Interview with Alexander Stille about GIORGIA NELONI
In national elections on Sunday, forty-four per cent of Italian voters opted for right-wing candidates, all but insuring that the next Prime Minister will be Giorgia Meloni, whose party—Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy—won more than a fourth of the total votes cast.
Meloni, who has previously expressed admiration for Mussolini, ran a campaign based on anti-L.G.B.T.Q. and anti-immigration themes, while promising continued support for Ukraine. She is likely to govern with two other right-wing leaders: Matteo Salvini, the Putin-admiring former Interior Minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Putin-admiring former Prime Minister.
An election was called after Mario Draghi, the outgoing Prime Minister, was unable to keep his governing majority together. A former president of the European Central Bank, Draghi had led the country through much of the covidpandemic, assembling a broad coalition of the center-left, the populist Five Star Movement, and even Salvini, who, after he joined the Draghi government, saw some of his supporters rally to Meloni.
I recently spoke by phone with Alexander Stille, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author of several books about Italian history and politics. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the center and left were unable to keep the far right out of power, where Meloni is most likely to focus her governing attention, and why a political system often seen as dysfunctional is well equipped to prevent the far right from enacting a wide-ranging agenda.
You have also written extensively about France, and it seems as if every time there’s an election in France between a far-right figure and a more mainstream figure, there’s a popular front, to use a loaded term, against the far right, even if this popular front has been weakening over the past twenty years. Taking into account that Italy has a different electoral system, why didn’t we see a popular front in its recent election?
There are a couple of reasons. No. 1, as you mentioned, is the nature of the electoral system. Because the French have a two-round system, you end up with a very stark choice between one candidate and another. On top of that, Marine Le Pen’s party’s long history of close ties with Russia and Vladimir Putinmade it, particularly in the current climate, feel like a much riskier choice. Giorgia Meloni rather shrewdly tacked very hard toward the center and adopted a very strong anti-Putin, pro-Ukraine position, which prevented that.
In fact, the party in Italy that most resembles Marine Le Pen’s in terms of its foreign policy positions was the Lega, which had a real electoral collapse. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, very foolishly proposed going to Moscow on a trip paid by the Russian government to broker a peace agreement. When the public was outraged by that possibility, he had to cancel it. It was an embarrassing misstep on his part. He also criticized the sanctions. Silvio Berlusconi made some very incautious declarations about the Russia-Ukraine situation, suggesting that Putin had been forced into this invasion and that he wanted to install what Berlusconi called a governo perbene in Ukraine, which means a nice, respectable government. That, of course, backfired on him. Meloni’s clear, unequivocal, pro-Zelensky, pro-Ukraine position was rewarded.
Meloni’s party had been moving ahead in the polls for a long time, even before the invasion of Ukraine. Do you think her success had to do more with Ukraine, or rather with her not agreeing to become part of the previous government, which seemed to hurt Salvini?
You’re getting warmer there, in that the parties that did well were those that went against Mario Draghi’s government. Meloni was always in the opposition, and that made her popular. The other party in this election that arguably comes out well is the Five Star Movement, which surprised people, but Giuseppe Conte’s decision to bring down the Draghi government was rewarded, in effect. Salvini, Berlusconi, and the [center-left] Democratic Party all suffered at the polls—and they were the pillars of the Draghi government. One can read this as a protest vote that rewards the parties out of power.
While I think people in America see this as a kind of political earthquake, it feels much less that way to me. Remember that the predecessor party of the Brothers of Italy, Alleanza Nazionale, was in the government during many of the Berlusconi years. There have been further-right governments—not radically different from what we’re seeing now—that Berlusconi headed, which included the Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega. The first Conte government, in which Salvini was Minister of the Interior, was quite right-wing, with a very populist feel to it. So this seems less radical to me than it may to people who hear about the kind of genealogy of Fratelli d’Italia and conclude that the Fascists have returned to power. I don’t quite see it that way.
How do you think this government might differ from Berlusconi’s?
The underlying problems that Italy faces have been around for a long time. In the early nineteen-nineties, when Berlusconi came to power, Italy was in a remarkably good position in many ways. They’d come close to matching the U.K. in terms of G.D.P. per capita, or G.D.P. in general, although the country had a very high national debt. Since then, Italy has been one of the slower-growing economies in the world. The unemployment rate is high, and the national debt remains very high, which limits the country’s ability to spend its way out of some of these problems. All those problems remain. The Berlusconi governments were particularly unable to deal with them. The governments of the center-left were only marginally better.
