On September 25 Italians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. That’s about six months earlier than planned, a result of the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi on July 21 and the dissolution of the coalition that had supported his government since February 2021. The collapse of governing coalitions in Italy is hardly unprecedented, of course, but this time the consequences could be particularly momentous: right-wing populists stand a real chance of seizing control, which would affect not only relations with Europe and the United States, but also the position of the West in general toward the war in Ukraine.
Draghi, who served as president of the European Central Bank from 2011 to 2019, was brought in early last year with the blessing of the establishment, which saw him as a capable technocrat who could moderate the populist demands of the Five Star Movement while fending off right-wing pressures from Matteo Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. His government’s raison d’être was trying to make the best use of the extraordinary funds coming from the European Union for pandemic recovery. A suspension of politics-as-usual was the only thing that made the government work, but an internal split within the Five Star Movement quickly brought about its demise—proof once again of the instability of a vast coalition ranging from hard right to center-left.
It’s also possible to trace the fall of Draghi to the failure to elect him president of the republic in January 2022. This would have given Europe and the international financial system the assurance that Italy was in the hands of a highly respected civil servant with a unique record. At the same time, electing the sitting prime minister as president would have been constitutionally complicated, and would have turned Italy from a parliamentary system into a semi-presidential system, such as that in France. Italy continues to prize the proliferation of political parties and in fact prefers that coalitions are unable to govern decisively. This was a conscious decision made during the constitutional convention between 1946 and 1948, when, with the memory of fascism fresh in mind, Italians feared the ideological power that the victor in a winner-take-all system could wield. But seventy-five years later, this “silent” anti-Fascist (and anti-Communist) clause might very well lead to the rise of parties that do not possess the DNA of Italian post-war democracy—and on top of that may not even offer the pro-Western assurances that Silvio Berlusconi has since 1994.
In the 2018 elections, almost one in three Italians voted for the Five Star Movement. Five Star provided key relief to millions of Italians thanks to its push for a universal basic income, but the party was otherwise incapable of elaborating on a platform and incompetent in governing. Most of those votes could go now to the hard right, especially to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy—which has been upfront in embracing a nostalgia for illiberalism, if not fascism. She and Salvini’s isolationist League compete in exploiting the immigration issue, but both also decry Draghi’s technocratic agenda in a country where the number of Italians living in or close to poverty has risen (recent data say 6 million), especially in the South. Though Berlusconi’s neo-liberal Forza Italia no longer dominates the right wing, it still has the richest purse and the greatest propaganda support, thanks to the tycoon’s media empire.