At the beginning of March, everything still seemed so clear: the Italian parliament voted by a large majority for arms deliveries to Ukraine. Only twelve members of the broad government alliance abstained at the time. Even the only major opposition party – the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia – agreed.
But the longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the more this unity is crumbling. The leaders of three of the four major governing parties are now more or less clearly opposed to the arms deliveries: starting with Giuseppe Conte, head of the populist Five Star Party, through Matteo Salvini of the right-wing Lega to Silvio Berlusconi, president of the conservative Forza Italia .
This is a problem for Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who has actually firmly anchored his country in the transatlantic alliance with the USA and brought it into line with the other EU countries. Like Draghi himself, both alliances are clearly in favor of arms deliveries to Ukraine.
If three of the most important alliance parties refuse to support Draghi on such a central point, this could lead to a government crisis and early elections. There is a calculation behind this: by opposing Draghi – an external prime minister without his own party – the parties want to sharpen their profile and improve their approval ratings.
Draghi will now try to bring calm to his coalition government on Thursday by updating Parliament on the arms shipments. The decision to supply weapons is not up for debate. It is therefore doubtful that his speech will be enough to calm critics in his own government.
But even if the government survives this crisis, elections are due in spring 2023 – and all three parties that have just changed their minds on the arms deliveries must stop their voter decline by then, if possible even reverse it. What is remarkable, however, is that the parties are trying to achieve this precisely from a pro-Russian position.
After a look at a recent opinion poll, this strategy is less surprising: it shows that a critical attitude towards arms deliveries enjoys great support among the Italian population. According to a recent IPSOS poll, 46 percent of Italians do not think it is right for Italy and NATO to continue to deliver arms to Ukraine. They contrast with 41 percent who support the deliveries.
These results are consistent with sentiment among a section of the population that still feels close to Russia and blames NATO’s eastward expansion for the outbreak of war. This position is present in public discourse despite the war and is represented by pro-Russian guests on talk shows, for example.
These people want to address Conte and Co. without openly siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They use similar arguments.
For example, Conte “discovered the pacifist in himself just in time”, as the Italian newspaper “Domani” writes: In order to stop his party from losing votes – whose approval ratings have halved since the 2018 election – Conte first resisted the increase in the vote defense budgets to win the votes of the many NATO skeptics in Italy. And more recently, he’s been arguing that arms deliveries aren’t going to help bring about a solution to the Ukraine war.
His proposal fits almost embarrassingly exactly with the other results of the IPSOS survey that had been published a few days earlier. So said two days after its publication: “The conflict has been going on for two and a half months and I believe that a more sophisticated EU strategy is needed [to end it].” He did not explain exactly how this is supposed to work. According to IPSOS, 56 percent of respondents were in favor of Italy and the EU taking an independent position in the Ukraine war – which differs from that of the USA and its President Joe Biden.
Salvini, who until a few years ago still appeared at political events wearing Putin T-shirts and in 2019 enforced a right to armed self-defense in the event of trespassing, is suddenly strictly against weapons. He said earlier this week that he had spoken to Draghi about “ceasefire and disarmament” in the Ukraine war. “And these are accompanied by a halt to arms shipments.”
Meanwhile, Berlusconi said last weekend that the arms deliveries meant that Italy was also at war and criticized the lack of leaders in the western alliance: “Under these circumstances, Mr. Putin is far from sitting down at the negotiating table. “
Only the social democratic Partito Democratico (PD) has not changed its opinion on the arms deliveries. With around 20 percent of the voters’ approval, it is currently the only governing party that does not have to worry about its election result: In elections it would currently be the strongest or second strongest party.