The Threat of Authoritarian Drift

Examining the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Democratic Backsliding in Italy.


The erosion of democratic institutions and values within a state is a phenomenon referred to as democratic backsliding. While scholars have devoted considerable attention to understanding why democracies fail, there is a lack of systematic and comparative work on the specific acts that cause a regime to change from one type to another. Political scientists have typically placed emphasis on the economic and institutional correlates of political behaviour, despite evidence that choices and choosers may be more amenable to direct impact and quick intervention. However, examining democratic backsliding forces us to focus on the actual decisions that change regimes and helps us to better understand the specific methods that facilitate transformations. The Italian case provides an example of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on democratic backsliding. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, combined with an aging population and high unemployment rates, have paved the way for nationalist, right-wing populism to gain popularity. The rise of Fratelli d'Italia (FDI) and its leader Giorgia Meloni is a prime example of this trend, with the party's extreme positions on EU withdrawal and immigration being toned down recently. However, Meloni's promotion of homophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as her alignment with Putin's Russia, are alarming indications of democratic backsliding. Moreover, the recent cultural battles against the right to abortion, surrogacy pregnancy, and LGBTQ+ community rights underscore the government's authoritarian drift.

While explaining why democracies fail has received a great deal of attention from scholars, systematic and clearly comparative work on how democracies fail specifically has been less common. Even though, choices and choosers may be more amenable to direct impact and quick intervention, political scientists have tended to place more emphasis on the economic and institutional correlates of political behaviour. What specific acts cause a regime to change from one type to another? Which transformational methods are most popular? We get closer to the solutions to these questions when we examine what has come to be known as democratic backsliding because it forces us to concentrate on the actual decisions that change regimes. Democratic backsliding refers to the gradual weakening or even erosion of democratic institutions, processes, and values in a state that has already achieved some level of democratic consolidation. This can occur due to various reasons such as corruption, manipulation of the electoral process, restriction of freedom of speech and press, the weakening of the rule of law, and the concentration of power among a small group of individuals. It can lead to the erosion of the democratic character of a state and can pose a threat to the freedom, rights, and welfare of its citizens. When used in conjunction with the word democratic, the term's present secular definition is consistent with its historical context because it implies a deliberate departure from an ideal.

Where does backsliding from democracy lead? Backsliding can lead us to various destinations at various rates. Backsliding results in outright democratic breakdown and unmistakably authoritarian regimes where it includes rapid and radical change across a wide variety of institutions. Backsliding that occurs gradually and affects a smaller number of institutions is more likely to produce political systems that are unclearly democratic or hybrid rather than a total regime shift. Thus, democratic regress can be defined as the breakdown of democracy or merely the grave weakening of already-existing democratic institutions for unknown purposes. Acting to protect democracy becomes especially challenging when backsliding results in situations that are ambiguous and fluid. The classic “open-ended coups d'état” of the Cold War era are now outnumbered by what N. Bermeo refers to as “promissory coups”; the dramatic “executive coups” of the past are being replaced by a process that N. Bermeo refers to as “executive aggrandisement”; and finally, the obvious “election-day vote fraud” that characterised elections in many developing democracies in the past is being replaced by longer-term “strategic harassment and manipulation”[1].

New concerns have been raised, in the last couple of year, that the risks of democratic regress or outright autocratization may rise as governments around the globe implement emergency measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, new research confirms a connection between emergency measures and the democratic backsliding[2]. Further backsliding is especially feared in nations that have previously struggled with autocratization tendencies, but criticisms have also reached democracies that appear to be more stable. Scholars and foreign organisations specifically note:

  • Excessive restrictions on basic freedoms like the right to move about freely, frequently without making the public aware of the scientific justification for such collectively binding decision-making.
  • Access to pertinent scientific data and papers is subject to arbitrary restrictions.
  • Excessive restrictions on the rights to free speech, information, gathering, privacy, and due process.
  • Lack of a clear legal foundation for emergency actions, particularly in nations where the prohibition of states of emergency is not enshrined in the constitution.
  • Emergency legislation is accompanied by a "plethora of legal acts," making it challenging for citizens and professionals to navigate the resulting legal maze.

If we analyse the Italian case, we can see how the emergency has led to a change in the vote of Italians towards the most extreme populism, the one of Giorgia Meloni and her party Fratelli d’Italia (FDI).  The Covid-19 Pandemic had a significant impact on Italy, as it did on many other countries around the globe. Italy, a country with one of the longest median ages in the world[3], was severely impacted by the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. Therefore, both overall output and unemployment drastically decreased. Italy's unemployment rate is currently close to 10%[4], which is considerably higher than that of comparable nations. In addition, 46% of young people in the nation who can work are unemployed. With a population that is considerably older, this figure poses a danger to the country's economic might and has affected domestic production of goods and services. Since the start of the pandemic-era living in Italy, FDI's position on young people working and the general lack of enthusiasm in the workforce has become more and more popular with the Italian populace. As a result of the drastic quarantines put in place across the nation, nationalist pride also increased among those who wanted to restore the country. Support for the FDI increased along with nationalism's rise to new heights. With practical suggestions for change within the nation, the party presents an option to those dissatisfied with the current state of the government. Younger Italians are given incentives to find employment, and manufacturing positions are encouraged to be created domestically rather than being outsourced. In Italy, job diversification has also resulted in substantial financial gains. Italy has also seen a large amount of domestic support for job diversification. These factors have given the FDI more traction in recent years, which contributed to their eventual victory in September of 2022.

