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  • Jonathan DaCosta

Crisis in Rome and Threats to European Liberal Democracy

On January 13 former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi withdrew the support of his Italia Viva party from the ruling coalition government under the stewardship of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. With this move, alongside the orchestrated resignation of three cabinet ministers, the Italian government was plunged into crisis and the outlook of Conte’s ability to hold onto power remains bleak. Mr. Renzi has cited his immense frustration at the executive administration's lackluster ability to carry out everything from an effective vaccination campaign to economic recovery. An additional reason for Mr. Renzi’s shake up of the Italian government is the nearly $222 billion Euros of European Union economic recovery funds that have yet to be allocated. Although these funds have been aimed towards healing the economic sting that the coronavirus pandemic has caused, it has been widely viewed that these euros will go towards modernizing the country and lifting Italy out of years of economic stagnation. Renzi’s withdrawal has undoubtedly thrown a wrench into the fragile stability of Italian government. However, there is a larger underlying crisis that Italia Viva’s departure from the coalition government reveals.

As of January 26, Conte has tendered his resignation in the hopes of avoiding new parliamentary elections and forming a new government devoid of Renzi’s support. The current president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, has stated that consultations are taking place with numerous political parties in order to see if a new coalition can be formed. If a new coalition cannot be formed then new parliamentary elections will be called allowing for far-right populist movements to potentially take center stage. On February 13, former president of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi was sworn in as Italy’s new Prime Minister officially replacing Conte.

For the better part of the last decade, the citadel of European Liberal democracy has struggled to fend off the ferocious resurgence of far-right populist groups and ideals. These groups have found sanctuary in the fringes of European society but have capitalized on growing frustrations towards the political establishment. As a result of these groups being politically savvy, they have been winning big in parliamentary elections. For many years these far-right radical groups, which included parties such as Fidez (Hungary) and PiS (Poland), were viewed as a non existent threat to the political mainstream. However, these parties have now catapulted themselves into national prominence and have a tight grip on their respective countries executive branches.

In Germany, a country that is now considered the bulwark of liberal democracy in Europe, has itself succumbed to a resurgence in far-right populism in recent years. The young Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing political party known for their anti-immigration stances, controls 88 seats in the German Bundestag making it the third largest party in the country. This surge in far-right populism has not only found itself in Central Europe. Far-right extremism has also been able to gain a steady foothold in political establishments all across the Eastern European region. For example, in Hungary, the Fidesz party under the stewardship of Viktor Orban has cemented its control of Hungarian politics with an astounding 116 majority in the national assembly. In Poland, the right-wing conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) has become the dominant force in the Polish Sejm (Parliament) while garnering condemnation from the European Union due to its controversial stances on everything from immigration to its restrictions on reproductive rights. Far-right populism is strengthening its grip around Europe and now, due to the withdrawal of Renzi’s party, Italy may be its next target.

With Italia Viva removed from the coalition government Conte had very few options in order to keep the Five Star Movement in power. If snap elections are called, Italy’s frustrated populace might take out their anger on the current administration and clear a path for far-right populism to enter the political mainstream in Italy. For the last 50 years the centre-left parties have dominated Italian politics, maintaining strongholds in key Italian cities all over the country. However, over the last few years, these very strongholds of the Italian left have been chiseled away at by far-right parties and their determination to upset the political status quo. At the center of Italy’s far-right movement is Matteo Salvini and his far right League, which has branded itself as a party dedicated to security and the revitalization of Italian pride. However, the far right League is widely seen as a party that fear mongers and fosters a vicious anti-immigrant sentiment amongst its target demographic. Although Matteo Salvini has stated several times that he wants to focus on investing more money to grow Italian businesses and strengthen education, these policies are widely viewed as a front for his real agenda of limiting immigration and denying vital aid to diverse communities deep in financial struggle.

The potential resurgence of Italian far-right populism will not be the first time where fringe groups have had the opportunity to take advantage of political instability. In the early years of the 20th century, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini would change the face of Italian politics. Fresh off the coattails of World War One, Mussolini had become a fervent radical determined on seizing control of the Italian government and placing a dictator at the helm. Using the immense dissatisfaction over the outcome of the Versailles Treaty combined with fiery rhetoric calling for violence against opposition parties, Mussolini consolidated numerous fascist groups in the country under one banner called Fasci Italiani di Combattimento.

Armed with a unified political organization, Mussolini was ready to make a bid for the head of government in 1919. However, he and the fascists were defeated in a socialist landslide victory. Although the socialists and other opposition parties won through the ballot box Mussolini was prepared to take the government by force. Preaching violence and advocating for the complete overthrow of the current establishment, the King of Italy Victor Emmanuel III dissolved parliament in 1921. The fascists seized control of the national assembly with the government in disarray and a new round of elections, t. However, Mussolini was not finished with his conquests. Determined to replicate the grandeur and historical might of the Roman conqueror Julius Caesar, Mussolini threatened to March on Rome if control of the government wasn’t handed to him. Seeing thousands of fascists armed to the teeth, King Victor Emmanual III gave into their demands dissolved parliament and in one fell swoop Mussolini became the Prime Minister of Italy and in 1925 had made himself dictator.

With the current instability plaguing the Italian government, the path forward for far-right populist groups to gain a foothold in the political mainstream seems clear. The same series of events that happened in Italy nearly a century ago seem to be repeating themselves. Political divisions have plagued the ruling Five Star Movement, placing a crisis of political instability on top of the already dire issue of a stagnant economy that was propagated by the Euro crisis nearly a decade ago. These factors have all provided an opportune climate for the Italian far-right to make its move on the political establishment. Before Mussolini and the Black Shirts marched on Rome, Italy was faced with a stagnant economy as a result of the first world war and an ineffective socialist government that could not function. What prompted Mussolini to capitalize on the moment was, like today, a perfect mixture of an ineffective government and the feeling of Italians getting left behind. With the departure of Renzi causing a shake up in the ruling coalition, Matteo Salvini and the far-right league now have the same opportunity to portray the current political establishment as out of touch and not serving the basic needs of all Italians.

Italian democracy died when Mussolini marched on Rome. Fascism would go on to rule the country for the next 20 years and the hallmarks of liberal democracy such as freedom of the press and fair elections would be suppressed. The very seat of Italian liberty is now in the hands of the current political establishment and their ability to put an end to the political infighting. The question now becomes whether far-right populism will have the opportunity to upend the Italian political landscape once more.


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