International Politics

Weimar Italy’s Third Act Might Be The Most Troubling One Yet

While Sergio Mattarella reconfirmation as President of the Republic may appear as a sign of stability in a notoriously dysfunctional democracy, his second term opens Italy to a dangerous constitutional scenario that has long been coveted by the country’s far-right. 

Sergio Matarella appears at the Quirinale Palace after his re-election for a second term in office on January 29, 2022 in Rome – ABACAPRESS.COM/Alamy

During the night between January 29 and 30, a mural by Rome street artist Laika appeared, on a road close to the residence of the Italian President of the Republic, the Quirinale.

Laika portrayed Sergio Mattarella, wearing socks with the Italian flag, as he chases down a removal van, asking the driver to stop, as, in fact, the great game between the Italian political parties, ended with a second term for him as head of state.

Was it a failure for all political parties though? Before we delve more into the issues around the waves of the de facto kind of presidentialism that this second Quirinale re-election has unleashed, almost ten years after Giorgio Napolitano’s re-election, it is useful to look back at how the various parties and leaders played their cards, and who were the winners, and the losers in the political game of Monopoly that unfolded in Rome’s corridors of power over the past couple of weeks.

The leader of the right-wing Lega (League), Matteo Salvini, was expected to be a crucial and decisive player in the election of the new Italian President, backed by 197 MPs between the Chamber of Deputies and the Italian Senate, as well as several regional delegates. 

Salvini positioned himself as the main voice of the centre-right coalition with Forza Italia and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. While both parties are considered part of the country’s Right (Destra) It is an unstable alliance that is ideologically more or less united on certain issues, but structurally extremely dysfunctional. While Forza Italia supports the technocratic Draghi government alongside the League, Brothers of Italy sits as the government’s main force of opposition.

Alongside European MEP Antonio Tajani and Meloni, Salvini put forward three candidates who, while not being voted into office, served as useful straw candidates, to test the political waters.

While Meloni managed to gather some votes for former Brothers of Italy MP Guido Crosetto, Salvini aimed to rally support for Elisabetta Casellati, President of the Senate and member of Forza Italia, but failed yet again.  After this, Salvini announced to elect yet another, candidate, “a talented woman”, in partnership with the Five Stars Movement’s leader and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Their choice was Elisabetta Belloni who had a long and respected diplomatic career, yet was not, as former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pointed out, a viable option, as she currently heads the Department of Information for Security, a department which oversees Italian intelligence services.

Having failed once again in an attempt to exert political influence, in the end, Salvini supported Mattarella as the only viable option which could meet widespread support and end the deadlock, while Meloni declared the centre-right alliance as effectively over. At the moment, the confusion of the League leader on what steps to follow is exemplified by his suggestion of forming the Italian version of the Republican Party alliance, with Forza Italia. 

Once again, Salvini has proven to be a leader who, while being an efficient and charismatic campaigner, is unable of developing and executing winning strategies, building durable coalitions and formulating a medium-to-long term-political vision. Instead, he has shown himself very capable of self-sabotaging his career at crucial turning points that could provide him with a significant tactical advantage to realise his political goals.

Instead, Giorgia Meloni has shown herself as a cunning political operator and influential power player in Italy’s quasi-Weimarian democracy. Like Salvini, she knows that there can only be one protagonist in the Italian far-right arena and she is intent on being the Destra’s leader and uniting its forces in a populist revolt against the country’s liberal system of parliamentary government. 

Giuseppe Conte was the other main loser in this challenge for the highest role in Italian politics; even though several 5SM MPs have either been expelled from the party or have left it, since the 2018 elections, Conte was still, in theory, able to control the most votes among all other parties, with 157 deputies and 73 senators.

Theory and facts did not match, however, as the race for the Quirinale represented the opportunity for Foreign Secretary, and former 5SM leader Luigi Di Maio, to settle scores with Conte, and, at the same time to strengthen his “centrist” transition, by highlighting his support for the broad coalition Draghi government and staying loyal with Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party.

On the other hand, Conte’s attempt of electing Elisabetta Belloni with Salvini was received with great irritation by Enrico Letta and his party.

