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The rise of Europe’s fake populists Italy's political elite will never cede power

Mario Draghi always wins (GREGORIO BORGIA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


February 1, 2022   5 mins

After seven inconclusive rounds of voting, on Saturday the Italian parliament re-elected Sergio Mattarella as the country’s president and official head of state. It didn’t come entirely as a surprise. As I noted on UnHerd, the two most likely winners were Mattarella and Mario Draghi.

The latter had made his intention to become president rather clear: Draghi’s approval ratings as Prime Minister are falling, and likely to worsen as the country’s post-pandemic social and economic crisis unfolds and opposition to draconian Covid measures grows; he was, in effect, hoping to pass on that buck. Moreover, from the highest chair in the Italian state, he would have been able to oversee and steer any government for the next seven years.

Yet his odds faded as politicians failed to agree on a replacement prime minister with sufficient support or clout to see the government through to the end of the parliamentary term in 2023, thus raising the prospect of early elections — something hardly any MP wanted, for obvious pecuniary reasons. At that point, after a few failed attempts by the parties of the Right to gain support for a joint candidate, all the major parties (with the exception of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy) opted for plan B and overwhelmingly re-elected Mattarella.

He represents the best possible outcome for the Italian and Euro-Atlantic establishment, if not for Draghi himself: the Draghi government will remain in place until the next elections, with a staunch defender of the status quo in the role of president.

From the establishment’s perspective, it also represents a win-win scenario for 2023. If a Right-wing coalition fails to secure a majority, they will be forced to find an agreement with other parties on a new “government of national unity”, much like the current one — and Draghi would be the most obvious candidate to head it. At the same time, if they were to succeed in securing a majority, they would still need a president capable of “vouching” for a Right-wing government and safeguarding it against any backlashes from financial markets or the European institutions — and Draghi would, again, be the most obvious choice. In that case Mattarella could step down, citing old age (he’ll be 81 next year), and pass the ball the Draghi.

That said, another positive unintended consequence of the election — again, from the establishment’s perspective — is to have made the prospect of a Right-wing majority in 2023 even less probable. The Right-wing alliance — Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi — is more fractured than ever, and some even wonder whether it still exists. Berlusconi is no doubt furious at the other parties for not supporting Forza Italia’s candidate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati, the President of the Senate, in the secret of the ballot box. Meanwhile, Meloni chastised Salvini’s decision to support Mattarella, tweeting “I can’t believe it”.

Indeed, it was the Democratic Party (PD), the main sponsor of the Draghi-or-Mattarella ticket, which once again came out on top, confirming itself as the real power broker of Italian politics — the party “that never wins an election but is always in power”, as the joke goes. As for the Five Star Movement, which has gone from being an anti-establishment party to an establishment wannabe, it is heading for an internal showdown: Giuseppe Conte, former prime minister and leader of the party, failed to whip up support for the unlikely choice of Elisabetta Belloni, head of Italy’s secret service; meanwhile, Luigi Di Maio, the party’s true éminence grise, was working behind the scenes to reconfirm Mattarella.

Yet on a deeper level, Mattarella’s re-election represents a failure of the entire political system, a choice that confirms the fundamental powerlessness and futility of Italy’s political parties, and of parliament more generally, and their existential fear of anything that actually resembles true politics; that is, a situation where they are called to make actual high-stakes decisions. The pathological infantilism of Italy’s political class is the result of 20 years of external constraint — that is, of the country being essentially managed by outside forces, in particular the European Union.

Political parties are well aware of the fact that, even if they manage to secure a majority in parliament, they lack all the “normal” instruments of economic policy necessary to actually steer the economy in one direction or the other, since these have all been ceded to the EU. Over time, this has created an enfeebled political class, which wouldn’t have the guts to make high-stake decisions — à la Brexit, so to speak — even if if had the means to do so. All of which explains why, in times of crisis, Italy’s political parties tend to pass the buck to technocrats such as Draghi and to the technocratic apparatuses of the state — such as the presidency — by having the latter take responsibility for policies, usually decided at the supranational level, which the parties don’t want to take responsibility for (but for which they can’t conceive an alternative).

It’s a TINA mentality on steroids, which is shared by the “progressive” civil society from which most of the support for establishment figures such as Draghi and Mattarella comes from. We’re talking of a relatively well-off minority that is terrified of anything that seems to threaten what they perceive to be “normality” — be it the rabble-rousing economic populists of the post-crisis years, the Eurosceptics or, today, those critical of vaccine mandates. Paradoxically, progressives have become so terrified of change that they have effectively become the most conservative bloc of Italian society, and the greatest supporters of anything and anyone upholding the status quo.

Mattarella, with his sleepy, reassuring gaze, is the living embodiment of this comforting “normality” — and indeed enjoys widespread popular support for this very reason. By the same token, his re-election perfectly epitomises the transformation of the president’s role in the past few decades, and even years, from guarantor of the constitution to guarantor of the EU’s treaties and rules.

In 2018, for instance, following an alliance between the Five Star Movement and the League, the two parties, as required by the Italian constitution, submitted their choice of government ministers to the president for approval. Yet their proposed economic minister, Paolo Savona, was vetoed by Mattarella due to his euro-critical stance, forcing the two parties to opt for the more status quo-friendly Giovanni Tria.

More recently, when Matteo Renzi pulled the plug on the Giuseppe Conte’s second government in January 2021, Mattarella refused to dissolve parliament and call for early elections, instead working behind-the-scenes to ensure Conte’s replacement by Draghi, much like Giorgio Napolitano had done with Monti a decade earlier.

