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.

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17 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    To John McGregor – G’day and welcome aboard. OK, Italy. For any party to seek to change the sclerotic Italian political system, it would not only be local forces that they would have to contend with. It has been noted that the most likely thing to cause a major crisis in the EU is an implosion of Italian banks due to their size and the extreme difficulty of bailing them out – if countries like Germany and the Netherlands could be convinced in the first place that is. So not only would any party trying to change the Italian political setup have to face down the local politicians but also the big powers in the EU and perhaps the European banking sector itself. The reason being of course that they want the political setup kept in Italy where the whole country is kept under the thumb and lets them to put in place the next Mario Draghi. Otherwise who knows what a right-wing political party might decide to do to handle a banking crisis.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith

      There are open issue in Italy such as minimum wages. I don’t think this is a topic in Italy (but experts can correct me) but one reason for the freakout over the possibility of Marine Le Pen becoming President in France was that she wanted France out of NATO. She would have been unable to execute that, but some decisions, like adding new members, require a unanimous vote, and she could have blocked that by refusing to send the matter to Parliament for ratification.

      Reply
  2. disc_writes

    I always thought that political instability in Italy was a postwar thing, a price to pay to prevent the next Mussolini from coming along, or a Communist takeover. But as it turns out, Italian governments have been falling every few months ever since Italy has had a parliament.

    Between 1861 and 1922 there were more than 40 governments. Even under Fascism, while there was only one “Prime Minister”, governments came and went every few months, led by useful idiots who somehow enjoyed Mussolini’s support – for a short while.

    The parliamentary system has been reformed countless times, with various combinations of proportional and majority representation. We have been a parliamentary democracy, a dictatorship and a parliamentary monarchy, but the pattern has never been broken: a government has little chance of completing its mandate.

    The only thing that was never really reformed is the role of the head of state (Mattarella, today), whose powers basically mirror those of the King before 1946. So I pretty much agree with Meloni’s proposals to reform the Presidency, even at the cost of making Italy more authoritarian.

    People from more liberal countries assume that the more power moves to the State, the less freedom is left for the people; in Italy however, a stronger State is often the only protection against local potentates and lawlessness. Harsh laws are better than no laws.

    I am puzzled by the consternation about Meloni’s supposed post-fascist ideas. Sure, she is unrepentantly post-fascist. But various incarnations of her party and ideology have been either in power or very close to power for the past 30 years. Foreign observers are a bit late to the party.

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    1. Synoia

      Political instability in Italy dates back to the fall of Rome, or even further back to Romulus and Remus.

      I posit that rule itself is a a set of unstable equilibria. The Chinese have passed through the most Dynasties and all have failed eventually.

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  3. lou strong

    About the issue of constitutional reforms, there’s a gigantic difference between the Constitution as it was written and conceived, and what it is now, less for the reforms it suffered and more for its material , extra -institutional evolution.
    Some historical hints.
    The Assembly who wrote the Constitution was elected by universal suffrage, the second vote of this kind for Italy after the monarchy-republic referendum, under a pure proportional electoral law, and after the disaster of Fascist regime and WWII .
    Socialists and Communists, both Marxists at the time, gathered 40 % of the vote.
    Just to say, the first article spells ” Italy is a democratic republic founded on work…”. This was a compromise formula , Socialists and Communists had pushed for the ” Italy is a workers’ republic ” formula.
    Even Democratic Christians had their left wing, for instance Mr. Dossetti unsuccessfully tried to introduce an article which would have guaranteed to the nation the constitutional right of uprising against any future oppression and tyranny.
    Then we had the first political elections won by the conservative Democratic Christian De Gasperi , according to the US desires, and for a long time nobody felt the urgence to implement all that leftist nuances and ideas inscribed in the Constitution.
    The Constitutional Court required by the Constitution itself was materially established in ’55, and as every state is made of an apparatus too ,the first President of the Constitutional Court was Mr. Azzariti, a long-course jurist who in ’38 had signed the ” Manifesto for the defence of the race “, the ratial antisemite laws that Mussolini implemented after the full alliance with Hitler.
    Anyway,as it’s correctly written, the Constitution was based on the preminence of Parliament over the Executive, and , coming from the age of the Dux, the President of the Republic had an important institutional role while a very minor political role.
    In the past, the material Constitution life was based on strong mass parties , and the apparent political instability was due to inner faction struggles of the same parties, particularly governmental parties, as the Americans always formally and informally banned the Communists to enter the government.

