Political angst in Italy as masks and gloves are off in Europe

Draghi’s fall from power in Italy has renewed concerns about populist and right-wing forces in Europe as a whole

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Tue 26 Jul 2022, 11:44 PM

Last updated: Wed 27 Jul 2022, 3:02 PM

It’s as if the pandemic had forced a political calm. Italy was governed for 17 months by an able, stable technocratic government led by the respected Mario Draghi, former head of the European Central Bank.

But as the masks came off and Europe went back to business as usual, the relative quiet was broken last week by typical Italian discord and maneuvering. As the weekend arrived Draghi’s government had fallen and new elections were assured.

It seems to come at a most inopportune time as Italy along with Europe faces uncertain autumn of looming economic problems and possible energy shortages not to mention an ongoing war in Europe and the pandemic that continues to surge.

Draghi’s government imploded on July 20 after the center-right Forza Italia and League parties joined the populist 5-Star Movement in boycotting a confidence vote in the senate, a clear sign they were done with the coalition cobbled together in early 2021 at the behest of Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

“Shame”, said the newspaper La Stampa in a headline on the front page. “Italy Betrayed” wrote La Repubblica after learning that in the early hours of July 20 former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi hosted a meeting in his new Roman villa that sounded like a right-wing conspiracy to overthrow Draghi.

Many are shaking their heads in frustration, posing the question: if the capable Draghi cannot successfully govern the country, then who can?

Well respected in the European Union, Draghi seemed to embody “mos maiorum” – the honored principles or core code from which the ancient Romans derived their social norms and practices in political life. He has auctoritas (earned prestige), fides (credibility), gravitas (responsibility), discipline (discipline), constantia (perseverance in the face of adversity) and virtus (valor and courage). Yet these qualities did not prevent disloyalty and distrust, the two biggest reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Romans used to define political and personal betrayal as perfiditas, a term for the calculated, willful violation of trust.

Instability has historical roots in Italy. Since the birth of the Italian Republic in 1946, a prime minister has never served for an entire five-year cycle of a legislature. The average duration of an Italian government has been about one year.

But this collapse seems more disheartening than many of those that came before. Just by virtue of his own ability and prestige, Draghi brought Italy renewed credibility. Some had even seen him as a replacement to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the de-facto “leader” of Europe in the public mind.

“Draghi’s departure is a real problem for Europe, a tough blow,” Gianfranco Pasquino, professor emeritus of political science at Bologna University, told the press. Another measure of Draghi’s stature are the messages of support he received from the White House, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and others.

And beyond the personal or ethical disappointments in his betrayal, Draghi’s fall from power has also renewed concerns about populist and right-wing forces in Europe as a whole.

Some point to the far-right Brothers of Italy, which uses a symbol adopted by defeated lieutenants of the Mussolini regime and describes itself as “post-fascist”. Before a fringe party, it could actually lead in the next government, with its head Giorgia Meloni now touted as a potential prime minister.

Now polling favorably with support from about 23 percent of respondents, Meloni is seen as more consistent and dedicated than the scheming Berlusconi or Matteo Salvini, the grasping leader of the League political party. Unable to support Draghi’s government from the outset, she went into an opposition role, yet declined to attend the meeting at Berlusconi’s palazzo where they plotted the downfall of the government.

“I didn’t want them to be forced to do what they did,” she said, referring to Salvini and Berlusconi. “I knew it would only work if they were sure about leaving that government.”

She has also delivered reassuring statements on NATO, the European Union and ties with the United States.

That toned-down message combined with an ongoing breakdown of the barriers between the traditional center-right and the far-right across Western Europe and in the US could bring Meloni and the Brothers of Italy to the forefront of politics in Italy and even Europe as a whole.

If you want to know what the future may hold, Italy is a good place to look, writes historian David Broder. “It’s not the first time Italy has actually led the way,” according to Broder. “It was, of course, the first country to be taken over by fascists, falling to Mussolini 100 years ago.”

He noted that Italy also pioneered Christian Democracy, a centrist political home to both conservative and more liberal forces. Tellingly, the Democratic Party, heir to the Christian Democrats in Italy, has largely been irrelevant and ineffectual in the latest political fracas.

Of course, Italians are now obsessed with their plans for the Ferragosto holiday at the seaside, long an almost sacred tradition. But when they return, bronze and rested, they will have to face up to a snap election and collective soul searching. And the entire world will be watching.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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