Italy Battles Continued Challenges to Political Stability

Italy Battles Continued Challenges to Political Stability


Italian politics has undergone radical change in the last year. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, new Prime Minister Mario Draghi faces the challenge of leading a stable Government that can secure Italy’s roadmap to freedom from the virus and overcome the related economic hardship. At the same time, two of the major parties in Italian politics, the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, have experienced ideological fragmentation and are seeking new political identities. 

What Happened in Late January 2021?

In recent months, Italy has faced numerous political challenges. Due to the obstacles presented by the pandemic, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his government largely avoided criticism of their broader policy agenda.  However, where there has been criticism, it has centred around two key issues: economic recovery after the pandemic and the vaccine rollout.

The country’s economic outlook is bleak, in part because Italian businesses received such little financial support from Giuseppe’s Government during the pandemic. The financial uncertainty facing business has been compounded by the slow-roll of the vaccine due to problems booking and distributing the vaccine across the different regions of Italy. Employment levels are suffering as a result; unemployment reached 10% at the end of 2020 and is expected to exceed 11% by the end of 2021. Furthermore, Italian GDP fell by almost  9% during 2020.

The government’s ‘stay at home’ strategy became increasingly hard to implement after it became clear to the public that the vaccine rollout had stalled and there seemed to be no end to the lockdown in sight. This discontent manifested as anti-lockdown protests, which took place across major Italian cities including Milan, Florence and Turin . The period of unrest peaked when Matteo Renzi, leader of the Italian Viva party, pulled his representatives out of the coalition, causing the Government to fall. The Italian public perceived the move as inviting political disarray during a period when national unity was key. This prompted an appetite for new leadership.

The President, Sergio Mattarella, called Mario Draghi, ex former President of the European Central Bank, to form a Government. Draghi was his first choice, not only due to his extensive experience working for international organisations, but also because as an independent candidate, he felt Draghi would prioritise national rather than party-oriented interests to effectively deal with the pandemic.

Draghi has stated that the purpose of the newly-formed government is to lead Italy out of the Covid crisis using the Recovery Fund, a financial recovery plan  which will be drawn up with the help of the globally renowned consultancy firm, McKinsey and Company.

Zingaretti and Letta

The old and the new Democratic Party Secretaries, Nicola Zingaretti and Enrico Letta.

The Democratic Party and The Five Star Movement Revolution

Alongside these changes in Government, there have been broader changes to the political arena. Two of the major Italian parties have undergone periods of significant internal change. Nicola Zingaretti recently resigned as Secretary of the Democratic Party on the grounds that the Party needed to forge a new identity. The Democratic Party, who gained support in 2007 as the main left-wing party, with pro-European, progressive politics, have since spent significant time in Government with politicians from other parties with wildly differing views. Notably, they have recently been in Government with the Northern League Party. To the electorate, the party’s identity is increasingly obscured by these coalitions.

Recently, Zingaretti debated newly elected leader of the Democrats, Letta, on the topics of Italy’s role in the EU as well as failures of the vaccination campaign. The Democrat politicians also discussed reform of Jus Soli, which attracted criticism from right wing politicians, who argued that raising the issue detracted from the more imminent issues presented by the pandemic. The Jus Soli principle which is largely thought by Democrats to be a cause of socio-economic inequality in Italy, is often depicted by the right as a threat to population control.

However, the right wing have been suffering ideological problems of their own. The Five Star Movement, who in 2013 entered the political stage as an anti-establishment, pro working-man party, have found themselves under ideological scrutiny. They are currently part of the Government of National Unity, and are therefore increasingly viewed by the Italian public not as opposing the establishment Party, but as a key establishment actor. Thus, the imperative for party politics to take a back seat during times of national crisis has ultimately compromised the party’s populist message, with MPs now leaving the party en masse. The Five Star Movement has also been damaged by scandal. Giuseppe Grillo, founder of the party, recently entered parliament wearing an astronaut helmet to protest the obligation to wear facemasks which was widely deemed inappropriate. Giuseppe Conte, former Prime Minister, has announced his ambition to re-enter politics and replace Vito Crimi as Secretary of the Five Star Movement. Conte, who is set to announce a slew of new policies and initiatives for the party, is perhaps the Five Star Movement’s last chance to repair its image.

What to Expect in the Near Future?

The political situation remains precarious, which in part is due to  the Government’s response to the pandemic. The vaccination rollout  remains slow and hospital capacity remains at breaking point. There are a number of reasons for the slow roll-out of the vaccine. Firstly, the roll-out is devolved to each region. Smaller regions, with fewer people, have seen quicker progress. However, some regions, like Sicily,  have received an insufficient number of doses and have had problems sourcing nurses to administer the vaccination. Regions in Southern Italy have infrastructural problems that have slowed the vaccination roll-out.  The momentary suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in response to possibly related cases of thrombosis, has destabilised the Italian vaccination programme further. The Government has only recently responded by replacing the former Commissioner for the Pandemic Domenico Arcuri with  Francesco Paolo Figliuolo.

For Letta’s Democratic Party, the next few months is an opportunity to regain consensus among its members. The Five Star Movement, on the other hand, will be focused on selecting a Secretary to work alongside with Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Italian Foreign Affairs, who together will campaign to remobilise the support garnered during the last election.

Italian political instability is likely to persist for some time, as the Government continues to struggle with internal ideological and policy-based conflict. The Government’s primary aim should be, and is, the rapid roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine, as this will lay the foundations for economic recovery and ultimately improved political stability. However, whether the new Prime Minister will be able to foster the cohesion required for the smooth roll-out of the vaccination programme remains to be seen.

Italian Prime Minister

Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi

What Are the Main Risks?

Since the Government comprises ideologically disparate parties that ordinarily would have few shared goals and interests, the Government is fragile and likely to fall again. It is therefore likely that once the pandemic era is over, new elections will be held and a new government, with a larger majority will be formed, which will promote greater stability. In the meantime, it is crucial that party politics does not affect the vaccination campaign further, particularly now that Italy has suspended the AstraZeneca Jab. It is also crucial that the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement are quick to foster internal consensus, so that they can focus on their efforts on a roadmap out of perpetual lockdowns. For future elections, this will be essential, as the Italian electorate will be likely to favour parties who cooperated during the country’s moment of crisis.


Categories: Europe, Politics

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