And over the past year, Mattarella has gone out of his way to vocally defend practically every policy of the Draghi government, including the more legally and constitutionally shaky ones — such as the introduction of vaccine passes and a de facto vaccine mandate, as well as the maintenance of a semi-permanent state of emergency. If one thing is clear, it is that Mattarella’s re-election will further strengthen Draghi’s authoritarian and anti-democratic grip on the country — now redubbed “Draghistan” by his critics — as the prime minister knows perfectly well that Mattarella won’t raise any issues of constitutionality in regard to his policies.

The Draghi-Mattarella regime exemplifies in many ways a disturbing evolution in Italy’s long-standing reliance on technocrats: what Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti have dubbed technopopulism, which combines populist rhetoric to represent “the people” with technocratic claims to possess the necessary competence, experience and authority for translating its will into policy.

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Draghi, for example, recently painted himself as “a grandpa at the service of the state, with no particular aspiration” — that is, a common citizen who simply has the best interest of the nation at heart, a rather surreal claim coming from a former central banker who is considered by many to be “the most powerful person in Europe” and who is pursuing a very clear neoliberal political-economic agenda. In a similar vein, Mattarella stated that he had “other plans” but that he was willing to put his wishes aside and place himself once again at service of the nation, in what has been painted by the media as proof of the President’s supreme sense of selflessness, devotion and self-sacrifice.

This technopopulist mixture of technocracy and demagoguery is deeply worrying, and is at the root of Italy’s slide into autocracy — characterised by the centralisation of all major decisions in the hands of Draghi himself, the embarrassing level of government cheerleading by the media, and the silencing of any dissenting voices. That Twenties’ whiff just gets stronger and stronger every day. And with Mattarella in power, it doesn’t look like it will disappear soon.


Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

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Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

What a depressing situation! I feel very sorry for the Italians – no economic growth for two decades, overrun by boats from Africa and now a Democracy in Name Only.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“That Twenties’ whiff just gets stronger and stronger every day” – but without a single Italian man enough to march on Rome and end the whole farce it will remain just a growing stench.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

Fair point. But it is worth recalling that Il Duce did not “march” on Rome but took a fast train from Milan.

D M
D M
2 years ago

Italy may be in a sorry state but in truth governments in general,
at least in the West, don’t have very much power these days. Global corporations and technocratic elites have the power and membership of the EU and particularly use of the euro help them consolidate control. Look how impossible it was for Greece to do anything meaningful to protect themselves. UK’s extraction from eu and avoidance of the euro in principle enable them to have more control but we haven’t seen many benefits yet. Another factor is constitution – in Italy’s case there seems to be no practicable way of getting a strong and decisive proper populist government.

Last edited 2 years ago by D M
David Sharp
David Sharp
2 years ago

Thomas Fazi writes: “The pathological infantilism of Italy’s political class is the result of 20 years of external constraint — that is, of the country being essentially managed by outside forces, in particular the European Union.

Sounds a lot like France, except that the French technopopulists have a lot more misplaced arrogance and self-assurance, many of them still being convinced that their country is actually on the winning side as part of the fantasized “Franco-German couple”.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Sharp
Walter Marvell
WM
Walter Marvell
2 years ago
Reply to  David Sharp

The description of an infantile political class rings true for the UK as much as Italy. The shifting of levers of actual power from national parliaments to armies of unelected technocratic institutions began as an intrinsic part of Blairism and the deepening of the relationship with the EU. The hysterical antics and pantomines of our lightweight MPs are pure displacement activity, highlighting not masking their inadequacy snd impotence on the great affairs. Meanwhile, as if to fill the void, the technocrats during Covid have bared their teeth and developed an ugly taste for extra legal authoritarian power. Infantalism meets authoritarianism. An ugly mix.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

TINA??
And what is a “Twenty’s whiff”?
Anyway, my bet is that Meloni will win the next elections hands down with Salvini employed as a human fan. Our only hope is that she will have enough vote to govern.
As to Draghi’s resilience/resistance, in recent decades prime ministers tend to last 1-2 years and then they burn out. Will he be any different?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Janko M
Janko M
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

TINA = “There Is No Alternative”, a sort of Eurozone motto for fiscal austerity imposed on southern countries.

I think the point that is being made is that Italian democracy is in shambles. It appears as if elections only affirm what is already imposed from above, particularly when one considers that both Lega and 5S went from alleged anti-establishment stances to exact establishment. When one considers that in last 10 years, the prime minister was not a party leader, but usually some sort of technocrat with a cobbled majority of opportunity, it really starts looking rotten.

Andrea X
AA
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Janko M

Thanks. I had come across TINA before but couldn’t remember the meaning.

Yes, democracy is in a mess, this is why I feel that Meloni at the moment is the only candidate to do something about it (as the only one at the opposition and who voted against Mattarella) before becoming “establishment” too, just like the 5s movement.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
2 years ago

I’m always up for some EU bashing, but to blame the infantilisation of Italian politics on Brussels is nonsense. The Italians have no one to blame but themselves (and I think most know it). They’ve had 20 PMs in the past 40 years!
One set of politicians are unable to deliver their promises, so the instinct is to reject them and go for the next charlatan who promises “this time will be different”. And it turns they are just as bad.
Perhaps our politicians are the opposite, being so vague with any commitments they can never be accused of failing.
On the subject of head of state, I sit on the fence as I don’t think you’d start now with having a monarch, however much we respect the Queen. We can see how divisive electing an all powerful president like USA or France is, but these politically appointed presidents like Italy and Germany don’t look like any better a model.