The Draghi Techno-Populist Cabinet
The recent Techno-Populist Cabinet formed by the former European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi on the 13 February 2021 saw a number of different political parties on the right and left joining forces in the Coalition Government. The one main political party that did not enter the Draghi Cabinet however was the insurgent radical right, the Fratelli d’Italia Party (Brothers of Italy Party).
In this article, we focus on the radical right, nationalist and conservative Fratelli d’Italia Party (FdI), a Party whose neo-fascist ideological features represent a matter of controversy among scholars. FdI is an important political party to study in Italian politics, particularly as the party declined Draghi’s offer to collaborate within the “governo del presidente” and instead sought to directly challenge the government from the opposition benches, as it represents de facto the only political force represented in the Italian Parliament to openly oppose Draghi’s executive and its management of two key phases related to the COVID-19 pandemic: (a) the public health emergency and (b) the socio-economic impact, in particular the EU-backed recovery plan (amounting to 209 billion euros).
Fratelli d’Italia on the Rise
In the last two months, all main political parties that have joined Draghi’s Cabinet have declined in the polls, according to recent polling. On the other hand, the radical right FdI Party has seen a significant rise in its overall electoral support in the polls. Could the FdI Party be destined for electoral success, primarily because it prefers to bide its time and stay in opposition, as an anti-political establishment challenger party?
According to the latest opinion polls, FdI is on the rise politically in Italian politics and appears to be benefiting from a ‘strategic’ electoral calculation to stay out of the Draghi Cabinet. The party is polling at 17% and has moved from 44,000 officially registered party members in 2019 to 130,000 members in 2020. This seismic shift has signalled by far the largest increase in newly registered members (“tesserati”) in Italian political parties for years.
Meloni’s Strategic Electoral Calculation
Giorgia Meloni, the charismatic leader of the radical right FdI party has arguably been rewarded for her firm positions on the COVID-19 Pandemic; in particular, the need to support the country’s economy. This strategy appears to be ‘paying off’ with a significant increase that has allowed her FdI Party to surpass the ideologically ambiguous populist Italian Five Star Movement Party (M5S) in the polls.
Most significantly, the radical right FdI has built up support and reinforced traditional electoral strongholds of the coalizione di centro-destra (center-right coalition). For instance, in Southern Italy, in the province of Naples, traditionally viewed as important electoral bastion of support for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party, the FdI Party moved from a mere “500” tesserati in 2019 to 2500 in 2020.
The Battle for Northern Italy: Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia vs. Salvini’s League
A similar pattern can be observed in Northern Italy. Historically speaking, this region has been the most important source of electoral support for Matteo Salvini’s radical right League Party (La Lega). The ‘newer’ radical right Fratelli d’Italia party has been particularly active and engaged in organizing local dissent, as in the case of public transport in Venice (the Veneto region). Moreover, it has also recently openly clashed with the League to decide the center-right coalition candidate for the position of the Mayor of Gallarate, in the Province of Varese (the Lombardy region), cementing its reputation as a ‘challenger’ party to the League’s somewhat tarnished political brand.
COVID-19 & Economic Contraction
The Veneto and Lombardy regions, currently governed by the League’s key politicians, such as Luca Zaia and Attilio Fontana, are considered Italy’s two economic and industrial powerhouses. However, these areas have been hit severely by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent waves of the virus that have followed. The FdI has sought not only to channel the frustration towards the local representatives of the radical right League, but also towards the government in Rome, as Salvini is currently part of the Draghi Cabinet Government.
FdI has been active also in regions traditionally supporting centre-left parties, such as in Tuscany, denouncing alleged mafia infiltrations in recent accidents involving the activities of two local factories. Local representatives of the FdI have seized on this opportunity and have called for clarity and a de-escalatation of tensions, in order for the factories to resume work as soon as possible.
FdI: A new Radical Right force in Italy (and beyond)?
It is important to briefly note the historical differences between both radical right parties in Italian politics. The FdI’s roots and key voter base is in Rome. In contrast, the more ‘established’ radical right League has its roots primarily in the Northern regions of Italy. Furthermore, the FdI is also strongly rooted in the populous region of Lazio in Central Italy (a region with almost six million inhabitants). It is clear then that the FdI Party has been expanding its voter base across Italy of late. The recent expansion and mobilization of the Fdi Party should be viewed by Salvini’s League Party as an increasingly worrying trend and can be seen as a wider grand strategy by Meloni’s FdI Party to supplant his party as the leading radical right force in Italian electoral politics.
The same grand strategy has arguably led the FdI Party to seek to build transnational networks of alliances with mainstream nationalist and conservative radical right parties within liberal democracies, both in Europe alongside the other side of the Atlantic. This stands in stark contrast with Salvini’s often ambiguous policy stances, in often supporting an (a) pro-EU executive at home, whilst (b) flirting with illiberal partners, such as Poland (PiS Governing Party) and Hungary (Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Governing Party).
Comparative Level: Radical Right Electoral Fortunes
There is a view in the comparative literature on right-wing populism that these parties are more likely to be electorally successful when they are in opposition, but that these parties will eventually fail in the long run, once they enter government. For example, the political scientist Reinhard Heinisch has argued that radical right parties often perform well in elections, but they will eventually fail once they enter governments, primarily because of the nature of structural weaknesses that tend to typify these types of parties.
These structural weaknesses include (a) lacking an ability to solve major conflicts, (b) lacking programmatic coherence, alongside (c) lacking experience in governing. Despite these structural weaknesses, this does not mean however that the radical right is destined to fail politically in the future. For instance, as observed with the socialist parties (in the 1930s) and the green parties (in the 1990s), radical right parties can be successful, both in opposition and, in certain cases, when they are in government coalitions.
Across Europe, we are currently witnessing the rise of new ideological conflicts that are reshaping party competition at the electoral level, amidst high levels of polarization and electoral volatility. Italian politics is no stranger to these widespread patterns of electoral volatility. Whilst considerable amounts of attention in Italy (post-2018 Italian General Election) have focused on both the ‘catch-all’ populist M5S and the radical right League Party under Salvini, the opposition radical right FdI Party is clearly on the march in 2021.
If the Draghi Cabinet is unable to resolve the COVID-19 Pandemic alongside the economic situation soon, this is likely to negatively impact the radical right League Party and provide further momentum for the ‘opposition’ radical right party FdI Party to continue their march in Italian politics and gain more votes from the governing parties. With the continued electoral ‘rise’ of the League’s radical right electoral competitor, the opposition FdI Party, Salvini’s failed election gamble in 2019 looks increasingly costly politically and is likely to haunt him for the foreseeable future.
Dr Valerio Alfonso Bruno is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Deputy Head of the Populism Research Unit and Fellow at the Centre for European Futures (CEF). He currently cooperates with the Alta Scuola di Economia e Relazioni Internazionali (ASERI) of Milan and the Observatoire de la Finance (Obsfin), based in Geneva. You can find his profile here.
Dr James F. Downes is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and Head of the Populism Research Unit. James is a Lecturer in Comparative Politics and serves on the Programme Management Committee of the MPUP in Public Policy, in the Department of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). James is Head (Chair) of the Undergraduate Admissions Panel at CUHK. He is also an Associate Research Fellow at CeRSP (Italy) and at The Global Europe Centre (Brussels School of International Studies/The University of Kent). You can find his profile here.
Alessio Scopelliti is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a member of the Populism Research Unit. Alessio is also a Doctoral candidate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. You can find his profile here.
© Valerio Alfonso Bruno, James F. Downes, & Alessio Scopelliti. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).