Every nation treats its politics as theatre. In Britain, a man who lied his way to the leading role may soon be replaced by a woman whose very name conveys mistrust. In France, they tell an epic tale of Jupiter, aka Emmanuel Macron, brought crashing down to Earth. In the US, forever playing cowboys, Congress staged a riveting shoot-out at the not-OK Corral, dramatising the case of Donald Trump versus the People.
Outraged and desperate at the perennial perfidy and treachery of their leaders, voters mask their impotence with tears and laughter. Politics becomes entertainment and politicians mere players. Italy, briefly, was an exception. Mario Draghi – “Super-Mario” to his keenest admirers – was widely reckoned the country’s most able, effective and popular prime minister in many years. But like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or so the story goes, Draghi was stabbed in the back last week by lesser people in Rome’s Senate, the victim of a rightwing plot. Evidently this was not what most Italians, impressed by Draghi’s Covid leadership, economic reforms and international influence, wanted to happen. La Stampa decried a political murder. La Repubblica’s sombre headline: “Italy Betrayed”.
Draghi’s enforced resignation now plunges Italy back into the political chaos for which it became famous in the postwar period, and from which he momentarily rescued it. The ensuing uncertainty has serious implications not only for Italians but for Europe and the EU amid war in Ukraine, a deepening cost of living crisis and a pandemic that is far from finished.
Cui bono? Who gains? The obvious answer is a discordant trio of far-right parties – Giorgia Meloni’s insurgent, neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League) and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Forward Italy). Polls make these three favourites to form a governing coalition after the early general election called for September.
A breakthrough of this magnitude for the far right, coming hard on the heels of Marine Le Pen’s successes in France and previous advances by like-minded parties in Germany and elsewhere, bodes ill for Europe’s cohesion. Draghi took a strong stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His view is not shared by many rightwingers who, like Salvini and Berlusconi, have a history of sucking up to Moscow.
The Italian right’s strong strain of Euro-scepticism will complicate relations with Brussels when the EU needs a united front ahead of a long, cold winter. What the untested Meloni, whose party has risen from 4% support in 2018 to top the latest national polls, has to offer Italians and Europe is a pressing question.
Her party’s “Italy first” stance, “zero-tolerance” anti-migrant rhetoric and archaic views on gender issues will win easy votes, but are the antithesis of responsible, sensible leadership. As she eyes the premiership, Meloni should consider the fate of another breakaway populist party, the leftwing Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement – M5S), which also came from nowhere in the past decade.
One by one, M5S’s anti-establishment, environmentalist and anti-austerity principles were compromised by proximity to power. It recently split over Ukraine and is blamed for helping undermine Draghi’s coalition, of which it was a part. At the last election, it was the largest party, with 33%. Now it’s down to 11%.
In other words, a far-right populist victory this autumn is not inevitable. If for no other reason, voters could and should punish Meloni and her allies for causing this unnecessary, damaging crisis. Politicians, like players, strut and fret their hour upon the stage. In such unscripted dramas, they can disappear as quickly as they appear.
July 24, 2022 at 11:22AM Observer editorial