The Unfunny Joke of Italian Democracy

It looks as if Mario Draghi will become Italy’s Prime Minister next week. The former European Central Banker is, you might say, the ultimate technocrat. Never elected to public office, he replaces a dysfunctional government and inherits an Italian economy so bad that words can barely describe it.

Draghi’s skills as an economist cannot be questioned. However, what ought to be questioned is why a man of the pro-European centre, a brand of politics decisively rejected at the ballot box in Italy three years ago, is now set to take the reins of power. Polls suggest that if an election were held tomorrow, the pro-European centre would be repudiated again. This poses a worrying question: does democracy in Italy mean anything at all, or is it all for the show?

Even liberal Italians should be concerned with Draghi’s appointment. It suggests that no matter how often the country rejects the pro-EU parties, the faction inevitably ends up governing the country. Faux-democracy has made politics in Italy vicious and angry, and the country now seems fertile ground for the sort of low-level violence which has gripped American politics in recent years. If the country is to pull back from the brink, its governments need to respond more effectively to its citizens.

Italy’s political system seems capable of only delivering ideologically vacuous, weak governments. Since the electoral system is that of proportional representation, governments are made up of coalitions of multiple parties. After the last election in 2018, the populist Five Star Movement emerged as the largest party. The ruling Blairite Democratic Party was decisively beaten, losing two-thirds of its seats, and the right-wing Lega, previously a fringe separatist movement based in the country’s North, became the second-largest party in Italy.

The election had signalled a rejection of the pro-EU centre-left in both the North and South of Italy and, albeit imperfectly, the new coalition government of the eurosceptic Five Star and Lega parties reflected that. But then, in 2019, Lega’s Matteo Salvini walked away from the coalition, leaving Five Star in the lurch. And which party stepped back into government? The Democratic Party, the pro-EU party that was so clearly shown the door in 2018. Suddenly, the new direction charted at the last election was put to an end, without any say-so from ordinary Italians.

A merry-go-round style of government makes it very difficult to change major government policy. In Britain, the Democratic Party would have been consigned to opposition for five years until the next election. But in Italy, no matter what happens at elections, defeated parties are never too far away from power. Draghi’s appointment is merely the latest demonstration of this.

Economically, the Italians are also caught in an unpleasant bind. The Euro constraints the Italian government’s ability to take the reins of the economy. Since the European debt crisis, the EU has threatened Italy with disciplinary actions for failing to conform to budget cuts, leaving the government with little room for manoeuvre on fiscal issues. Populists who win elections in Italy by pledging to spend their way out of stagnation quickly learn that they aren’t the ones who get to decide when to loosen the purse strings. When they propose to side-step this problem by leaving the EU, the adults in the room draw the curtains to point out the cliff edge which such an action would lead Italy towards; it is only the protections of the Customs Union which stops Italy’s economy from being exposed to the fury of global competition.

Italian democracy, then, suffers from two problems. On the one hand, it languishes under a political system which fails to deliver strong governments with coherent policy proposals. On the other, even if such a government were to emerge, the country’s relationship with the EU would likely prevent major policy changes from occurring. This erodes trust in democracy because people are continually led to believe that the government can solve problems which it cannot. It also leads to poorer governance; real wages have hardly grown in Italy since 1995, youth unemployment hovered resolutely at 30% even before the pandemic, and the country has struggled to find a sustainable solution to the migrant crisis, which has overwhelmed the South of the country.

It isn’t hard to see how populists thrive in such an environment. In weak, mushy governments, men like Draghi have been running Italy for the best part of 30 years, and whilst Draghi might be to the taste of liberal Italians and the European Commission, a cursory look at the polls will tell you that he isn’t the man that most Italians want as Prime Minister. Instead, they are placing their trust in Lega, and Brothers of Italy, a new party of the populist right. Even if these parties agree to support Draghi as Prime Minister in the short term (Lega and Five Star probably will, whereas Brothers of Italy may choose to stay in opposition), there is no way a government of national unity will hold for long, because its constituent parties do not believe in the same things. Such a situation helps nobody.

Democracy is a deeply imperfect system, and, as noted, the spendthrift, quick-fix solutions of Italian populists would be unlikely to reverse Italy’s gradual decline. However, if Italy is to be governed democratically, democracy must be more than a façade. Populist solutions, if popular, must be implemented properly. If they fail, so be it, but they must be allowed to fail. Otherwise, the feeling that Italy’s institutions are impervious to change will continue to grow, and Italians will never stop rooting around for new flavour-of-the-month populists like those who lead the polls currently. If people are to see what is wrong with populism, the populists must have their day. Then, and only then, might Italians start to vote for the likes of Mr Draghi to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, I wish Mr Draghi the very best of luck in his new position. He’s going to need all the good fortune he can get.


Tom Leeman

I am a Politics and Spanish graduate from the University of Bristol, going on to study a Master's degree in Political Economy at King's College London.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.