With a proportional parliament, multi-layered elections, and an established separation of powers in government, Italy would appear to many as a strongly democratic nation. However, the country’s recent election of a far-right extremist points to weaknesses in Italy’s democratic system and indicates a continuing rise of populism.
Italy has had 70 elections in the past 77 years, the most recent one occurring on September 25th, 2022. To say that this constant changing of governments causes instability would be an understatement.
Italy embraces a system of representative government. Through a multi-layered electoral system, candidates are elected in two ways: the First Past the Post system (winner-take-all) and proportional representation. This allows multiple parties to have a stake in government, as opposed to two party systems like those in the United States. Although Italy’s system is unique, it does not allow for equal distribution of different parties in parliament. These weak political parties enable democratic backsliding to occur.
Italy has a large number of political parties, making it highly unlikely for any Italian political party to have an absolute majority in parliament. This makes it appealing for the different parties to form coalitions, or political alliances, with each other so they have a larger likelihood of gaining power. Despite these coalitions providing advantages for parties, it also causes political instability. Since all parties have differences in their policies, there will be conflicts between the parties within the coalitions. These conflicts make effective legislation difficult to pass and enforce, especially for long periods of time. Plus, party loyalty is not prominent in Italy, as even the party leaders can be seen changing allegiances, so party platforms are naturally weak. Another issue within the Italian government is that people can vote against a majority party in parliament without proposing an alternative, causing disarray and instability.
Italy’s parliament appears to embody the two dimensions of Democracy that Robert Dahl, a famous political theorist and professor, introduces in his book Polyarchy: public contestation and participation. The acceptance of more than a dozen political parties promotes inclusiveness and allows for contestation in government. Plus, free press is constitutionally guaranteed and citizens are encouraged to participate politically. However, the formation of political coalitions and the somewhat unfavorable voter turnouts (only approx. 52% of citizens voted in the last election) indicate that the strength of Italy’s political contestation and participation is murky. Also, according to Italian law, disjunctive voting is prohibited, so citizens cannot vote for members of two separate parties. This rule serves as a challenge to the democratic ideal of free choice in elections.
Thus, we shift to the current political issue at hand. In 2021, Mario Draghi won the Italian prime minister election through uniting many different political parties in his campaign. His coalition was impressive at the time, but it soon unraveled because of its broadness and consequential disagreements. In July 2022, Draghi resigned because he faced rejection from his top three allies, which forced the country into political instability and disarray. Italy had to hold a snap election to replace the Draghi government, which Giorgia Meloni won. This outcome was a major shock to some because Draghi’s reputation as prime minister was high, and his leadership was promising for the country. In Jan Werner’s book, What is Populism?, she establishes that countries are most vulnerable to political demagogues during challenging times. Draghi’s resignation unnerved Italians, and the country was sent into a period of uncertainty and dissolution with moderate political parties. This paved the way for Meloni’s populist platform to gain rapid popularity. Her alliance, consisting of right-wing Lega Nord and center-right Forza Italia parties, are predicted to take over both the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. Despite these other two parties doing considerably poorly in the elections, the success of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party indicates rising right-wing prominence in the country. This suggests a potential increase in democratic backsliding in the coming years.
As emphasized in Sheri Berman’s article “Populism is a Problem, Elitist Technocrats aren’t the Solution,” the largest contributor to the rise of populism is the lack of democracy. This can be caused by weak party organizations, which is seen in the decline in support for moderate and left-leaning parties in Italy. Berman also notes a reduction in party membership and decreasing connections between voters and the government as avenues for populism to take hold, which Meloni takes advantage of in her populist platform. In addition, there is a major Democratic deficit sweeping across Europe, with many people questioning why elections are even held if the commission will be the organization ultimately making the decisions.
Some may argue that Italian governmental procedures are very democratic and that the electorate is to blame for the right-wing agenda gaining popularity, since Giorgia Meloni obtained the majority vote through democratic processes. However, populist demagogues gain power by tapping into weaknesses in the government and testing its limits. Although it is true that Italians are perceived as one of the most conservative groups of Europeans, a facist party has not been in power since World War II. It is evident that Meloni is taking advantage of the current political climate to push herself into power and ultimately plans to establish a neo-facist platform.
It must be noted that populism in Italy is not an entirely new phenomenon. In 2018, the majority of seats in parliament were given to the Five Star Movement (left-leaning) and the League (right-leaning), two populist parties that shared similar demagogic rhetorics. However, the rapid shift of Italian support from Draghi’s National Unity Government to Meloni’s extreme cultural populism is worth examining, since it provides an example of democratic erosion. As provided in the table from “Populism in Power Around the World,” key themes of Cultural Populism include an “emphasis on religious traditionalism, law and order, national sovereignty, [and] migrants as enemies.” Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, embraces the slogan, “God, homeland, family” from the era of Mussolini. She is also reported to be inspired by Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister whose autocratic actions led to the EU declaring that Hungary cannot be considered a full democracy. Plus, Meloni’s anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as her pro-nuclear family sentiments and desire to uphold traditional Italian values, clearly indicates that she embodies Cultural Populism. She emphasizes an evident “us vs them” rhetoric, using migrants as scapegoats and labeling LGBTQ people as immoral. Due to Draghi’s resignation, people are disheartened with left and moderate leaning politics. Meloni is using this period of political turmoil to pronounce herself as a savior, embracing propaganda to gain the country’s support. As this method continues to be successful, Meloni’s populism will evolve more clearly into facism.
The shift of power from Mario Draghi’s platform of unity to Giorgia Meloni’s extremist, right-winged campaign points to the accelerated rate of Populism-fueled democratic erosion in Italy. The extent of Meloni’s impact on Italy’s democracy cannot be determined at this point, but it is clear that these events will spur more rapid democratic backsliding in the coming years.