The polarisation of Italian political life

REUTERS/GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE - Italy's Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni

Seven months after the Meloni government was formed ("in carica" since 22 October), a clear polarisation of political life in Italy is evident. A life that, between 1996 and 2018, moved along the centre-right-centre-left axis, and from 2018, with the emergence of the Five Star Movement, entered, as political scientist Jorge Del Palacio rightly pointed out in several articles, into a "tripolar" competition where the three poles were the centre-right, the centre-left and the transversal party (ideologically speaking) represented by Five Star.

Once the "political" elections of last September made it clear that Five Star had already exited that competition (receiving half the votes it did in March 2018 and heading towards a clear decline that could be perceived both in the elections for the government of the regions of Lazio and Lombardy, as well as in the first round of this year's administrative elections), political life seemed to have returned to the traditional centre-right-centre-left axis. But the opposite has been the case. On the one hand, the centre-right has very little of the "centre" and much more of the "right" (between Meloni and Salvini, both right-wingers, last September they accounted for 35% of the vote, compared to 8. 1% of the true centre-right represented by Forza Italia); on the other hand, the party designed to bring together the entire centre-left (which is none other than the Democratic Party (PD), born on 14 October 2007), has clearly shifted to the left after the young parliamentarian Ely Schlein took over its leadership. Proof of this is that the so-called "reformist" element of the PD (i.e. the centre-left parliamentarians) is leaving for other parties (such as Marcucci, for years spokesman in the Senate) or leaving politics (Cottarelli, formerly chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)).

Transalpine political life is thus moving along a new axis, which is, quite simply, right-left. This leaves a wide space (centre-right, centre-left and centre) to occupy: now there really is a "terzo polo", where at the moment basically pro-European formations such as Azione, Italia Viva and Piu Europa are moving. Their problem is not in finding a growing electorate, but in the absence of a new leadership to give a concrete name to the political space that has been vacated. For it seems clear that, at least in the eyes of voters, the current leaders are no good. In the case of Azione, its leader, the Roman Calenda, has earned a well-deserved reputation as a "brassy" politician, which is precisely what so many voters who are fed up with this type of politician least need. Meanwhile, at the head of Italia Viva is Matteo Renzi who, knowing that he is unable to reverse the polls, has set his sights on the European Parliament elections in May 2024 and now prefers to focus his time on running the newspaper "Il Riformista". Finally, Piu Europa was left without its leader (Emma Bonino) after failing to win back her seat last September, and her collaborators are looking for a place to regroup.

In relation to this, what is noticeable is the absence of a real generational handover: between 2011 and 2013 three different politicians appeared (Salvini, 1973; Renzi, 1975; and Meloni, 1977) who have either managed to win the presidency of the Council of Ministers (Renzi in 2014 and Meloni in 2022), or have repeated as vice-presidents of the same Council of Ministers (Salvini in 2018 and in 2022).

But behind this has come a "failed" generation, as was the generation of those born in the 1960s. Schlein belongs to the latter (he was born in 1985), but it doesn't look like he will have major achievements in a party notorious for crushing leaders without serving five years at the head of the party (the ones who lasted the longest were Bersani between 2009 and 2013, and Renzi between 2013 and 2016 and 2017-18). In the case of Five Star, its leader between 2018 and 2020, Luigi Di Maio, did not even manage to revalidate his seat, although he has found a place in EU diplomacy (blushing, by the way, more than one, given his enormous gaps in knowledge that begin with the most elementary geography). Salvini is more questioned than ever in his party (the Lega), but his replacement has yet to appear. And Alessandro Di Battista, who had a future as leader of the "pentastellini", is paying the price of being left without a parliamentary seat for the second consecutive legislature: he has founded a new party, but he will have to wait a long time before he can be seen again in the upper or lower house.

This polarisation of Italian political life for the moment hardly has the perverse effects that it had between 2018 and 2019, when Salvini's Lega and Di Maio's Five Star Movement came together in a coalition government that did nothing more than to be at open and permanent war with the EU authorities. The renegotiation of the conditions of the Stability and Growth Pact, which will be reapplied in the General State Budgets (PGE) of each member state of the European Union in 2024, has given the possibility of avoiding a return to "austerity" in public spending, but it will be inevitable to reduce the spending of each state given the tremendous indebtedness of some (basically those of southern Europe). In relation to this, the Roman Meloni has become more "Europeanist" than ever, and has renounced radical measures such as, for example, the aggressive policy of ports completely closed to irregular immigration that her now Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini implemented between 2018 and 2019. In the meantime, Schlein knows that she must be careful with the "turn to the left" that she is leading, because if she veers too far to the left, she could be left out of the European socialist family, which is the second largest in the European Union's parliamentary arc.

Once these administrative elections are over (which give the impression of being basically a "draw" with a slight advantage in Meloni's favour), we will have to see what happens with this "terzo polo", because, at least for the moment, the permanent war between Renzi and Calenda (which leads to them doing nothing but taking parliamentarians away from each other) does not cease, and there is no figure of weight to give impetus to a political space that, in principle, would align itself with French President Macron (stronger than ever after managing to push through the reform of the pension system) in what is known as "Renew Europe". In any case, the European Union has learned from its mistakes and now parties such as Alternative for Germany, the National Front and the Danish People's Party have virtually stagnated. Even Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, which was behind the UK's unexpected exit from European integration, is at his lowest ebb because of the damage they have done to his country, which is as isolated as it was in the 1960s and is in a severe recession that has led to the fall of several premiers in the space of less than a year. 

In the meantime, Prime Minister Meloni has been trying to reopen the often-failed issue of the election of the President of the Council of Ministers, which she wants to be French-style: with a five-year mandate and elected by a two-round system (the same, by the way, as the "ballottagio" used for local elections in the eurozone's third-largest economy). So far, her proposal has been well received, but it is only at the beginning, and it remains to be seen whether this time it will be the definitive one. It would be easier for Roman politics to make a new electoral law and raise the "sbarramento" or vote threshold to enter parliament from the current 3% to 5%, which is, for example, what is happening in German national politics. In any event, the still young politician is surprisingly temperate and open to dialogue, and is doing everything possible to widen the "maggioranza" despite the fact that the opposition's numbers are derisory and it cannot stand up to it. 

We shall see, in any case, if over the coming months this broad centre-right-centre-left-centre space manages to materialise into a new political "artefact", following, for example, the model that former minister Carfagna called a "federation of parties". The reality is that both Meloni and, above all, Schlein, are making it easy for those behind this part of the political space, because one, while neither "neo-fascist" nor "post-fascist" (and even less "far-right", as some insist on calling it), is clearly "right-wing" and not "centre-right"; and the other (Schlein) is neither "new-style communist" nor socialist (let alone social democratic), but it does move in a clear left that now has more environmental concerns and less concern for the rights and freedoms already achieved in previous generations. The question is: does it not expect a real "terzo polo" in the coming months? The outcome, in less than a year.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Professor at Camilo José Cela University (UCJC) and author of Historia de la Italia republicana (Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2021).