Amid tensions, Italians set to go to the polls

The national election scheduled for March 4 could see a breakthrough moment for the country’s new right, but fear and anger are building up.

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Image Credit: Financial Times

Last weekend, the EU’s third largest economy, Italy, was rocked by widespread protests from Palermo in the south to Milan in the north. Although there were some single issue demonstrations, including one in Rome protesting a series of labor ‘reforms’ called the Jobs Act, American readers will recognize the pattern of right wing gatherings that attract often larger crowds in counter-protest from recent events in the United States.

With a national election scheduled for March 4th that could see a breakthrough moment for the country’s new right, some of the fear and anger on the part of those organizing anti-fascist protests and counter protests stems from an incident in the large town of Macerata, 125 miles east of Rome, on February 3rd. On that day, 28 year old Luca Traini, wearing the Italian flag as a cape, is accused of going on a drive by shooting spree targeting people of African descent. Six innocent people were wounded.

Like many of those accused of engaging in such terrible acts, Traini, who ran in local elections as a candidate of the right-wing Lega (the League) party last year, is said to have rationalized his actions as revenge for an earlier incident in which an 18 year old woman was brutally murdered in the town; the man charged in that case is a Nigerian national.

Authorities say Traini has shown “no remorse” for his alleged 2 hour reign of terror.

In the largest demonstration, as many as 100,000 Italians gathered in the People’s Square (Piazza del Popolo) in Rome to protest the rise of right-wing populism and the continued participation of out and out fascist parties like CasaPound (named for Ezra Pound, American poet and ardent Mussolini supporter) in the country’s politics, on Saturday, February 24th .

As Carla Nespolo of the National Association of Italian Partisans told reporter Francesca De Benedetti during the demonstration, the rise of the new fascist tinged right is even more troubling because it’s a Europe-wide phenomenon, with its seeming growth in Italy a symptom of a much larger disease, “I don’t think we should panic, because there’s an overwhelming majority of anti-fascist people, but we need to be united in providing a barrier against xenophobic and fascist nostalgia. This isn’t only an Italian problem: the loss of historical memory concerns Europe in general; 60,000 fascists appeared in the streets of Warsaw on 11 November. It is crucial to be conscious of the risks of a return to fascism.”

Understanding Italy’s system of government

To say that the Italian Republic’s system of government is somewhat complicated is to be guilty of understatement. The two legislative bodies in the country, which share power equally, are the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The leader of the Chamber of Deputies and the effective head of state, the Prime Minister, is not elected to the position but is instead appointed by the president (those chosen are usually the leaders of the victorious party or coalition).

The president, whose role is otherwise largely ceremonial, is also not popularly elected, chosen by a, “secret ballot by parliament and regional representatives.”

Oddly, enfranchisement starts at 18 for the Chamber of Deputies but one must be 25 years of age to vote in Senate elections. Also, while the Senate is mostly an elected body representing the country’s regions, as explained by the Europe-wide English language news network, The Local in the article cited above, former presidents are guaranteed a lifetime seat, along with a maximum of 5 citizens appointed by each president for, “outstanding merits in the social, scientific, artistic or literary fields.”

Although next week’s election will be contested by four main parties, Italy’s robust, if dysfunctional and confusing, democracy has a great many regional and smaller parties of all ideologies who can, on occasion, play a spoiler role or join with others to form a governing coalition (although they must receive a minimum of 3% of the vote to fill seats in parliament).

This situation has been further complicated by a new electoral law passed last October, called the “Rosatellum” which, “unlike the previous Italian electoral law… does not give an automatic majority to any party or group that wins more than 40 percent of the vote,” the guarantee of the ability to form a government in the past. It appears to be a well-meaning attempt to make the system more democratic by forcing larger coalitions, but the new law may have made forming a government in the deeply divided country even more difficult.

A rising right

The worrying rise of the populist right in Italy is best demonstrated by the growth of the Lega Party. Formerly called the Northern League (and in some English language reporting retaining this name), the Lega was originally a secessionist party that had long derided the poorer south of the country but has transformed itself into a national party to leverage the discontent of many Italians with the European Union and outside migrants, including those fleeing war and violence.

While polling is banned in the two weeks prior to a national election, surveys taken just before the prohibition went into effect suggest that a coalition of right-wing parties, the largest of which are Forza Italia (Forward Italy) and the Lega, and also including the far-right Brothers of Italy, are set to take around 37% of the vote. If this percentage holds true on election day, it will require the grouping to either scramble to find new allies or call another election at some point in the near future as the result of a hung parliament.