    The term apparent, when applied to Italian political instability, will never be enough underlined, for the past , the present and the future too , unfortunately.
    Then the mass parties disappeared, the whole world changed etc etc.
    So now we have an apparently democratic system, and an “evoluted and reformed ” Constitution , in which in practice the President of Republic act as an accountable boss for seven years , while the parties and their temporary poster-boys aka secretaries are subjected to all the miseries of low politics, including the fact to be blackmailable etc etc.
    Hence in my view the correct definition of nowadays Italy is a protectorate,and the new “institutional” task of the President of Republic is to guarantee the execution of the political inputs which arrive from US and EU.
    To make an example , as I used to notice on NC, Mattarella openly reclaimed the new role of scrapping the old Constitution in the name of external boundaries for instance at the time of the formation of the Lega-M5s governemnt, when he rejected the name of Savona as Minister of Economy, an old moderate technocrat , nevertheless critical of the euro and of the austerity management.
    Meloni and its center- right coalition don’t represent any particular threat , because democracy, or to say it better the attempt to have a democracy, passed away.
    Incidentally, a mini law voted not long before the last political crisis will make quite difficult to potential dissident, not- compliant , anti-establishment lists to run for the next polls.
    Some petty example about Meloni : one day before the “fateful ” 24th February, she was attending a republican meeting in the US where she declared her loyalty to the Nato, the West and blah blah, and now she is a hard-liner against Russia .
    Some Italian bad thinker has noticed that it’s a pattern : you can be socialist, anti-establishment like M5s, old-time leftist, whatever, but before you run the elections you want to make a trip to America .
    To make a trip to Brussels , you don’t even need to have to.
    There you have, for instance, Gentiloni who is under triple receivership : under Von der Leyen, and ok, she’s German, and in Europe Germans are on top of the food chain, under Dombrovskis from Lithuania ( no comment ) , and by the way under his own poor brain.

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  4. BillS

    In my opinion, part of the reason for the eternal instability of Italian governments is that the centralized form of government is not suited to the culture and history of Italy. Italy never became a unified country, in the usual sense of the word, but is an agglomeration of regions that have different histories, cultures, politics, cucine and even languages. Pre WWII, the government was centralized with a king as head of government. The Mezzogiorno retained (and still retains) many of its pre-unification feudal characteristics (organized crime groups are an extreme example of this). Italia Settentrionale was where much industry and trade was centered (often based on what was already present in the old city-states and their provinces). The national ruling elite was almost exclusively northern. Southerners resent this.

    The post WWII republic maintained much of the old government’s structure, replacing the King with the Presidente della Repubblica”. In the referendum on the Republic in June 1946, the South voted to retain the monarchy while the more populous northern regions voted for the republic. Again, the South felt they were being forced into something they did not want. The central government has tried to maintain support in the South by funding (often wasted) financial aid to distressed communities and businesses there. This has given rise to much corruption and, hence, much resentment among Northerners (hence the birth of the secessionist Lega Nord – now the Lega).

    In short, Italy is a country that has always been plagued with bad government since it became a distinct political entity. The Italian elite has always aspired that Italy be a “great power” (It’s disastrous experiences in WWI and WWII are examples of this desire) and has squandered much blood and treasure to this aim. The common people tended not to share these aims, which was another source of instability – Southerners who had never before seen snow forced to fight in the mountains in 1915-1918..many buried at the Monte Grappa Memorial.

    In my opinion, Italy would have fared better under a loose federal structure like Switzerland or Germany. Local government tends to work reasonably well, which makes sense in a land where most are more connected to their the local campanile than to the pompous parlementarians in Rome.

    Reply
    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      BillS:

      I think that your comments are on the mark. The great classic novel of Southern skepticism and disappointment is The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The film by Visconti captures it, too. The shock and disappointment of the people who had hardly seen snow. (Also seen in Elio Vittorini’s Conversation in Sicily.)

      I have a comment in moderation (or in the ether) in which I argue that Italy is a centripetal federal republic (in fact, but not according to the Constitution) that still operates with small-c Catholic conservatism. A nation made up of guys like Norberto Bobbio and the current president Mattarella. In the endless game of making change, here in the Undisclosed Region, sometimes, one holds out a palm-full of coins and the clerk takes however much he or she needs.

      Yet I don’t subscribe to the idea that Italy has been uniformly badly governed. I thought that you live in the Veneto–and the Serenissima was remarkably well governed (they eventually even managed to deal fairly with their Greek colonies). My Undisclosed Region also was well governed. Lucca, which as is well known, is its own planet, was well governed.

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    2. fjallstrom

      I think you nailed it. Which also means that the demands for presidential rule or bonus seats to the winner of parliamentary elections, are both two ways to make sure the ruling minority can rule, rather than a way to get a ruling majority, as in supported by a majority of the population.

      Switzerland would be a good model, complete with its system for referendums. It would give the system a way to deal with its fractioness through the people deciding directly on issues.

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  5. DJG, Reality Czar

    Buon esordio, McGregor.

    Given your insights here, you would be valued in Italy. I suppose that The Rev Kev has his charms, though.

    General observations:
    1. Thanks for mentioning the instability and then explaining that instability is a factor but not the defining factor of Italian politics. As we see in the U S of A, the election every two years of a new House of Representatives (how unstable! Can’t Americans keep a government in place?) has also had unintended consequences. I just read an essay by the gay, pagan, philosopher Rhyd Wildermuth, who wrote about the small-c conservatism of Catholicism in his small country, Luxembourg. This small-c conservatism also exists in Italy, where Roman Catholicism was invented. Hence the stable instability. Italian governments have been much too stable in the sense that the same faces keep showing up again and again (Andreotti, Berlusconi, Carfagna seems to have been around forever, Casini, Franceschini, and Gelmini…).

