The heritage of Draghi: abstention triumphs, the right wins

Daniela Chironi

These national elections have been characterised by the lowest electoral turnout in the history of the Italian Republic. Abstention is higher among low-income social classes, suggesting a worrying return of voting based on the census. The electoral system penalises the lists running out of the main coalitions, such as the new-born Popular Union, pushing leftist voters to express a “responsible” vote for the major parties. Overall, the victory of the right-wing coalition with 44 percent is not striking: it is true that the right-wing pole has grown compared to 37 percent of 2018 elections, but it is not able to reach its pre-2008 crisis percentages (up to 50 percent in 2001). The new fact about these elections is the rise of the radical right party Brothers of Italy from 4 percent of 2018 to 26 percent, which comes at the expenses of its right-wing allies, the League and Forza Italia, showing a change in equilibrium within the Italian right, but not a general radicalisation of Italian people.


A radical right Italy


Italy is today aligned more to the right than it has ever been since the so-called “Second Republic” started in the 1990s. With 26 percent of votes, the radical right-wing force of Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia/FdI) imposed itself as the first party, leading a centre-right coalition which collected 44 percent and, due to a distorting effect of the electoral system, will have an overwhelming majority of around 60 percent of seats in Parliament. Giorgia Meloni, the president of FdI, will be in charge of forming the new government. Her coalition partners are the League of Matteo Salvini (8.8 percent), Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi (8.1 percent), and the small list We, the moderate (0.9 percent). 

The Democratic Party (Partito Democratico/PD) is the second party with 19 percent of the votes, leading a centre-left coalition which only reached 26 percent. PD’s coalition partners have been the Red-Green Alliance (3.6 percent), + Europa (2.8 percent), and Civic Commitment (0.6 percent), a personalist formation born out of the split from the Five Star Movement of Luigi Di Maio, the incumbent Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle/M5S), the hybrid party founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 and now guided by the former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (2018-2021), obtained 15.4 percent and, as in 2013 and 2018 national elections, it was confirmed to be the first party in the South of the country.

The centrist pole, formed by a last-minute alliance between the personalist parties headed by two ex-PD prominent figures – Action (Azione) of Carlo Calenda and Italy Alive (Italia Viva) of Matteo Renzi – and inspired by neoliberal principles, reached 7.8 percent.

With 1.4 percent, the left of the Popular Union (Unione Popolare/UP), led by the ex-Mayor of Naples Luigi De Magistris (2011-2021), did not pass the 3 percent threshold required to obtain seats. In this case, electoral polls have acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy: constantly ignored by the polls or, when mentioned, described as a marginal party with no chance to enter the Parliament, UP was abandoned by potential leftist voters who did want their vote to “count” and preferred other options, mostly the M5S and partially the Red-Green Alliance running within the centre-left coalition. 

In Italy, there is one last political force, which worryingly is growing as it is a major sign of deep political discontent and disaffection towards the system: abstention. In the 2018 national elections, voters’ turnout was an already astonishing 73 percent, and in Sunday’s elections Italians who decided to cast their vote have fallen to 64 percent, the worst record of the Republic’s history. According to recent analyses, a large part of voters who abstain belong to lower social classes, as they feel unrepresented and consider electoral participation useless. 

How did we get to these results? 


The elections took place in a climate of unprecedented mistrust towards politics. The economic crisis started in 2008 has turned into a long phase of recession and stagnation, accompanied by a constant rise in inequality which is still ongoing. More recently, the country has suffered the effects of the pandemic, the energy crisis linked to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and a drastic surge in inflation. As a highly tourism-driven country, Italy has also experienced the increase in housing costs, which makes life in big cities difficult for the lower to medium classes and students. 

Since the pandemic started, progressive movements have activated networks of solidarity and denounced the social consequences of a multilevel crisis, demanding larger investments in public health and education, and greater protections for vulnerable workers. Feminists have contested the gender divide in salaries and income.

However, the movements which have gained the greatest media and political attention have been those contesting vaccines and, more in general, the health measures to contain the spreading of the virus (the lockdown, the masks, the curfew, and so on). These movements were often populated by small owners of shops, restaurants and taxis, with a strong right-wing component. Currently, the protest against the rising costs of living due to inflation and energy bills are confined to restaurants and bars’ owners, therefore coming from the middle class, in the absence of a mass mobilisation promoted by large trade unions. 