On the face of it, Letta, Renzi and Meloni can thus be considered the secret winners of this election. However, If we take a closer look, Renzi was not the kingmaker that he hoped he could be on this occasion, even though he was able to ruin Salvini and Conte’s plots, while Letta’s declaration that his duty was to protect Mario Draghi (who was also seen as a candidate) proved the lack of ideas within the Democratic Party, a party which seems more and more resigned in the role of “crutch” for the President’s technocratic governments. 

In the end, a political class that has, once again in less than a decade, recalled to his duties an octagenarian statesman of undoubtedly high qualities, is, in any case, an incapable one. Indeed, it has led the country towards a constitutionally complicated and troubling array of present and future scenarios. 

Sergio Mattarella himself had highlighted the fact that the period of service assigned to a President is seven years while extending it with a second term would have troubling constitutional implications. The fathers and mothers of the Italian Constitution, following the end of the Second World War, wanted to ensure that there were enough checks and balances between the different political powers, to avoid the rise of new despots. However, with the growing dysfunctionality of the Italian party system, the institution of the president gradually took on quasi-executive aspects reminiscent of the emergency powers granted to the Reich President in Germany’s Weimar Republic. 

In Italy too, the Right soon became an active campaigner for a system of strong presidential authority. Thus, the political ancestor of Giorgia Meloni, Giorgio Almirante, the fascist hierarch and founder of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, MSI (Italian Social Movement, MSI which became an acronym for “Mussolini, sei Immortale”, “Mussolini, you’re immortal”) was always an advocate for a presidential Republic embodied by strong, ‘fathers of the nation’-figure ruling a democratic void.

In the current days, it is then not surprising that Giorgia Meloni is the strongest advocate for a presidential Republic, which would take the choice away from the MPs and revert it to the mythified ‘wisdom’ of the people. Meloni’s party is currently gathering signatures to support this constitutional reform and the proposed law is expected to be discussed in Parliament at the end of this month. Yet, Meloni is not alone in this desire for a fundemtanl transformation of the Italian Republic. While, on the right, Matteo Salvini is also an advocate for a presidential reform, Matteo Renzi is known as a strong supporter of the French presidential structure, where a Prime Minister is appointed directly by the President; Renzi calls this formula “the mayor of Italy”.

Mattarella’s re-election now presents Italy with a difficult constitutional problem: the previous taboo of extending a President mandate is now fundamentally vanquished. Two precedents can make a rule, and from now on, whenever a President leaves office, the opportunity for him or her to reside at the Quirinale for a second term would not be an outlandish scenario anymore.

It is possible that Mattarella might not remain in office for his full term and would opt instead for leaving within the next two years; a similar scenario would work in favour of the supporters of Mario Draghi as head of state, as by that time, the PM could if elected, rise to the highest office in the country without creating political or constitutional crises.

Regardless of Draghi’s prospects, a presidential Republic can be a dangerous constitutional ‘fix’, as the possibility that someone with complete contempt for the pillars of liberal democracy takes office can by no means be excluded. Even more so, given that historically, Italy has been a notorious laboratory for anti-institutional leaders, as the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi exemplifies, who often complained about the limits of his office’s powers. Since the disintegration of the First Republic during the mani-pulite scandal of the early 1990s, the balance of power has progressively shifted away from parties locked between external polarisation and factional internal fighting, in favour of the President of the Republic, who is seen, not without reasons, as the main and last representative of the Italian institutions, able to unify diverse public sentiments.

Nadia Urbinati, Professor of Political Theory at the Columbia University, has recently highlighted, in an op-ed for the daily newspaper Domani, the risks inherent in a presidential scenario, of having the “audience people” dictating the agenda to the citizens’ people, as it happens frequently in populist democracies.

The pillars of the Italian Constitution are enshrined in the need to protect the country’s democracy from authoritarian risks and a presidential reform would therefore vanquish the fabric of values upon which the Republic has been established.

Even if Brothers of Italy’s proposed law fails to pass, the potential for enacting far-reaching constitutional reforms has entered the public discourse as a real possibility. As Giorgia Meloni seems to be the only political leader whose support is growing among the Italian electorate a troubling, yet not unlikely scenario reveals itself: the more publicity her proposals on constitutional reform will generate, the higher the chance becomes that when Italians go to the ballot boxes next year a presidential transformation of the country might seem in order; thus allowing the far-right to hollow out Italy’s already struggling parliamentary democracy.

Angelo Boccato is a London-based freelance journalist and co-host of the podcast Post Brexit News Explosion. He tweets @Ang_Bok.

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