“Finally it’s over”: This is possibly the most common reaction of any Italian who is asked about the electoral campaign that led to Sunday’s elections. A campaign that has been defined by several media outlets, from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, as the “worst of the republican era”. Although extremely rewarding in postmodern terms –from Silvio Berlusconi landing triumphantly on TikTok to attract young voters, even the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio, “flying” in a restaurant like Dirty Dancing–, this campaign has been completely detached from a scathing reality, marked by Russian expansionism, the increase in the energy bill and a 24% youth unemployment rate, issues that have only entered the campaign debate in occasional bursts. Sunday’s vote, with a record low turnout of 63.8%, reflects more the indifference of the electorate than a substantive and widespread concern about Italy’s near future, namely by the first executive led by a post-fascist party, the Fratelli d’Italia (FDI) by Giorgia Meloni.
The center-left coalition, led by Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party (PD), initially tried to frame its campaign around the “fascist threat”. And Meloni seemed to play along. Both were interested in polarizing the electorate: the first, to convince disaffected non-voters and left-wing supporters of the 5 Star Movement (M5S); the second, to subtract votes from the other components of the right-wing and extreme-right coalition. This led to a tacit agreement between Letta and Meloni, in which each was willing to recognize the other as the main opponent, hoping to keep the other matches out of the spotlight. Was your strategy successful? The answer is a clear yes for Meloni: having obtained an impressive 26% of the vote – much more than Forza Italia and Lega combined – he can claim the undisputed leadership of his coalition and the right to form an executive. The same does not happen with the PD, which has fallen below the psychological threshold of 20%. This would have been the most disappointing result of this electoral round were it not for Matteo Salvini’s meager 9%.
Letta’s defeat rests on three interlocking strategic errors. First, her campaign was based on the misconception that there was an electorate willing to mobilize against the authoritarian threat posed by a far-right executive. As the electorate’s indifference to the “fascist threat” became apparent, Letta was forced to reinvent his narrative, moving away from the widely derided posters of “us against them”, addressed to Fratelli d’Italia. In the electoral debate organized by the ‘Corriere della Sera’, in which only the two leaders participated, Letta and Meloni faced each other with a white glove, especially by Italian standards. The inexpressive tone of the debate drew attention, irreconcilable with the argument of the threat of dictatorship that hung over Italy a few days before. Whether because of the PD campaign, or most likely because of the growing political disaffection on the left, the “call to arms” that has worked so many times to rescue the center-left simply did not materialize in 2022.
This brings us to the second flaw in the Democratic Party’s strategy: inattention to policy throughout the campaign. Reiterating a generic superiority in the “competition”, and fully supporting an ‘Agenda Draghi’ that the former president of the ECB himself branded as “non-existent”, Letta ended up cornering topics dear to the left. Every time the PD secretary advanced a proposal – for example, suggesting raising the inheritance tax to finance a €10,000 aid to 18-year-old citizens, or extending the years of compulsory schooling – he seemed able to muster some consensus among the left. However, as soon as rival party opposition to these measures arose, Letta simply brushed it aside, returning to less polarizing civil rights issues. This is clearly exemplified by the fact that, although the PD nominated the former head of the CGIL – the most representative union in Italy – for the Senate, the same union, historically close to the PD, decided not to support any party, possibly seduced by Salvini’s plan to offer an early retirement option (‘Quota 41‘). A proposal that was immediately opposed by the financial manager of the PD.
Thirdly, the success of Giuseppe Conte’s M5S – which obtained an astonishing 17% – casts several doubts on the haste with which Letta cut ties with the Movement, (co)responsible for the dissolution of the Draghi executive. A separation that contradicted the supposed urgency of fighting against an imminent fascist threat in Italy. Ironically, Letta made her decision just a few years after former PD secretary Nicola Zingaretti called Conte a “very strong point of reference for progressives,” and just days before the PD allied itself with Sinistra. Italian, which explicitly opposes the ‘Draghi Agenda’, the executive’s motion to send weapons to Ukraine, and even the entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO. This electoral pact, while necessary to counteract the strong right-wing and far-right coalition, further reduced Letta’s incentives to speak out on potentially divisive yet crucial issues. Consequently, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has had the field open to reinvent the M5S as a progressive force, as demonstrated by the independent think-tank Orizzonti Politicidefending the legacy of his two coalition executives.
Paradoxically, “the worst campaign in history” was one in which politics –ironically absent from the debate– were important in determining the electoral success of the parties. Conte’s campaign was exemplary in his ability to translate support for the policies approved by his executive(s) – and, in particular, for the low-income targeted benefit called “Reddito Di Cittadinanza” – in electoral support. The former prime minister headed to southern Italy, where most of the beneficiaries of this policy reside, becoming the real surprise of these elections, even though turnout was extremely low in the new bastions of the movement. The M5S was also the staunchest supporter of the referendum which, in 2020, reduced the number of deputies by 230. However, the substantial cut in the number of seats, combined with the much-questioned electoral system currently in force –again, promoted by Matteo Renzi’s PD in 2017 – had a very different impact between the two coalitions. While the right wing handled the matter rather gently, the PD’s troubles allocating a (dwindling) number of safe seats among its inner currents and coalition members became very public, offering an additional image of weakness.
As always, but possibly more than usual this time around, what to expect from likely Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni remains unclear. Meloni’s success lies, in fact, in her ability to juggle different, often conflicting, narratives: a craving for international credibility, not to mention the grassroots of her party. On the one hand, the announced “Atlanticism”, the clear condemnation of Putin’s actions, the tactful opposition to Mario Draghi. On the other, in what was possibly the lowest point of the campaign, Meloni shared the video of a rape committed by a refugee in Piacenza, while her right-hand man Ignazio La Russa went so far as to affirm that “we are all heirs of Mussolini ”. The most iconic example of Meloni’s campaign dualism was his Viral speech at the Vox rally in support of Macarena Olona, this June. Speaking in fluent and “prime ministerial” Spanish, he reiterated, in an openly aggressive tone – which Meloni herself later recognized as excessive – his “yes to the natural family, no to LGBT lobbyists”, among other statements.
What then to expect from a right-wing executive in which Meloni’s post-fascist presidentialism coexists with Salvini’s drive for regional autonomy, and Berlusconi’s desire to pander to the European People’s Party? Will this executive be able to survive the open skepticism of European leaders and international finance? In this sense, Meloni faces an extremely urgent task: to put an end to the ambiguity of his coalition towards the figure of Vladimir Putin.
Although the elections have resulted in a clear parliamentary majority, the possible aftermath is somewhat similar to that of 2013. Then, after two years of a technical executive led by Mario Monti, the M5S gathered 25% of the votes of all the ideological spectrum: they were voted to represent a new hope. A year earlier, Meloni had founded Fratelli d’Italia in disagreement with Berlusconi over his support for the Monti administration. Today, his support is ultimately based on the same faith that backed the M5S: that the sole force opposing the outgoing technical cabinet will do better. Only, this time, the voters were even willing to trust someone whose fascist past keeps re-emerging. Will it be the riskiest bet of the Italians to date? The next few months will tell us.