The March on Rome

29 September 2022

The March on Rome

Don’t panic!

By Neil Tidmarsh

So, which of the following is the more likely to freak out the markets and send bond dealers and currency traders frantic with fear and panic?

(a) A hard-right, populist, nationalist, Eurosceptic alliance, led by a party with authentic fascist roots, taking power in the EU’s most politically and economically troubled country;

(b) The UK government cutting taxes.

Well, we had the answer this week and it wasn’t the one we might have expected a week ago. As it happens, however, the market reaction to the UK’s mini-budget (already known as the ‘kamikwase’ budget in some quarters) isn’t much of a mystery; but the reaction to Italy’s election results is, on the face of it, rather more puzzling.

After all, it comes hot on the heels of hard-right triumphs elsewhere in Europe: Vox in Spain, the National Rally in France, the Swedish Democrats in Sweden – all, like the Brothers of Italy, the children or grandchildren of authentic fascist movements. It threatens the EU’s plans to save Italy’s endangered economy from collapse (and the collapse of Italy’s economy could crash the whole of Europe’s). It threatens the EU itself; although the Brothers of Italy and their partners are no longer calling for Italy’s departure from the EU or the Eurozone, they’re making common cause with Poland, Hungary and other Eurosceptic nationalist governments currently in conflict with Brussels and hostile to its social, economic and political Liberal ideals. (The President of the European Commission threatening Italians with a big, powerful ‘tool’ must have been a vote-winner for Giorgia Meloni. Will Brussels never learn?) A few years ago, Salvini’s bid for the Presidency of the Commission and the possibility of hard-right populists dominating the European Parliament and the Commission came to nothing (a bid and possibility which terrified the European Council), but now Salvini’s back. And the EU’s constitution still makes it look as vulnerable to an extremist take-over as ever. (See EU Elections, Shaw Sheet issue 175, 25.10.18.)

So why isn’t everyone panicking? Here are a few ideas which suggest that the triumph of Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy and their allies might not be something to worry too much about after all.

First of all, Italy’s constitution, imposed after World War II to ensure that the country would never produce another Mussolini, is more or less guaranteed to render governments impotent and ineffectual. Politics in Italy is more a matter of horse-trading power and influence behind closed doors than of actually solving the country’s problems. Matteo Renzi (prime minister 2014-2016) and Mario Draghi (prime minister 2021-2022) tried to change the constitution so they could actually get things done, but Renzi’s attempts were rejected by the electorate in a referendum and Draghi’s attempts were frustrated by his coalition partners. All of Italy’s recent prime ministers have found it impossible to achieve anything of consequence and it’s unlikely that things will be any different for Giorgia Meloni.

Secondly, recent history suggests that extremist or populist parties, once elected to government, find it hard to govern with their programme intact. Their lack of experience makes them vulnerable and their impractical ideals make them ineffectual. The fall of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement was as rapid and dramatic as its rise (granted, its 15.5% share of the votes was more than anyone expected, but then again it was offering free money to all). Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Salvini’s The League have had to accept compromise and to temper their ideals in the past and Ms Meloni no doubt will have to do the same (indeed, the leader in The Times on Tuesday proclaimed “Italy’s new leader may turn out to be more of a pragmatist than a neo-fascist”). She maintained her party’s purity by refusing to join Mario Draghi’s government of national unity (a rather messy and doomed affair in retrospect) last year, but she’ll find it difficult to keep it unsullied in the new coalition even though her Brothers of Italy will be the senior partner.

Third, if all coalition governments are inherently unstable and often short-lived, those consisting of (or merely including) the extreme right seem to be the most unstable and the most short-lived of all. It didn’t take long for Austria’s recent hard-right ӦVP and extreme-right FBӦ coalition government to collapse; chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the ӦVP and his scandal-hit vice-chancellor Heinze-Christian Strache of the FBӦ fell out spectacularly and dramatically after little more than a year.

Salvini’s The League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia would make uneasy and unstable bedfellows for any prime minister. Giorgia Meloni will have to fight hard to maintain her and her party’s supremacy over them. She’s relatively inexperienced whereas both Salvini and Berlusconi are among the canniest and most experienced political in-fighters in Europe. Salvini brought down both of the two coalition governments he’s belonged to, pulling the plug on prime minister Guiseppe Conte last year and on prime minister Mario Draghi earlier this year. Berlusconi has survived criminal convictions, sexual scandals and electoral defeats to stage this remarkable come-back, and as an ex-prime minister (he’s occupied the office three times: 1994-1995, 2001-2006 and 2008-2011, exceptionally long terms by Italian standards) he may well find it hard to share power and be content with a lesser position.

Fourth, and last, Italy’s 40 or 50 governments since World War II have all been remarkably short lived.  Most have lasted little more than a year or even less; only a handful have lasted longer than two years.

So how long is this government – Italy’s 45th in the post-War period – likely to last? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. It would be interesting to know what odds the bookies are offering. An even more interesting bet might be whose government will be the shorter-lived, Giorgia Meloni’s or Liz Truss’s? Will either see in more than one New Year? Faites vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen, signore e signori.

Cover page image: Hermann Tertsch y Victor Gonzalez / wikimedia / Creative Commons

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