Forza Italia, run by the disgraced 81 year old media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, convicted of tax fraud among other, more disturbing things, in late 2012 and unable to run himself, represents the center right. The more radical Lega is led by Matteo Salvini, who is 44.

The two party leaders are said to have an agreement that whichever party wins the most seats will put forward their candidate for prime minister. While the deal might seem clever on the part of Berlusconi, who may believe he is co-opting the anti-immigrant right for his own purposes as we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe, most notably in Hungary, there’s no guarantee that the octogenarian media magnate can control either Salvini himself or the Lega’s resentment fueled base.

“Should the League do particularly well, and better than expected,” Stafano Stafanini, Italy’s former Ambassador to NATO explained to The UK Guardian, “then obviously Salvini will not take instructions from Berlusconi.”

Just as we saw, and continue to see, glaring differences between traditional free trade conservatives and more protectionist, anti-immigrant Trump supporters in the United States (Salvini endorsed the current U,S. president in 2016), it will be interesting to see what policies will be enacted if these parties are able to form a government. The American example seems to be the complete surrender of the latter to the dictates of the former, while maintaining much of its incendiary rhetoric.

As for the current ruling party, the center left Democratic Party, their prospects look particularly grim.

The sitting Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, has remained on the sidelines throughout the campaign. He was chosen to replace an embattled Matteo Renzi when he resigned from that office in 2016 after a major defeat in a referendum on constitutional reform.

The unpopular Renzi has assumed the leadership of the party during the campaign and the result has been that the Democratic Party in the last polls had just over 20% support. As reported by Politico.eu, the Democrats are poised to lose every seat they hold in the south of the country, a testament to Renzi’s failed leadership, where strong anti-austerity rhetoric on his part has not resulted in much action.

Despite the growing influence of the far right on Italian politics, another populist party, which has been described in the press as both far left and far right but claims it subscribes to neither position, is the ‘anti-establishment’, often euro-skeptical, 5 Star Movement. The party, led by 31 year old Luigi Di Maio, holds the largest percentage of voters for a single party according to the last polls before the ban went into effect. Di Maio has publicly stated that his party will not join with other parties in a coalition. If he holds to this promise, it limits the chances of 5 Star taking power.

Interestingly, this party is strongest in the south of the country, where, as we already noted, the Democratic Party has been shedding voters. This is also the area of the country that’s seen the largest influx of migrants during the current crisis. Despite this, while members of the party have made strong anti-migrant statements over the course of the campaign, the issue is generally seen as less central to 5 Star’s platform than fighting corruption and, “its promise of universal income support for the poor”.

While it has campaigned on an anti-corruption platform since it was founded in 2009, when 5 Star has achieved power, most prominently electing mayors in Rome and Turin, it begins to look more like a typical Italian political party, even in terms of its main issue. As reported by The London Review of Books these mayors, “have not only run incompetent administrations but are under investigation for fraud.”

As for the traditional rather than neoliberal ‘left’, what will likely be its largest share of the vote will probably go to the newly formed Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal) coalition, made up of a number of parties and originally formed by discontented members of the current government. It’s candidate for Prime Minister, Pietro Grasso, is the current leader of the Senate.

The coalition’s support was at about 5% in the final polls, just a little above the 2-3% expected for the pro-EU +Europa (More Europe) Party, making it appear unlikely that the left can play much of a role in the coming parliament.

To put the growing popularity of the populist right in the country in context, it’s important to remember that, along with Greece, Italy has been on the front line of the migrant crises emanating from Africa and the Greater Middle East. The country is the main destination of human smugglers based in chaos plagued Libya and it’s been widely reported that some 600,000 people have arrived on its shores over the last few years.

It can be argued that the European Union bears some blame for the growing anti-migrant sentiment fueling Italy’s far right. Their lack of action in terms following up on promises to redistribute refugees and migrants throughout the EU as a whole has helped to increase both anti-EU and anti-migrant sentiment in the country.

While it would be foolish to try and predict how this election will play out, like many of its neighbors, the Italian Republic shows no signs of overcoming its deep divisions, squeezed by austerity, worried by migration and potentially crippled by the flight of its young people in search of better economic prospects elsewhere. Perfect conditions for the rise of a newly invigorated far right.

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