Italy has been one of the countries worst affected by COVID-19. More than 90,000 Italians have already lost their lives to the disease and the pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on the nation.
The images of silent “ghost” towns and overwhelmed hospitals will continue to haunt Italians for years to come. The strict stay-at-home orders that were left in place for months to stem the spread of the virus and the socioeconomic devastation they caused will not be forgotten any time soon either.
As the nation reeled from the most severe public health emergency it had faced in over a century, many expected Italian political parties to leave their differences behind and work together for the common good until the crisis is over. This, unfortunately, did not happen. Today, as the country continues its fight against the coronavirus, it is also experiencing a political crisis because its leading politicians chose to put their own egos, political interests, and frustrations above the needs of the Italian people.
Late in January, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned after the small, but important, coalition partner Italia Viva – led by Matteo Renzi – withdrew its support from the government and caused it to lose its majority in Parliament. Renzi, a former prime minister, was disturbed by Conte’s growing visibility and popularity. He felt that his tiny party could not make an impact and gain public support while acting as a minor partner in a wide-based alliance, so he moved to recklessly pulverise the centre-left coalition led by Conte.
After weeks of uncertainty and turmoil, President Sergio Mattarella stepped in to limit the damage by naming a new prime minister: former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. Draghi, who has been credited with saving the euro during the continent’s debt crisis in 2012, is now seen as some sort of a saviour and expected to form a government of specialists to confront Italy’s challenges.
The prime minister-designate needs the backing of the majority of parties in Parliament to form an effective government and implement his plans. After initially refusing to support a technocratic government, both Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and the populist 5-Star Movement recently said they would consider participating in a Draghi-led “national unity” coalition. Renzi’s Italia Viva, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and the small left-wing Free and Equal party also indicated that they would support Draghi’s efforts. The centre-left Democratic Party, meanwhile, hinted that it would participate in Draghi’s government, but only if the new prime minister refrains from giving any important cabinet posts to the far-right League.
If he eventually succeeds in forming a government, Italy will have new leadership in which populist and hard-right parties will likely hold more power. If he fails, which is still a very real possibility, President Mattarella will have no option but to call snap elections – which is what Salvini initially wanted. With Salvini’s anti-immigration and Eurosceptic League leading the polls, and support for Giorgia Meloni’s neo-fascist Brothers of Italy rapidly growing, a snap election could transform Italy into a far-right bastion and have grave consequences not only for the country but also the European Union.
While it is still very hard to predict exactly what shape Italy’s next government is going to take, most signs indicate that the far right will have more influence over the country’s politics in the coming weeks and months. Salvini has been waiting for the right moment to return to the political spotlight after his forced exit from the government in September 2019. And while it was Renzi who inflicted the final deadly blow to the Conte government, Salvini was also working hard to undermine the coalition’s efforts to guide the country out of the ongoing crisis since the very beginning.
Soon after the emergence of the first COVID-19 case in Italy, Salvini started using the struggles facing the government to his own advantage. He repeatedly played to the public’s fears and frustrations and used every opportunity to undermine the government’s authority. Initially, he accused the Conte-led coalition of assuming a “laissez-faire” stance in its efforts to contain the disease outbreak. Alongside many others in the Italian far-right, he called on the government to close all ports and complained about migrant-rescue vessels still being allowed to reach the country’s coasts. He baselessly claimed that refugees were bringing COVID-19 into the country and tried to use the public’s consternation about the novel coronavirus to further his own xenophobic agenda.
Unfortunately for him, his efforts to use the pandemic to stoke nationalist sentiment did not work. The ground zero of the virus outbreak in Italy turned out not to be a refugee camp but two regions in northern Italy – Lombardy and Veneto – that are home to many of his party’s supporters. When Salvini realised that his supporters are suffering the most both from the virus and the measures to prevent its spread, he quickly changed course. As most European countries moved to close their borders with Italy due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the country, he started to claim that Italians should continue living their lives as normal and that Italy should remain open for business and tourism. Seemingly forgetting that he himself was pushing for border and port closures just a few weeks before, the far-right leader quickly embarked on a campaign to encourage Italians to boycott countries that banned travel to and from Italy.
In short, since the beginning of the pandemic, the Italian right, led by Salvini, tried to hold refugees responsible for the spread of the virus, blamed the EU for Italy’s pandemic-related economic hardship, and undermined the Italian government’s efforts to control the crisis at every opportunity. Salvini and Meloni’s divisive rhetoric and refusal to get behind the government throughout the pandemic not only hindered the country’s ability to effectively respond to the crisis but also put many Italian lives at increased risk.
Now, following the collapse of the Conte-led coalition, the far right has an opportunity to either directly be part of the country’s political leadership or have significant influence over a technocratic government. Either scenario is troubling. The EU announced its intention to give Italy about 208 billion euros ($251bn) in grants and low-interest loans to help it rebuild its economy after the pandemic. But without strong leadership, proper planning, and political stability, these funds will do little to help Italy get back on its feet.
In the past year, Salvini and other leading figures in the Italian right not only consistently sabotaged the Italian government’s efforts to fight the virus but also failed to come up with a sustainable, consistent recovery plan to get the country out of the crisis it is currently in. Given the opportunity, they will undoubtedly use the EU COVID-19 recovery funds to further their eurosceptic, divisive, populist agenda.
Italy can only come out of this crisis if its politicians choose to put the nation’s needs and interests before their own political ambitions. Sadly, at least for now, they still seem hellbent on using the nation’s suffering to grab more power.