Political Context and Parties 


Who has governed in Italy over the last legislature, from 2018 to 2022? The 2018 elections had not produced a clear majority. The system appeared tripolar: the M5S was the first party with 33 percent, followed by the Democratic Party with 19 percent, and the League with 17 percent. All in all, the centre-right coalition could count on 37 percent, and the centre-left on 22 percent of votes. In this situation, the M5S and the Lega formed a (short-lived) government headed by Giuseppe Conte, a university professor of Private Law chosen by the M5S. Matteo Salvini, Secretary General of the League since 2013, became Vice-President. This unexpected governing alliance disappointed the more progressive part of the M5S constituency, which had hoped for a renewal of politics and a turn towards environmentalist and redistributive policies. Salvini was certainly not the proper partner to realise this political change, as he was the leader of a renewed populist right whose agenda was based on an anti-immigration, anti-EU, and “law and order” rhetoric. Under his leadership, the once Northern League had abandoned regionalism to embrace nativist nationalism, in which the EU had taken the place of Rome as the common people’s enemy and the migrants had substituted Southern Italians in the role of the “Other”. Salvini’s Decrees on immigration have narrowed asylum rights and restricted rescue at sea by punishing survivors and rescuers such as the German activist Carola Rackete. For its part, the M5S imposed the introduction of a “minimum income” (improperly called “citizenship income”, but in reality not universal) in the form of a means-tested cash benefit disbursed to unemployed poor persons. The M5S-League government ended in August 2019, when the League withdrew from the parliamentary majority with the aim to capitalise his leader’s popularity in an early election. During the last parliamentary section, Conte heavily attacked Salvini saying that “the Minister of Interior proved to follow his own personal interests and those of his party; his acts revealed a serious lack of institutional sense and of constitutional culture”. 

Contrary to Salvini’s expectations, an alliance between the M5S, the PD, and other minor leftist parties gave birth to a new coalitional government, again headed by Giuseppe Conte which was soon faced with the responsibility to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. Conte was able to establish a sentimental connection with the people through his evening messages to the nation broadcast live on television. At the policy level, after the successful launch of the minimum income, Conte succeeded in negotiating with the EU the Italian share of the Next Generation EU funds. Within the governing majority, tensions emerged between the Prime Minister and the party Italia Viva (Italy Alive) of Matteo Renzi precisely on the management of the EU funds. In January 2021, Italia Viva withdraw from the executive, formally opening the government crisis, and in February the economist Mario Draghi, former President of the European Central Bank from 2011 to 2019, is appointed by the Italian President of the Republic to form the new government. 

Mario Draghi gave birth to a government composed of both technocrats and politicians which could count on a parliamentary supermajority, the largest in Italian history, including the League, and on the support of all mainstream media and the big industry. It is at this point that a reshuffle has begun within the Italian right, with the League gradually losing consensus towards the Brothers of Italy of Giorgia Meloni, the only party which had stably remained at the opposition since 2013. While Draghi’s government was presented as “the government of the best people”, the Prime Minister refused all the rules of contemporary political communication (he doesn’t even use social media), transmitting the image of a cold and detached technocratic leader. Notwithstanding the efforts of the bourgeois media, the new executive was never popular among the lower middle classes and the working class which perceived it as the expression of European and national elites. During the summer 2022, the contrasts between the M5S and the government became increasingly visible. In particular, the M5S aimed at maintaining some of the social and environmentalist measures of its programme, such as the minimum income, which was constantly under attack, the introduction of a minimum wage, and the opposition to the construction of a new waste incinerator in Rome. While Draghi showed no intention to include any of these points in his governing action, the polls depicted the M5S’ constant loss of support and the parallel rise of the right-wing forces, which in fact contributed to the fall of the government. Early elections were called in July, six months before the end of the legislature, and the left was unprepared: the founding process of Popular Union, through the merger between the Communist Refoundation Party, Power to the People (Potere al Popolo) and De Magistris’ group DEMA, had just started. The new formation would have had much more chance of success had the elections been in Spring, as planned. 


