ANALYSIS: Italy and four warning signs of a democratic breakdown

The League party's activists hold flares as they arrive to attend a rally by party's leader Matteo Salvini, in Milan, Italy. (AP)

With populism on the rise in Italy, the fine line between democracy and the dictatorship of the majority is getting blurry.

Authoritarian measures are applauded while intolerance towards migrants and minorities is spreading along with a dangerous indifference. The political responsibility stands as the elephant in the room.

This is familiar to Italy, not just because of its fascist past.

Those antibodies developed following the collapse of Mussolini, as for example an antifascist Constitution, will prevent from sliding again in an authoritarian regime.

Keeping that in mind, it’s useful at this point to analyze the 4 warning signs of a democratic breakdown and their worrying matching to the Italian present.

Introduction of discriminatory measures

Restrictive measures targeting specific ethnic or religious groups are typical of non-democratic regimes. It often starts from focusing on business activities.

In Berlin in 1935 ice cream shops owned by Jewish people had to close by 7pm, before those managed by non-Jewish owners. We all know how it ended.

When Italian Minister of Interior, Matteo Salvini, said ethnic shops will have to close by 9 pm, many considered it as openly discriminatory.

“Also in Italy a dangerous idea is being asserted, according to which the majority’s rights are better protected by denying rights to minorities and more vulnerable groups” said Riccardo Noury, spokesperson of Amnesty International in Italy.

“They are doing so by introducing general provisions, like the security decree, which are clearly discriminatory, or through specific measures targeting specific groups, like for examples those laws on closing time for the so called ethnic shops” Noury explained to Al Arabiya English.

Rise of violence against minorities

Minorities don’t feel protected under non-democratic regimes, as acts of violence against them tend to increase and are often instigated and tolerated.

The warning light regarding the situation in Italy was turned on by the highest international body, the United Nations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed her concerns regarding the raising number of cases of racism and violence against migrants, people of African origin and Roma in Italy, calling for a team to assess the situation on the ground.

“It’s a serious phenomenon, especially when nourished by xenophobic, racist, misogynist, homophobic messages by those that have political and governmental responsibilities. The line between hatred speech and hatred crime is extremely fleeting” Noury explained to Al Arabiya English.

Since the settlement of the government in Italy in June, there have been 33 discriminatory aggressions in two months: one act of violence every other day.

These worrying data have been increasing by 11 times in about 5 years: according to the Observatory for Security Against Discriminatory Acts (OSCAD), this kind of acts of violence in Italy went from 73 in 2012 to 803 in 2016. Between 2010 and 2017 there have been 2.030 cases reported to OSCAD, half of which were racist and 11.5% based on religion.

Government tendency to centralize powers and occupy all positions in key sectors

The gradual thinning of the public space left for opposition groups is a typical feature of a democratic breakdown. But for decades in Italy the spoils system has been going hand in hand with its democratic institutions in a paradoxical relationship.

“The current Italian government tends to centralize powers and to occupy positions in key sectors, but this doesn’t mean we are facing a democratic crisis in Italy” said Giovanni Orsina, Director of the School of Government at LUISS University in Rome.

“The spoils system and the occupation of power positions by the government has always been there in Italy from Berlusconi to Renzi, but maybe this government is taking an extra step forward by being more aggressive in this sense” Orsina said to Al Arabiya English, explaining that this is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

“Fragile parties with little internal cohesion seek stability by occupying power positions, but there is no authoritarian threat in my opinion” said Orsina, who is also head of LUISS Master in European Studies and Professor of Contemporary History at LUISS Political Science faculty.

Systematic efforts to intimidate the media and limit freedom of expression

Non-democratic regimes don’t like criticism and being held accountable. Hence, the relation with the media is generally tense.

Journalists in Italy have been defined by key members of the government as, literally, “whores, jackals”. Asked to comment on these insults, the spokesperson of the government, Rocco Casalino, said that these tunes were useful.

“Those are attacks against a category of professionals, and mainly against article 21 of the Constitution and the fundamental values of democracy” wrote the Italian National Order of Journalists in a statement published on its social media pages.

The Journalists Order called for public demonstrations against the government “in order to defend freedom of press and to fight against the drift of politicians’ language full of insults and threats against those that every day carry out their duty to inform citizens”.

If journalists’ life isn’t easy these days in Italy, also ordinary citizens start seeing their freedom of expression being restricted. A woman in Rome was stopped on the street by four policemen and reported to the authorities for having whistle against minister Salvini, as if expressing dissent was illegal.

Maybe what’s going on in Italy is not a democratic breakdown, but a gradual barbarization of its politics and society. I don’t know if this could be considered less dangerous.

There are still those antifascist antibodies protecting Italy’s democratic institutions, but it’s hard to live in this country without feeling worried.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:58 - GMT 06:58
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