Notes on the Italian elections

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By SERGIO SCHARGEL*

Since the beginning of the 2000s, movements and authoritarian regimes around the planet have grown in quantity and power.

The first thing we need to take into account is that there is, in course, a global process of democratic weakening that already dates from almost two decades, according to bodies that measure the health of democracy, such as the V-Dem and Freedom House. Most researchers agree that since the beginning of the 2000s, authoritarian movements and regimes have grown in number and power around the planet, putting into question the myth of the stability of liberal democracy in the post-Cold War period.

So, first of all, we need to think about the international elements that foment the rise of extremist parties, mainly, but not only, on the right. The economic crisis of 2008, the austerity measures taken as a result, the Syrian War and massive immigration to Europe, all these elements added up and contributed to a fundamental point in the rise of extremism: the feeling of anti-politics.

Of course, there are many idiosyncratic elements of Italy itself that made the Italian Brothers' coming to power possible, and we won't be able to think of them all here. But we can sketch out some hypotheses. To begin with, Italy is a country that has always flirted with authoritarianism. Unlike Germany, which underwent a massive denazification process – and still continued with some Nazi and neo-Nazi movements – Italy never made peace with its fascist past.

Fascism never completely disappeared from public debate in the country, even if it became a minority force. It evolved, absorbing new elements (something that Mussolini himself also did quite frequently during his 20 years in government), but it remained in politics, hidden, veiled, sometimes explicit when the time was right.

The surprise is not the victory of an extreme right-wing prime minister, whether post-fascist, fascist, neo-fascist, populist, reactionary, or any other concept you want to use. For years Italy was one of the main candidates to have such a head of government. The surprise is that it was the Brothers of Italy, which until then was not among the main political forces in the country.

The lack of a de-fascistization process in Italy, as happened with Germany (and even so Germany deals with a party like alternative for Germany, which has already become the third force in the country), has made its democracy always unstable. Silvio Berlusconi was already flirting with fascism in the early 2000s, when he declared his sympathy for Mussolini. He even put declared fascists in his coalition, with the Italian Social Movement-National Right, the heir party of Italian Fascism. Matteo Salvini has been a force in the country for years, as has Lega North. Mussolini's granddaughter was a European parliamentarian.

Signs of instability in Italian democracy appear in the difficulty that its heads of government have in maintaining power. Parliamentary systems of government tend to be volatile by nature, but Italy goes overboard on this point. There were 70 prime ministers in just over 70 years, an average of just over one year per government. In the same period, the United Kingdom had 16. This political and democratic instability is reflected on voters, who tend to think that their vote doesn't matter, or that all politicians are equal.

Nothing is more revealing than the historic level of abstention in these Italian elections. It is a phenomenon that is repeated almost every time an extremist leader is elected. When there is a deepening in the distance between representative and represented, between voters and candidates, combined with other elements that we talk about here such as economic crisis, social crisis, health crisis, etc., speeches that criminalize politics grow. What we call anti-politics. Voters become, in these scenarios, predisposed to give alternatives outside the realm a chance. establishment. Messianic figures are growing, with speeches that simplify politics, as if only with a strong enough figure it would be possible to take the country back to greatness, change everything that is wrong.

I saw a lot of people saying that Giorgia Meloni's victory is not so worrying, because she supposedly moderated the speech. Some even say that she has now become center-right. No head of government governs alone, even more so in a parliamentary system. Giorgia Meloni will, yes, need to make constant concessions, on all sides of the spectrum.

But historically there is a phenomenon with the election of extreme right leaders: they find themselves at a turning point with the establishment. And no one better than Italy to show that. It is paradoxical, but it is necessary that the establishment tolerate the rise of a figure outsider let them attack themselves, or that leader can't do much.

There is a myth about the March on Rome: that it was a coup d'état. It was not. He certainly had coup pretensions, but Mussolini became head of government within the legal logic of Italy at the time, appointed by the head of state. His authoritarianism grew over the years, and at the beginning he was forced to govern with a liberal-conservative coalition. Italy only had an effectively fascist regime four years later, with the self-coup in 1926. Giorgia Meloni, like Mussolini and any extremist leader before and after, did not come to power alone, will not govern alone. It remains to be seen how far he will be able to advance his agenda, and how much he will have to concede.

I don't think we will see a new fascist regime in Italy, the geopolitical context is different. But there is a difference between a fascist movement and a fascist regime or state. It is still too early to predict how Giorgia Meloni's government will be, or even if it will last. But from a democratic point of view it is indeed deeply worrying. Even with all the elements we have pointed out here, it is still quite symptomatic that the third largest economy in the European Union has elected an extreme right-wing government. We can only follow along and hope that the centenary of the March on Rome is not marked by historical irony.

*Sergio Scargel is a doctoral student in political science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF)

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