Can Italy Be Made Great Again?

In Rome Monday, 1,009 electors will converge on the Italian capital to elect a new president. These proceedings might – albeit indirectly – propel to power Italy’s conservatives. They raise the prospect of transforming Europe’s fourth-largest economy. The possibility was bolstered Saturday when the erstwhile prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, dropped out of the running.

In selecting a new head of the Italian state, the electors are tasked with replacing the octogenarian Sergio Mattarella, who has reached the end of his seven-year term. While the presidency is a largely symbolic position, Italy’s conservatives might find in the presidential choice an opportunity to break the nation’s political gridlock and ride a wave of populist discontent to a governing majority.

A conservative breakthrough depends on the elevation of the current prime minister, Mario Draghi, to be the new president. Mr. Draghi is widely seen as being the only leader currently able to hold together Italy’s fractious parliamentary coalition. The government “might wobble or even fall without him,” the Financial Times reckons. In that event, conservatives envision winning a legislative majority in new elections.

That might deter some legislators, who do not want to lose their seats in a snap election, from voting for the ex-chief of Europe’s central bank. Such self-serving calculus is hardly Italy’s innovation. Though the technocratic Mr. Draghi has been credited by some for his efforts to stabilize and reform the economy, there remains considerable room for improvement. Italy’s right-of-center parties are well poised to try.

One of the leading contenders for prime minister in the event of a conservative majority is the head of the League party, Matteo Salvini. A recent Wall Street Journal profile observes Mr. Salvini’s party has been called “nationalist, populist, conservative, far-right and even fascist.” Mr. Salvini – who is no fascist – discounts such labels, averring he “is far beyond ideologies.” Instead, he describes his party as “sovereigntists.”

“That is, the Italian identity, its culture, history, laws, religion,” Mr. Salvini says. “I can also accept ‘populist,’ which some people consider an insult, but I think it’s a compliment.” Mr. Salvini transformed his party from a regional force and “gave it national appeal,” the Journal reports, “by emphasizing strict opposition to illegal immigration and skepticism of the European Union.” Could this lead to Brexit, Italian-style?

Italy’s protracted economic stagnation can be traced to its decision to join the common European currency. Its stagnation was exacerbated by the 2008 financial debacle and the Covid pandemic, both of which pushed the overall debt-to-GDP ratio to 160 percent. During the pandemic, the EU saddled Italy with another 200 billion euros in debt in an effort to stave off Italian default.

The need for an Italian embrace of free-market principles has long been recognized by sages like Antonio Martino. A Chicago-trained economist, Mr. Martino served as minister in two of Mr. Berlusconi’s previous governments. In 2001 he expressed hopes for “changing policy in Italy,” noting that it was the first time Italy had a majority “committed to the free market, reducing the size of government and lowering taxation.”

Such aspirations are echoed in Mr. Salvini’s call for tightening immigration, economic renewal and patriotic revival. They also raise comparisons to President Trump. In 2020 Mr. Salvini told the Journal that he backed Mr. Trump: “I was one of the few Italian politicians who believed in his victory and rooted for him four years ago.” Though much depends on the machinations of Italian politics, Mr. Salvini might Make Italy Great Again.

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Image: Matteo Salvini (detail) by Kasa Fue, via Wikimedia Commons.

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