI is also a bleak prospect.

In May, when the Chamber voted down Meloni’s bill, representatives from both the Pd and IV explained that the reason for doing so was that the remaining lifespan of the parliament, predicted to be 11 months at the time, was too short for such a reform. Marco Di Maio, speaking on behalf of IV, nonetheless added that his party was also in favor of a directly elected Prime Minister or President.

This theoretical support but practical opposition is not surprising given the recent history of attempts to change the political system. In the last parliament, Meloni’s bill was one of three proposing a directly elected president: the other two emerged from the Pd.

Before founding Italia Viva and splitting with the Pd, Matteo Renzi called a referendum in 2016 on proposed changes to the electoral system. Renzi’s plan was, amongst other things, to weaken the senate and increase the lower house representation of the party that won a plurality, thus creating, in theory, more stable governments for elected Prime Ministers.

The referendum, which was presented by Renzi as a referendum on his government as well, was resolutely defeated as Renzi crashed in the polls. Portrayed as a ‘young’ disruptor during his initial rise to power, Renzi had demonstrated his dedication to the pro-business austerity economics of the EU. Nonetheless, prior to this referendum, an editorial piece in the New York Times put forward the case in no uncertain terms against the referendum:

A victory for Mr. Renzi’s reforms, however, would also pose a serious risk in the long term. There is no question that the equal powers of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies have sometimes contributed to legislative deadlock, but there is little evidence that this is the chief reason for the dearth of reform, or for the revolving-door governments. The main explanation lies in the nature of Italy’s fragmented politics and resistance to change, and the constitutional amendment wouldn’t alter that. It would, however, enhance the government’s authority to a degree unseen in Italian politics since World War II.

Italy’s unique bicameral system was designed to put an extra check on executive powers in a country once led by Benito Mussolini and more recently by Silvio Berlusconi. Lifting it might make it easier for Mr. Renzi to enact reforms, but also for a different leader to achieve far less savory goals. The Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo, a former comedian who wants to hold a referendum on dropping the euro, is not far behind Mr. Renzi’s Democratic Party in the polls.

The disturbing truth of the establishment position is laid out clearly here: Italians can’t be trusted to choose their government; they have chosen poorly in the past and might be tempted by some of the “less savory” political propositions. To fend off the risk of these poor choices, and prevent a rise of populism and the Right, Italian democracy must be kept on a short leash, according to this viewpoint.

Yet the economic, Covid, and Ukraine crises have increased stress, resulting in already alienated voters being disenfranchised by the very anti-establishment parties that they turned to for change. European technocrats and other status-quo forces have neutered these factions, so they are incorporated into government without enacting systemic change. They have succeeded in shutting down more and more avenues for democratic reform.

To Meloni’s FdI, each one of these failures is a success that gives it a boost as the next anti-establishment party in line. It will continue to exploit an Italian democratic urge opposed by the EU and American establishment. Unless these self-appointed minders can find room for more democracy in Italy, the Right will continue to win new voters attracted by the idea of voting itself.