    Corollary: Many Anglo-American analysts, being Calvinists at heart, don’t understand the small-c conservatism of Catholicism, which led in Italy to both the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats being Catholic. (Berlinguer as a kind of secular saint in this anniversary year.)

    2. Giorgia Meloni opposed Draghi because wasn’t elected. Draghi was parachuted in as an aspect of an Italian weakness, a penchant for “technical governments” when Italy reaches a political impasse. She has a point, although indications are that Meloni’s solutions are all-too-likely being influenced by the nihilism-lite wing of the U.S. Republican Party. Just as the influence of the U.S. Democrats has destroyed the Partito Democratico, now undergoing a crackup, so the influence of knuckleheads like Pompeo, Pence, and Bannon is going to be much worse for Giorgia Meloni than she suspects.
    3. Did I mention a crackup? There is a crackup in progress, with Sinistra Italiana and the Verdi talking about aligning with Five Stars. For all of the looniness of Five Stars, much of which looniness is emanating from Il Garante, Beppe Grillo, I keep reading of the general high regard for Giuseppe Conte (and loyalist Roberto Fico, and disloyalist Alessandro di Battista). Don’t rule them out. You seem to.
    4. Your theme that democracy matters is important. I was lucky enough to know Stanley Crouch pretty well, and Stanley would say to me, now and again, “DJG, sometimes, democracy is a bite on the ass.” That certainly explains the endless antics of Matteo Salvini and Matteo Renzi (who I wouldn’t be as charitable toward as you are). That doesn’t mean that Italy needs a presidential system—Italy operates as a centripetal federal republic, even if, technically, it is a unitary state. Heck, in my Undisclosed Region, we have our own cheeses with names that aren’t translated into Italian (toma d’ lait brusc) and our own wine varieties. This unrepentant federalism and small-c Catholic conservatism (let alone the four or five languages being loving preserved against the onslaught of Italian and Marketing English in the Undisclosed Region) means that democracy does work in Italy. [See BillS’s comment above, where BillS details just how this works.]
    5. No one can adequately explain Letta’s current flirtation with Calenda. Again, the influence of the U.S. Democratic Party, which has a horror of democracy breaking out, leads to Letta wanting still another technocratic government that won’t address the nine (very popular / economic) points in Conte’s “ultimatum” memo to Draghi. Giorgia Meloni comes off as the one willing to offer new policies. That democracy theme of yours…

    Finally, in the current crackup in the Partito Democratico, I just discovered that Nicola Fratoianni, now persona quasi non grata among the Dems, voted against the Draghi government something like 55 times. Sinistra Italiana, here I come!

    So it isn’t just Giorgia Meloni.

    Okay: Pick apart my assertions.

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  6. David

    The principal cause of political instability in modern Italy has to be the desperate attempts to keep the Communist Party, which regularly took a quarter to a third of the vote, out of power. Especially under the leadership of Enrico Berlinguer in the 1970s (the period of “EuroCommunism,”) the PCI was admired, even by its opponents, as a relatively honest party in a massively corrupt system, and still benefited from its wartime Resistance role. Although the PCI never formally entered government, I can remember the sense of hysteria among the western political elites in case it did. (The Red Army in Bologna!) Of course the compromises that had to be made to keep a non-communist government in power were such that they eventually destroyed the First Republic. Around the time of the Maastricht Treaty, I had a number of conversations with Italian diplomats, who were universally in favour of the Political Union Treaty as a way of rescuing Italy from the mess it had got itself into. “Our country just doesn’t work” I remember one saying. “Europe is our only hope.” But here we are thirty years later, which goes to show, I think, that the reform of political, systems might be a necessary condition for the resolution of such problems, they aren’t a sufficient one.

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  7. jonst

    essay on the ‘concerns’ of the Italian voters…..yet not a word in it, at least on first reading, of immigration.

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  8. Matthew G. Saroff

    The EU has been resolutely anti-democratic, not just non-democratic since its days as the Coal and Steel Community.

    The assumption is that technocrats will always make the best decisions without regard to their personal interests.

    This is complete balderdash, and a significant proportion of the electorate in the EU understands this.

    Unfortunately, the only actors in the current polity who permit themselves even the smallest bit of EU skepticism are the far right, and so that is where the electorate is moving.

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  9. marku52

    Italy worked better before the Euro. As long as they are trapped there, nothing much can be done to improve the situation. Rodrik’s trilemma still applies. If you are stuck in the Euro, with austerity forever, then democracy is a joke. Noting important can change.

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    1. Mikel

      It starts with the extremism of associating neoliberalism with democracy. It’s counted on that people don’t take the time to get into the nuances of the who is telling people what “democracy” is.

      Reply

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