How this government will deal with [these problems] is unclear. On top of that, they inherit a very complicated situation with high inflation and escalating energy costs, which may get radically worse during the winter, given the situation in Ukraine and Russia. And then what happens, almost inevitably, is that once you’re in the government, you start paying the cost of public dissatisfaction. This government should have a very large majority in parliament, so it should have the political means to deal with these problems. But these problems are difficult, and, even with all the votes, how you actually enact policies that address some of these issues is far from clear. They have a very tough assignment. They’ve been in the opposition, which means that discontent flows naturally toward them. And now it’ll start to work in the other direction.
What do you think inspires Meloni? What do you think she cares about?
She has not stood out in terms of pushing a particular economic program. The things that she’s said publicly are really more about identity politics than economic politics. She titled her autobiography “I Am Giorgia.” And part of a speech—in which she said, “I am Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m a mother . . . I’m Christian”—was turned into a techno remix in Italy, which was meant to mock her but ended up making her quite popular. These are all identity statements. She was attacking the ways in which an E.U.-governed world was stripping away the traditional markers of Italian identity and making a kind of bland, unisex form of identity, an international cosmopolitan type of identity, stripped of all of its Italian specificity. I think the most radical thing that she has done is attack the L.G.B.T.Q. movement, and stress traditional forms of identity. That seems to be where her passions lie.
But what you really can do about that in political terms is not very clear to me. She has a twenty-five-point program that her party published, and at the top of it is: helping Italian families have more children. Italy, like most wealthy countries in the world, has an extremely low fertility rate, something like 1.3 children per woman. Very few countries have been successful in moving those numbers much. Oddly enough, France, despite not going toward the far right, is one of the countries that’s had a little bit of success in that regard. Meloni has programs that would reward families with children.
I’m going to lay out the optimistic case for her not doing too much damage: she can’t make too much of a dent in social policy; she is somewhat hemmed in on economic policy by being part of the E.U., and needing the E.U.’s pandemic-recovery funds; and she’s already taken a fairly moderate line on Ukraine. This suggests someone who is either unable or unwilling to go to extremes, except maybe on immigration. You mentioned Salvini as Interior Minister, when the stance toward migrants was often grotesque.
That’s where you’re more likely to see actions that you might consider extreme, including sending boats to stop migrants, turning them away, that kind of thing. But undoing fifty years of low fertility is probably beyond the ability of any government, which then makes immigration all the more tricky. The right is anti-immigration, but the Italian economy depends on immigrant labor to function—it’s roughly ten per cent of the over-all workforce. And so the right of course says that they’re against illegal immigration, but they don’t really have a policy for legal immigration, either. At some point, Italy has to make its peace with the fact that it requires immigrant labor, that it is gradually becoming a more multiracial and multicultural society, and that, like the fertility rate, that’s unlikely to change.
I want to go back to the notion of a popular front. Why did the center, center-left, and left not unite before this campaign, and what in Italian society prevented a unified effort to stop the far right?
Italy has had center-right governments that looked like this before. I’m looking at the numbers from 2008, where the center-right coalition got forty-seven per cent of the vote, and where Berlusconi had the largest party. That also included the National Alliance, with its neo-Fascist roots.
Though Meloni’s party went from four per cent a few years ago to about twenty-six per cent now, I don’t think she did it by appealing to the nostalgic elements. You could say that the root of the Party, of people who were drawn to it because of any kind of nostalgia for the Fascist period, is a tiny minority. To go from four to twenty-six, she had to steal votes from the Lega, from Berlusconi, and to some degree from the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. She did that by tacking toward the center.
The whole campaign didn’t have the radical feeling that you see, quite honestly, when you’re observing this as an American. The American right looks a lot more aggressive, violent, and anti-democratic than these people do. The whole tenor and tone of the campaign was much more calm and moderate. Now, that doesn’t mean that there are not people in her party who may, in the privacy of their home, defend Mussolini. But that’s clearly not what the electorate was demanding, nor was it what Meloni was offering.
She also tweeted a video of a woman in Italy being raped by a migrant. I don’t want to say that she’s better or worse than the American right, or defend America in this regard, but there were some things, especially around immigration, that were pretty outrageous.
Right, but Salvini’s been doing that stuff for years. That’s just sort of standard stuff from the Italian right; they basically conflate immigration with rising crime. And part of the problem is that, because Italy in general and the right in particular don’t have a coherent policy on legal immigration, you end up getting illegal immigration: large numbers of usually young men who sneak into the country, who are marginally employed, if they’re employed at all, living marginally, forced in some cases to engage in criminal activity to feed themselves. It breeds that kind of sentiment.
