On September 25th, 2022, the country of Italy held a snap election after the previous unity coalition government fell apart. The election would decide the composition of Italy’s 68th government in the last 76 years. The result of that election was the formation of Italy’s first self-identified, far-right government since the end of World War II. The new governing coalition consists of three parties, listed in order of the percentage of votes they received: Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), Lega Nord (The Northern League), and Forza Italia.
Italy is known as a country defined by divisions: separatists and nationalists, monarchists and republicans, partisans and fascists, northerners and southerners, communists and capitalists, and leftists and conservatives. These divides are deep, and many have existed since before the country’s unification in 1861. With all these deeply embedded divisions, Italy has averaged roughly 1.12 governments a year.
Despite these ever-present divisions, the coming to power of a self-proclaimed, far-right government in the country, excluding the fascists, is an anomaly worth further investigation. In this week’s Overwatch, analysts will look at the political landscape, economic data, and popular opinion coming out of Italy to understand what factors caused this electoral anomaly and its implications for U.S. interests and the current conflict in Ukraine.
A Look Back at World War II
Before diving into the more recent politics of Italy, it is worth summarizing the political landscape in the country after WWII. After its defeat in WWII and subsequent occupation by allied forces, Italy, like post-Cold War Eastern European countries, was under the control of the Christian Democratic party (DC) until the early 1980s. The Christian Democratic Party was a political party comprised chiefly of ideologies that spanned from the center-left to the center-right. The party’s main opposition during this time was the Italian Communist party.
During the Cold War, Italy and the success of the control of the Christian Democratic party were deemed crucial to U.S. national security interests due to its centrality in the Mediterranean, its access to Western Europe, and the Communist leanings of the population after living under fascism. The country was so important that one of the first covert actions undertaken by the newly minted CIA aimed to influence Italian elections to assist the Christian Democratic party. Whether those actions tipped the scales is a subject of debate, regardless, the Christian Democrats remained in control of Italy, and the Italian Communist party was kept from power.
An additional layer to the stable political was the social-political environment marred by political violence. This violence included bombings, kidnappings, and political assassinations, undertaken by neo-fascist groups, left-wing terrorists, and organized crime.
By the beginning of the 1980s, the DC began to lose power and control of the Italian government switching hands several times. The reasons for the decline of the DC are subject to some debate. However, some, such as academic Giancarlo Cristiano, point to political fragmentation caused by the declining intensity of Cold War politics. Others point to corruption common to political parties that remain in control for decades. Additionally, high levels of political violence in Italy began to subside by this period.
The period of roughly 1994-2008 can best be described as an era of bipolarism. This means that at the end of the Cold War, Italy’s political landscape shifted to one in which multiple parties unified into center-right and center-left coalitions and competed with one another. While political control switched more frequently during previous periods, acceptable ideologies remained within certain foreign policy boundaries, including support of NATO, the E.U., and the United States.
The Modern-Day Rise in Populists
Fast forward to the modern-day landscape – Italian politics from roughly 2009 to the present. For many, this is seen as the rise of populism in Italy. There are several reasons behind the rise of populism; the three most common are economic crises, such as the Great Recession and the impending post-Covid Recession, the migrant crisis, and deteriorating trust in Western institutions such as the European Union. These issues all interact to form an environment friendly to populists on both the left and right.
Populist parties that have seen their power increase during this period include the left-wing Five Star Movement, the Brothers of Italy, and the Northern League. The rise of these parties poses a potential problem for U.S. foreign policy interests. The Five Star Movement, Brothers of Italy, Lega Nord, and Forza Italia are all pro-Russian to varying degrees, potentially threatening U.S. foreign policy interests.
Silvio Berlusconi, head of Forza Italia, describes Vladimir Putin as a friend, having vacationed with him in Sardinia in 2003, Siberia in 2015, and even visited Putin in Crimea shortly after its annexation by Russia in 2015.
Matteo Salvini and his party, the Northern League, are known to have connections to Putin and Russia. A 2015 post by Salvini shows him wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Putin and the caption, “Here in Strasbourg. President Mattarella (then President of Italy) has just intervened, [and] said that ‘closing and controlling European borders is not necessary.’ No, of course, let’s bring in millions more immigrants. I’ll give two Mattarella in exchange for Putin!”