Missed occasions 


The Democratic Party is an Italian anomaly. Born in 2008 out of the merger between the Democrats of the Left, heirs of the old Communist Party, and the Daisy, heir of the Christian democratic tradition, the PD has always been an ambiguous party. Preferring to self-define as “progressive” rather than social democratic, it finally joined the European Socialist Party only in 2014. When in government, also at the local level, it has pursued a neoliberal agenda, heavily reducing labour protections and justifying cuts to public expenditures, privatisations and liberalisations with the need for keeping the State’s finances in order. The PD has typically campaigned mostly “against” the right than “pro” its own proposals. This scheme, first used against Berlusconi and then against Salvini, was repeated in these elections against Meloni, stressing the dangers entailed in the political affirmation of the radical right. Curiously, the PD has formed parliamentary and even governing majorities with the very same right that it had declared a priority to stop by appealing to the sense of responsibility of leftist voters, convincing them not to consider other leftist formations. The policy choices of the party are reflected in its social base: over time, the PD has progressively become an urban party, rooted more in the city centres than in the popular suburbs, and increasingly voted for by high and medium income strata. 

After the fall of the Draghi government, the PD had two options: renewal, rebuilding the previous governing alliance with the M5S, or continuity, proudly claiming the experience of the Draghi government. The PD chose for the second path, also flirting with the centrist pole of Renzi and Calenda. 

The M5S, which seemed destined to disappear trapped in the grip of the bipolar system, faced the elections presenting itself as the interpreter of malaise of the population, defending the minimum income, under attack of the right and the centrist parties, and advancing the proposal of the minimum wage. Following this strategy, and counting on the credibility gained by Conte, the M5S managed to rise again from the low prospects (8-9 percent) registered by summer polls to more than 15 percent of actual votes: the party proved able to rebuild a new ground, making one forget that it had governed with the right and then with the PD throughout the entire legislature. However, this result is well below the 33 percent of 2018 national elections, showing that the M5S did not manage to fully remobilise its previous constituency which, compared to that of the other parties, is rooted in lower income groups, vulnerable workers, and the unemployed. 

The left runs divided. The party Italian Left (Sinistra Italiana/SI) allied with the Greens and run as the Red-Green Alliance internal to the centre-left coalition, thus supporting the PD. As said, Popular Union runs alone but had no time to make itself known.

The centre-right coalition, instead, experienced an internal reshuffle. Having been part of the supermajority which supported the Draghi government, the League has lost a lot of its antisystem appeal (of façade), leaving political space for Brothers of Italy (FdI) to expand. Meloni’s party was born in 2012 as an evolution of previous radical right fractions internal to the right-wing coalition and has never entirely cut the cultural links with that political tradition: the party symbol maintains the fascist tricolored flame, and Giorgia Meloni herself had been the president of the student and youth organisations of the far right. After the foundation, FdI had survived as a fringe party located at the margins of the right-wing coalition, with only 4 percent in 2018. In parallel to the growth in the polls, Meloni has tried to accredit herself as a credible potential Prime Minister, moderating the anti-European discourse and acknowledging the leadership of the US and NATO in Italy’s foreign policy, after having cultivated a political relationship with Putin for years. She has an interclass constituency, but with her the lower and working classes will have a bad time: Meloni’s economic agenda is overall neoliberal and similar to that of Forza Italia; she supports the idea of reducing fiscal progressivity, and has announced that she will eliminate minimum income. Her party maintains the xenophobic tones typical of Salvini’s League, stands against the extension of civil rights (and possibly will attack soon the few which had already been conquered), expresses a traditional vision of gender roles and very conservative stances in the cultural, educational, ethical and bioethical fields. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, while resized, with its 8 percent proved to be a component which reassures the high industrial bourgeoisie. In fact, if the centre-right government will not last until the end of the legislature, one of the possible scenarios is a government formed by the Democratic Party, Forza Italia, Action-Italy Alive and other MPs elected with the centre-right, which would keep the country anchored to the usual centrist and neoliberal logic.


A flat election campaign 


No issue has been really divisive or polarising, besides the clash over the social assistance and the controversy over the fascist roots of FdI. While Meloni announced that she will eliminate the social assistance, as demanded by the League, Silvio Berlusconi reassured the voters that he would keep and even reinforce it, showing a division in the centre-right.