What is frustrating is that both the Lega and the Brothers of Italy have opposed what is known as the “jus soli” law, which would allow the children born in Italy of immigrant parents to become citizens automatically. The left bears some responsibility for not having had the courage to really push this idea. People who are born in Italy of immigrant parents have to wait until they’re eighteen to apply for citizenship, and the rules for doing so are quite complicated and make it rather difficult to do. The right is complaining that you have an immigrant population that isn’t assimilating, but then you have this population that is clearly very assimilated, speaks Italian, has done their schooling in Italian, wants to be Italian, and you don’t let them become citizens easily. There is a basic contradiction that [the right] hasn’t really reckoned with.
They probably don’t want to reckon with it, right?
Yeah, they don’t. But it’s a kind of hypocritical posture: “We were against unassimilated immigration, but then we won’t allow those who do assimilate to become citizens.” And I think the left didn’t have the courage to fight that battle, so they very timidly proposed a “jus soli” law, but they didn’t spend any political capital, and left it up to the individual consciences of their deputies in parliament. The law failed.
Just to take a step back, what you’re saying is that this all seems like normal right-wing Italian politics?
Yes, there is a kind of Italian equivalent of “Build that wall,” but it’s not people marching around in squads and beating up people, nor the pageantry of something that feels Fascist to me. I think the Trump rallies have a much more sinister feeling than the rallies that I’ve seen in this election campaign. There’s much more violent rhetoric, threats of violence, and so forth [in America] than there is in the Italian context.
The failures of the left are also part of it. Their situation was difficult because the Democratic Party was furious when Giuseppe Conte left the Draghi government and essentially brought about these elections. As a result, they were never able to form an alliance on top of it. So it was really sort of an unequal fight. You had three parties on the center-right that had agreed to a pact and therefore were running together, and three main center-left parties that were all running against one another and fighting with each other. That was self-destructive and unsuccessful. If you add up their numbers, they weren’t that far from the center-right, but they will end up with many, many fewer seats in parliament as a result of their disunion. That inability to have a united front, let alone a united program, hurt them very much and made the right look more coherent.
Let me ask you about the Draghi government. He is pretty popular, and has been for a while, especially compared to the vast majority of Western leaders. A fair number of Italians, the business community, and certainly the E.U. (which was getting what it wanted from him) felt that he was doing a pretty good job. But he was also this technocrat who had not been elected to the office and was put in place to govern through the pandemic. How do you understand his basic popularity, and why hasn’t there been an ideological or party movement based around the politics that he has been selling, given that it does seem broadly popular?
It’s somewhat complicated because, as you alluded to, he’s a professional economist, not a politician. He enjoys a high level of respect and esteem among the public, even though his government was not especially popular. It’s hard to disentangle. I suppose one of the options would’ve been to form a coalition that pledged to make Draghi Prime Minister. But one of the main, more or less center-left parties, the Five Star Movement, had caused the Draghi government to collapse. It would’ve been disastrous for them to go back and embrace Draghi after having caused his government to fall.
Part of his appeal was seeming to be above the fray, not entirely aligned with this or that party, but a person who was called to serve, who served in the public interest. The moment that he’s attached to a party, he loses some of that appeal, if you see what I mean. So it was a kind of tricky problem.
The left had the same sort of problem with Carlo Ciampi, another economist who was briefly Prime Minister, in the early nineties, and who was very popular. But the center-left didn’t make him its candidate. It ran someone else. Because of the nature of its political system, Italy has a history of what are called technical governments, where someone nonpolitical is brought in to serve when the parties are unable to agree amongst themselves. And so those figures enjoy a kind of nonpolitical status, but then, eventually, the fact of having a government headed by someone who’s not been chosen or elected by the public starts to become a problem. That is what happened with Draghi.
There was this weird thing where it just seemed as if the institutional powers represented by Draghi, represented by the President, probably represented by people in Brussels, never wanted an election. But at some point you’ve got to face the voters.
The Italian system is very frustrating for many people because the proportional system makes it difficult to form a stable majority, or stable government. Italy’s famous for the dozens of different governments that it’s had since the Second World War, and the shortness of those governments. But it also has limited extremism. And so governments, because they need to compromise, because they need to patch together coalitions that are sometimes unstable, face a moderating effect.
That’s another reason why I’m less alarmist at the moment than some people, because the system is built around compromise. One reform that Meloni has promised is to move toward direct election of the President. That would be a significant change. But it looks like she has fallen short of a two-thirds majority, which would have given her a much greater ability to make substantial changes. Then we would have been looking at something that might feel more radical. If Italy moved away from its current system toward direct election of the President, then we could be looking at something that would be more in the direction of Viktor Orbán, in Hungary. ♦︎
mon oct 3 3022 REmbr… G is, as G can only BE. GOOD
amen. so BE it. laff THRU it…yes. in Time.