So much about Italy’s imminent election seems wearily familiar, but there are also sinister echoes of the country’s more distant past.
There is a whiff of déjà vu about Italy’s general election, which takes place this weekend. The likely outcome is a weak and possibly short-lived government of the sort that long characterised the country. But this apparently routine scenario masks other, deeper dangers from the past, with the spectre of fascism threatening a return to haunt Italy and Europe.
The seen-it-all-before sensation is enhanced by the zombie-esque return from the political dead of Silvio Berlusconi. The 81-year-old’s fraud conviction makes him ineligible for public office. But Il Cavaliere remains the leader of his centre-right Forza Italia party and has recovered from ill health to front its campaign in his inimitable off-colour style.
Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition is the only grouping within reach of winning an outright majority under Italy’s complex new electoral system. If his alliance succeeds, the old rogue will pull the levers of power from behind the scenes.
The current centre-left government is dominated by the Democratic Party of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and party leader Matteo Renzi. It is unlikely to return to office, other than through the outside chance of Forza Italia inviting it to form a grand coalition. As so often, the Italian left is distracted by squabbling between its various factions rather than focused on retaining power.
So far, so seemingly normal for Italy. A nation whose creative and hard-working people mostly prosper despite being governed by unserious schemers. But that stereotype is now less accurate than ever.
Italy’s economy shrank by 9% between 2006 and 2016. Its national debt is 132% of GDP and some of its banks are barely solvent. Unemployment is 11.7% nationally but far worse in some regions, particularly in the South, and amongst the young, with 32.2% of under-25s out of work, according to Eurostat.
Meanwhile, Italy has absorbed a wave of migration from across the Mediterranean Sea, with large numbers of people arriving from the Middle East and Africa. It has good reason to be disappointed with the help given by its European partners in handling the situation.
The immediate beneficiary of the frustration felt by many Italians is the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). Although Five Star’s public pronouncements have sometimes been eurosceptic and anti-immigrant, it claims to be neither left nor right wing. Rather, it emphasises its platform of anti-corruption measures, ripping up the political system by introducing more direct democracy and developing a greener economy.
Five Star is also led by a man, former television comedian Beppe Grillo, whose criminal conviction disqualifies him from standing as a candidate (in his case, for involuntary manslaughter in a car crash). Instead, it is fronted by the telegenic 31-year-old Luigi di Maio, whose presentational skills so far seem to outweigh his policy-making prowess.
The Movement is weak on explaining how it would turn its aspirations into a practical programme for power. This deficiency is underlined by its record in local government, where its running of Rome and Turin has been chaotic.
Nonetheless, Five Star is the highest ranked individual party in the polls, at around 28%. This would still leave it far short of an outright victory. Participation in government will require cooperation with other parties – something Five Star has always loudly defined itself against. Di Maio has been toning down this message of late. But it will be hard for Five Star to reconcile its commitment to overturn the political establishment with becoming part of the system by joining a coalition. This conundrum may reduce their vote share. Some floating voters might see selecting the party as a wasted vote.
Many political leaders across Europe will breathe a sigh of relief if the unpredictable Five Star Movement is defeated. They would prefer Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to obtain the leading role in the next Italian government, on the grounds it is better-the-devil-you-know. The trouble is there are even worse devils lurking within his right-wing coalition.
Forza Italia’s principal partner is the Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini. Salvini has been downplaying the regional separatist origins of his party to broaden its nationwide appeal. He believes the League can outscore Forza Italia in the election, thus seizing leadership of the right-wing coalition and the Prime Ministership.
The polls are certainly close (16.5% for Forza Italia and 13.2% for the League, says YouTrend.It) and Salvini might be right. He would certainly be supported by the other, smaller component of the coalition, the even more right-wing, neo-fascist Brothers of Italy.
The Northern League has always been xenophobic and Eurosceptic. Salvini has recently cranked the rhetoric up further. He advocates expelling hundreds of thousands of people of foreign origin from Italy and closing the borders from ‘the Alps to Sicily’. He has called Islam ‘dangerous’ and questioned its compatibility with ‘Italian values’. Members of his party speak openly about the ‘white race’ and have appeared to blame racist attacks on the victims and the government, rather than the perpetrators. Such statements are even more nauseating in the aftermath of the arrest of a former Northern League council election candidate accused of shooting and badly injuring six people of colour in Macerata in early February.
Italy is currently plastered with posters for a film musing about the return of the early 20th century fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, called Sono Tornato (‘I’m back’). Some segments of Italian society have never fully accepted the appalling reality of Hitler’s closest ally and remain nostalgic for Il Duce.
In the current circumstances, there are concerns that Salvini and his extremist allies could seize control with a small percentage of the vote and bring this toxic ideology back for real. As the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mario Giro, recently said of Salvini and co. in the Huffington Post, ‘if this is not fascism, then what is it? And if he is not a fascist, then he is surfing on a wave of fascism to conquer Italy.’