It has been ten years since FDI was established as a right-wing populist group that was frequently viewed as neo-fascist at its core. They are widely regarded as conservative-nationalists, and in the past four years in particular, their rise has become exponential. The party increased its support from roughly 4% of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections to 26% the last cycle, a plurality that gave the FDI control over the government and Meloni the role of prime minister. Due to its extreme positions on many important problems for Europeans at the time, the party initially received little support. For instance, FDI indicated a strong desire to leave the EU, and the party was still divided about it until recently. A few years ago, Meloni herself spoke out against secession, and the party eventually agreed. FDI's initial support for the potential breakup of the European Union was a major reason in their decline. Additionally, rigid economic and immigration policies that were strongly opposed to the foreign-born employees who were important assets to the Italian economy. Because of this, support was low until Covid-19 pandemic. With Giorgia Meloni and FDI’s triumph some genuine worries have come to light. Meloni has a history of promoting homophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is a recurring issue among the FDI. The election of populist leaders has historically been an indication of democratic backsliding, and Meloni is a well-known populist figure in Italy. The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a major worry on the European front. Meloni has vowed to fervently back Ukraine[5], a democratic country that Vladimir Putin and Russia are waging war against. Thoughts are raised about a select group of prominent ministers in Meloni's ministry. Numerous FDI members have been identified as Putin's followers or allies and as willing to help finance his objectives. Even though Meloni has said that Italy will always back Ukraine, the support of an unjust invasion of sovereign territory is extremely alarming for Italy.

The authoritarian drift that the Italian government is taking is also visible in the cultural battle against the right to abortion, surrogacy pregnancy, LGBTQ+ community rights. The first example, which can be cited, dates to the early days of the new Meloni government, when Senator Maurizio Gasparri of Forza Italia has filed in the Senate a bill that aims essentially to prevent access to abortion through the recognition of the legal capacity of the conceived. In detail, the proposed law in question calls for Article 1 of the Civil Code to be amended to recognise legal capacity (the ability to hold rights and duties) from the moment of conception and not from the moment of birth. Currently the legal capacity is obtained from the moment of birth, if the bill presented by Senator Gasparri were approved the legal capacity would be obtained from the moment of conception, this means that the fetus would also be entitled to rights (such as the right to life) and who could be the victim of crimes such as murder and voluntary termination of pregnancy could be considered as such. After the presentation of this bill, the 3 right-wing parties (Forza Italia, Lega and Fratelli d'Italia) agreed and voted to elect Maurizio Gasparri vice-president of the Senate. Another example is visible in the figure of the new minister of the family Eugenia Roccella: a policy openly anti-abortion, who only a few months ago stated: "abortion is not a right” or who the last February, going against LGBTQ+ families, pointed out that: "The child has the right to a mother and a father, say psychologists". What should concern the new generations most is the follow-up that this government is experiencing. Italy now has a prime minister who stated: "Mussolini has been a good politician, there have been no other politicians like him in the last 50 years"; "If we abolish the crime of torture, we will prevent officers from doing their job"; “We sink the Sea Watch (ship that rescued migrants at sea)"; “The collapse of the law against homotransphobia is a victory”.

In conclusion, the concept of democratic backsliding is of utmost importance in understanding the erosion of democratic institutions, values, and processes. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised concerns about the risks of democratic regress and outright autocratization in many countries, and Italy is no exception. Giorgia Meloni's government and her party Fratelli d'Italia have seized to power due to the Institutional weaknesses left by the pandemic of the pandemic and their extreme positions on various issues. However, the authoritarian drift of the Italian government is cause for concern, with actions taken against the rights of women, the LGBTQ+ community, and freedom of speech. It is vital that the younger generations recognize the dangers of democratic backsliding and strive to protect democracy in Italy and around the world. The question now is how the world's oldest democracy can work to prevent democratic backsliding or the rise of authoritarianism in the future.


By Francesca Corna




  • Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Doubleday, 2020).
  • Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of democracy1 (2016): 5–19. Web.
  • Croissant, “Democracies with Preexisting Conditions”; Laruelle et al., “Pandemic Politics in Eurasia”.
  • De Angelis, Gabriele, and Emellin de Oliveira. “COVID-19 and the ‘State of Exception’: Assessing Institutional Resilience in Consolidated Democracies - a Comparative Analysis of Italy and Portugal.” Democratization8 (2021): 1602–1621. Web.
  • Hyde, Susan D. “Democracy’s Backsliding in the International Environment.” Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science)6508 (2020): 1192–1196. Web.
  • Lührmann and Rooney, “Autocratization by Decree”.
  • Lührmann, Edgell, and Maerz, “Pandemic Backsliding”; Freedom House, “Democracy under Lockdown”; Kolvani et al., “Pandemic Backsliding”.
  • Norris, R. Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019).



[1]  Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of democracy 27.1 (2016): 5–19. Web.

[2] Lührmann and Rooney, “Autocratization by Decree”.