Additionally, Salvini’s party has been accused of taking Russian money to help fund their political campaigns. In 2019, a phone call between a close aide of Salvini and an unidentified Russian individual discussing how to funnel Russian oil money into his political party was released. More recently, in January 2022, Salvini was exposed as having met with the Russian Ambassador to Italy at least four times; he claims he was attempting to create a peace deal to end the conflict and help all parties involved.
Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new prime minister and leader of the Brothers of Italy, has recently been supportive of Ukraine, publicly promising to continue sanctions and arms shipments to the country in its fight against Russia. However, this stance is a change from the past. A search of Meloni’s Twitter profile revealed tweets from 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2020 all calling for sanctions against Russia to be lifted due to their effect on the Italian economy. Given her past stances and the pro-Russian leanings of her coalition partners, her recent public support of Ukraine could change, especially given Italy’s economic and political realities outlined in the data below.
Political data from the most recent election demonstrates cause for concern for those looking to ensure that Italy remains tied to the E.U. and, by extension, the United States. A report by Open Online shows that the Brothers of Italy (dark blue) and the Northern League (Green) are particularly strong in the country’s north. The Brothers of Italy also made significant inroads in traditionally centrist regions such as Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, signifying a solid support base for right-wing populists in the country’s north. In the south, things do not appear much better as the Five Star Movement, despite gaining third place nationally, firmly beat out the centrist party in the south. This leads to the conclusion that the political parties with the most power in the north and south of Italy are sympathetic to Russia.
Italy has also seen a noticeable decrease in election participation since 1979. The number one reason for this dip in participation, according to a report by the Italian government, was alienation, defined as radical criticism, dissatisfaction, and distrust. However, this apathy, while present throughout the country, is not spread equally. The south of Italy suffers the most from apathy, according to data from 2018, while the northeast suffers the least. With the northeast being a stronghold for Italy’s right-wing populists, they will likely not be as affected by lack of participation as their competitors will be in future elections.
Economic factors driven by the conflict in Ukraine will also play into the calculus of whether Italy’s current governing coalition continues to back the United States and its allies in supporting Ukraine. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Italy is projected to be one of the only two European countries entering a recession in 2023. A look at data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development assesses that Italy’s GDP growth for 2023 will be only .4%.
Outside of high-level economics, there is also the reality of gas shortages. The shortage is estimated to be 5-6 billion cubic meters during the coming winter. As of September 2022, the Italian government began asking its citizens to lower their heat by one degree and turn it off for one hour daily. It is also likely that the current leading coalition’s supporters in Italy’s northern region will suffer more from these shortages in terms of winter heat when compared to the south.
Italian public opinion in the face of these projected economic challenges is still favorable to the continued defense of Ukraine. According to an April 2022 poll from the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), 86.6% of Italians supported reducing their family’s energy consumption. However, the poll also revealed that 37% of Italians believe the sanctions against Russia are hurting their economy. Furthermore, a second poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations in June 2022 saw responses from Italians nearly evenly split, between Russia on one side and Ukraine, The U.S., and the E.U. on the other, as to who was the biggest obstacle to ending the conflict.
As the war in Ukraine and its potential economic consequences continue to begin to take effect, Overwatch analysts assess that the new government and Prime Minister Meloni will be under immense pressure to break with the current NATO response and work with Russia in some capacity to either secure them favored peace terms to end the conflict or lift economic sanctions placed on them by the West.
The pressure will come from multiple places. First will be her desire to keep her and her party from being viewed as the cause of the projected recession and gas shortage, especially as the shortage is likely to affect regions that are considered strongholds for her party. The second will come from her junior coalition partners. They have shown past support for Russia and may attempt to utilize the economic fallout to reclaim supporters from the Brothers of Italy. Either could pressure Prime Minister Meloni to reverse her support of Ukraine or the dissolution of the current coalition if the war in Ukraine continues through the winter.
Secondly, while it was not the focus of this brief, analysts assess that Russian influence operations will likely ramp up as winter approaches. These operations could play off existing divisions in Italian society and politics regarding conflict, blaming the E.U., the U.S., and Ukraine for continuing the conflict instead of suing for peace. The goal of these operations will be to influence the Italian population and, in turn, the governing coalition. The best course of action is to end the conflict in Ukraine as quickly as possible, likely by cutting arms supplies to Ukraine and supporting a peace settlement that favors Russia.