Within the centre-left coalition, the Red-Green Alliance has presented a programme, which largely differs from that of the PD, sustaining that they would never govern together. At the same time, somehow contradicting himself, the leader of Italian Left Fratoianni declared that the centrist pole of Renzi and Calenda is not an expression of the right and could be a future governing ally. In this confusing climate, the core of the centre-left message was the division between themselves, presented as the supposed guarantor of liberal democracy, and Meloni’s right, presented as a democratic danger, ready to change the Constitution for moving towards a presidential system (which has actually been among the dreams of several centre-left politicians, intellectuals and journalists too). The whole centre-left campaign reverted around the “responsible vote” to block the advancing of the radical right, without ever clarifying what social, economic and environmentalist policies would have qualified a future centre-left government, while still evoking the unpopular and ineffective Draghi government as the guiding example.  

Not even the war in Ukraine was a real field of battle, as both the centre-right and centre-left coalitions were openly in favour of providing arms to the Ukrainian army and supporting the strategy of the US and the NATO, with only the League expressing some discontent. The environmental question, which was brought to the forefront by the activists of the Fridays for Future movement and nowadays is the main preoccupation of young people in Italy, was largely ignored by the major parties. Similarly, the energy crisis remained on the background, as mainstream parties were unable to come up with a credible, short-term, and environmentally compatible solutions; Action-Italy Alive insisted on the necessity of developing nuclear plants as in France. 

Popular Union (UP) coupled social justice and environmental justice, but the visibility it obtained on media mainstream is not comparable with that of the major parties and the centrist pole. Notwithstanding his great communication skills, Luigi De Magistris, chosen as UP’s spokesperson, did not even remotely enjoy the same presence in the media as Renzi and Calenda.

In this context, the M5S, which can count on its own web channels, a ramified party organisation and a visible leader, has become a possible electoral option for a part of leftist voters, who saw the vote for the M5S as the only one able to overcome the electoral threshold at the same time offering an alternative to both the PD and the centre-right. After the split of Giuseppe Di Maio, the M5S has in fact focused on social issues, initially inducing some leaders of Unione Popolare to consider the possibility of making an electoral agreement with it. Even a part of the centre-left voters would have wanted an alliance with the M5S, to continue the progressive experience of the Conte II government. 


What are the prospects of the Italian left?


The Italian left is weak and divided since 2008, when for the first time it remained excluded from the Parliament. Since then, a part of the left has decided to locate within the centre-left coalition, establishing an alliance with the Democratic Party, notwithstanding the fact that this party has been promoter of neoliberal policies. Another part of the left, such as Unione Popolare, has instead long tried to build an alternative to both the PD and the right. Recently, the turn of the M5S towards more progressive policies and narratives (which needs however to be verified in the future) has caused new scenarios to be opened. First, the Green-Left Alliance aims at a progressive camp, which includes the PD and the M5S, hoping for an almost improbable contamination from within, as past experiences show. Second, a part of the alternative left considers the opportunity of allying with the M5S to construct a new third pole, without any connection with the centre-left forces. Others deem it impossible for the M5S to abandon its genetic political ambiguity, which in the past has led the party to ally with League even voting racist laws as the Salvini’s Decrees on immigration.

In general, the prospects of the Italian left are linked to an underlying question: how to become a point of reference for building the political alternative of which a large part of society feels the need? How to become visible, how to gain the support of large masses in a context which is almost blocked by the electoral system, little access to the media, and expensive electoral campaigns increasingly dependent on external funds?

Certainly, projects need time to set their roots and become recognisable, a time that UP did not have due to the rapidity of the electoral campaign, conducted in the summer, with little money and immediately after its birth. Part of its development will depend also on the ability to further cultivate and strengthen the connection with the European left, which has expressed its support through the public statements of Iglesias, Mélenchon, and Corbyn, thus opening a new internationalist horizon for the Italian left. Another part will depend on the size and character of the social mobilisations that will likely emerge in the next months in response to the right-wing government: looking at recent European successful experiences, the rise of powerful social movements, able to modify the political and social contexts in their countries, has always preceded the affirmation of new, solid leftist parties.

About the author

Daniela Chironi is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the Scuola Normale Superiore, and member of the ‘Centre on Social Movement Studies’ (COSMOS), in Florence (Italy).