September 27, 2022

The international response to Giorgia Meloni’s (amply predicted) victory in Sunday’s Italian elections can be divided into two camps: those on the liberal Left fear that a centre-right Meloni-led government will plunge Italy into a Hungary-style “illiberal democracy”, while those on the Right hail her rise to power as a mortal threat to the EU’s “globalist” regime. Both sides are as wrong as each other.

Perhaps the most telling reaction to the election has been that of the financial markets: indifference. The Milan Stock Exchange was actually rising on Monday morning, while the spread between Italian and German 10-year government bond experienced a minor uptick, but is no higher than it was a month ago. The markets clearly don’t expect Meloni to deviate much from the macroeconomic path set out for the country by its technocrats in Brussels and Frankfurt, and locked in place by Mario Draghi — let alone lay siege to the EU as a whole.

Rightly so. Meloni has gone out of her way to express wholehearted support for the European Union, the Euro-Atlantic partnership and Nato, including voting for sending weapons to Ukraine. On all the major issues of the day, the markets are correct in believing that she will toe the establishment’s line. Hence their relative calm — in stark contrast to the turbulence that followed the 2018 election, which brought to power the Five Star Movement and the Lega, which at the time still held rather eurosceptical views (before they were pummelled into submission by the EU establishment).

Meloni’s pro-establishment approach to economic policy isn’t just due to a lack of imagination on her behalf, though she’s always held rather mainstream views on the matter. It’s first and foremost due to the fact that she’s fully aware that Italy, by virtue of its adherence to the single currency, is no longer a sovereign country, and that therefore she needs the support of the EU establishment to stay in power. She has, in effect, learned the lesson of the 2018 “populist” Five Star-Lega government, when the European authorities resorted to a wide array of tools — including financial and political pressure — to crush any attempts to deviate from the status quo.

During a recent talk at Princeton University, EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, spelt out this concept. When asked if she was concerned about the upcoming election in Italy, she replied: “If things go in ‘a difficult direction’, we have tools [to deal with the situation]”. In doing so, she revealed just how the EU’s ruling elites view member states: not as sovereign countries but as protectorates.

Meloni understands this. A good number of Italians, however, also understand this, and share the financial market’s assessment: Italian democracy has become so constrained it no longer matters who wins the elections. For far away from the screeching headlines, the most striking aspect of the election was, in fact, the poor turnout — 64%, the lowest in Italy’s history. This means a third of Italians sat them out; they have given up on democracy. This number is only bound to grow — a devastating indictment of the manner in which the EU has hollowed out Italian democracy.

In this sense, Meloni’s victory shouldn’t be overstated. While it’s true that, with 26% of the votes (up from 4.4% in 2018), Brothers of Italy is by far the country’s largest party — followed by the Partito Democratico (19%) and the Five Star Movement (15.6%) — it is also a far cry from the 32.6% obtained by the Five Star in the 2018 elections. Moreover, if we look at overall numbers, the three parties of the centre-Right coalition — Brothers of Italy, Lega and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — collectively received virtually the same number of votes as in 2018: just over 12 million. So there’s been no massive “Right-wing shift” among the Italian electorate, as several analysts have implied; in fact, what we have witnessed is mostly a reshuffling of votes among centre-Right parties.

The same goes for the centre-Left coalition — the Partito Democratico plus a bunch of smaller parties — which totalled 7.2 million votes, only slightly fewer than the 7.5 million votes it received in 2018. So overall, the two coalitions appear to have a fairly consolidated base that has remained largely unchanged over the past four years.

The real outlier is the Five Star Movement, which, amazingly, has gone from 10.7 million votes in 2018 to 4.2 million votes — a staggering 6.5 million drop. Interestingly, 6 million is also the number of people who didn’t turn up to vote at this round compared with 2018. The implications are rather obvious: for millions of marginalised, unemployed, precarious and low-income voters who had placed their hopes for a radical break with the status quo in the Five Star Movement — only to see the party betray all its promises and ally itself with the establishment over the course of just a year — none of the existing parties is seen as having anything to offer, not even Brothers of Italy.

So while in recent weeks Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte did manage to win back a few of his constituency’s votes, largely by making a tougher defence of the Five Star’s income support scheme and criticising Italy’s military support for Ukraine, for most voters it was a case of too little, too late. Much of the anti-establishment sentiment in Italian society therefore remains very much alive; it just doesn’t have a political channel to express itself.

Searching for profound sociological implications which might explain Meloni’s victory is, therefore, a waste of time. Most of those who voted for her didn’t really vote for her; at the very least, they don’t expect her to change the country in any meaningful way. There’s no real grassroots movement or social base supporting Meloni. Simply put, for most centre-Right voters, it was “her turn”.

What will she have to show for it? Not much, given Meloni’s unlikely to challenge the EU’s economic framework and the fact that Brussels, along with its handmaiden, the Italian president, will be keeping a very close eye on “rule-of-law” issues. Some may find this comforting. But as Italy (and Europe as a whole) approaches what is bound to be a very turbulent winter — one that will require tools of economic intervention that Meloni lacks — many might find themselves reconsidering the virtues of European “constrained democracy”. And let’s not forget: in Italy, a new technocratic government is only another crisis away…