Between the death of Queen Elizabeth and the events unfolding now in the eastern portions of Ukraine, one might be forgiven for thinking that those two events were the only things that mattered on the continent of Europe.
No, of course not. But significant events have been surpassed by the wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the death and succession of the British monarch and by the significance of the fighting in Ukraine.
For starters, right now, Swedish politicians are trying to come to grips with the fallout from the results of the 11 September general election, one that saw the far-right anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats gain a sizeable foothold in the nation’s parliament.
When the votes were added up, the right-wing parties won a combined 176 seats in the Riksdag, with the left winning three seats less. Because of the fractured nature of the parliament, the third-placed Moderates have been asked to put together a coalition agreement, one in which the right might have an actual formal place at the Cabinet table, or may simply opt to back the new administration in a supply and support arrangement.
Moderates leader Ulf Kristersson says “that everything is going well,” adding that he wants to create a government that “unites, not divides.”
But come Sunday evening, for the first time since the Second World War, Italy will be led by a right-wing government — the most significant political development in the nation of some 59 million in at least eight decades. Not since Benito Mussolini led pre-war Italy have the right wing been so powerful — if the opinion polls are to be believed.
Course for a clear victory
A coalition made up of the nationalist Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni the League party and Forza Italia is on course for a clear victory.
Ever since the unity government of Mario Draghi — the former head of the European Central Bank and one of the key driving forces that paved the way for the roll-out of Europe’s common currency, the euro — in July, polls have consistently shown that a rightist coalition led by the nationalist Brothers of Italy party and also involving the League party and Forza Italia is on course for a clear victory come 25 Sept.
Italian voters have long courted the parties on the right over the past decade. Chronic youth unemployment, underemployment and dissatisfaction with the role of weak central governments in Rome have fuelled the right’s support.
Those factors, added into the fact that Italy’s geographic position leaves it at the leading edge for an influx of refugees fleeing political, social, climate and economic unrest across North and sub-Saharan Africa, have swelled support for Meloni’s party.
The Brothers of Italy has seen a surge in its support after it remained outside of Draghi’s government. Conversely the League, led by Matteo Salvini — the highly controversial former Interior minister who still faces changes over turning back boats filled with refugees picked up from the waters of the Mediterranean — and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia were both part of the government and their support has slipped.
Yes, Berlusconi — at 86 — is still a central and controversial figure in Italian politics.
Old age, scandals, ill health — it seems as if nothing can stop the former Italian prime minister and media magnate from exiting. His Forza Italia looks to have between 8 and 10 per cent support now — enough to get a place at the Cabinet table, but nowhere near enough support to return him once more to the key leadership role in Rome.
Significant constitutional changes
Forza’s support compares with about 12 per cent for Salvini’s League and 24 per cent for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Combined, they are one course to defeat the centrist and leftist blocs. Because of the make-up of Italy’s government structure, the coalition would need to win support in both the Chamber of Deputies and the upper Senate. It seems as if it can win enough support to do so — but nowhere near the two-thirds supermajority in both houses that would allow for significant constitutional changes.
Berlusconi, who first ruled Italy in 1994, was widely written off after his last government was sunk 11 years ago by a debt crisis and scandal over his “bunga bunga” parties at his villa outside Milan. Draghi’s role at the ECB was pivotal in saving Berlusconi’s government from default.
Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud in 2013, had major heart surgery in 2016, became badly ill with Covid in 2020 and has been in and out of hospital over the last year with various ailments. He often slurs his words and is prone to confusion, yet retirement seems the last thing on the billionaire media magnate’s mind. He just keeps going.
Italy’s electoral system favours groups able to form broad alliances, likely amplifying the right-wing bloc’s victory.
When Italians head to the ballot box, key to their decision making will be the value of the euro in their pocket and how far — or not — it stretches.
As in other European countries, the cost-of-living crisis has overshadowed other concerns such as immigration, crime and public services.
The conservative alliance has called for tax cuts across the board to help Italians cope with rising prices, while the PD wants tax reductions to be more targeted towards lower income groups.
Far-right demagogue or free-thinking radical?
Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Western policy against Russia in Ukraine, while Salvini — ever the contrarian — has called for the European Union to shield Italians from the economic side effects of sanctions imposed on Russia over the invasion.
Yes, it does indeed seem strange for the right in Italy to be talking up the role of the EU. Normally, more control or input from Brussels is the last thing that those on the right seek or court. But Italy, hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Europe, is fully aware of the financial support and its critical role in keeping shops, business and factories working.
Back in the day, when Berlusconi’s policies brought Italy to the brink of bankruptcy, he wanted a dual-currency system that brought the Lira back alongside the euro.
But the right too is conscious in Italy that the EU is up to its teeth right now with Hungary, and is preparing financial sanctions against the administration of Prime Minister Viktor Orban for moving too far from the liberal keystones that are fundamental to membership of the Brussels-based club.
Yes, Italy will have a right-wing government come Sunday evening — but it will be a practical one with realistic views in dealing with Brussels.