Italy’s potential far-right turn is years in the making.
Giorgia Meloni, the founder of the hard-right party Brothers of Italy, could soon become Italy’s first woman leader and the first far-right leader in decades, since the fall of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.
Italy will hold snap general elections on Sunday to elect a new parliament, and Meloni’s party is widely considered the favorite to come out on top as the leading partner in a new conservative coalition, with Meloni as prime minister.
Meloni’s rise to power and the retrenchment of hard-right populism within her coalition is in some ways a resurgence and galvanization of far-right sentiment that Italian politics and political parties have never truly reckoned with. Despite Meloni’s and other right-wing figures’ insistence to the contrary — and despite the brutality of Mussolini’s fascist movement in Italy and across Europe — his influence never completely receded from Italian politics.
Meloni, 45, honed her reactionary views as a teenage political activist in her native Rome; at 15, she registered with the youth front of the Italian Social Movement, a group established by a former minister in Mussolini’s government.
On the campaign trail, she has emphasized her womanhood and motherhood, though she is not a feminist. She has also taken a hard line against immigration — suggesting that the Italian Navy patrol the Mediterranean to keep migrants from arriving by sea — and a Meloni victory could portend rollbacks to minority rights, including the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and migrants. Her Brothers of Italy party, uses an insignia and slogan — “Dio, patria, familia,” or “God, country, family” — which echo its fascist predecessors.
Meloni’s star has risen considerably since Italy’s 2018 elections, when her party received only 4 percent of the vote. Now, Brothers of Italy is projected to take 25 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, which would be enough to give her and her coalition — with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s League party — a ruling majority in a new, smaller parliament.
Meloni’s refusal this summer to support outgoing caretaker Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s unity government and her forceful opposition to his Covid-19 policies pushed her into the spotlight; her presentation as “strongly against the establishment, anti-elite and very, very conservative,” as Carlo Bastasin, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy, has galvanized her supporters.
However, Meloni still faces opposition, and pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco of YouTrend told the Associated Press that voter turnout could be as low as 66 percent this time around, below 2018’s record-low turnout of 73 percent. That’s partly because the state of Italian politics has left many voters “disaffected, disappointed,” he said. “They don’t see their vote as something that matters.”
While there’s no guarantee Meloni’s coalition will succeed in capturing enough votes for a majority, whoever next leads Italy will have to contend with a series of major issues — some of which, like immigration, a tax system overhaul, and judicial reform, have plagued Italy for years, across many governments, seemingly without a tenable solution.
Italy’s right wing has been building up to this for years
Italian politics have a reputation for being messy, bureaucratic, and ineffectual; over the past four years, Italy has had three different governing coalitions — two under Giuseppe Conte, leader of the Five Star Movement, and one under former European Central Bank head Draghi. The Conte governments, “characterized by an unusual level of incompetence,” as Bastasin wrote in July, crumbled due to inefficiency in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as political maneuvering and power plays on the part of Conte’s colleagues in the Italian parliament.
In contrast, Draghi’s government enjoyed high public support and reassured European Union partners and other international actors that Italy was on track to manage the pandemic and responsibly spend recovery funds. Draghi prioritized critical economic goals and gender equity, as well as investments in clean energy and green jobs in his first speech as prime minister. He also stood firmly in support of the European Union and Italy’s place in it, notably in terms of supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and in imposing sanctions on Russia, despite the domestic challenges of doing so.
However, Draghi’s tenure as an unelected technocrat depended on a unity government; Meloni’s party was the only opposition until Conte broke the coalition in July in response to Italy’s cost of living crisis, prompting the spectacular dissolution of Draghi’s unity government, his resignation, and finally, the right-wing bloc of Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi calling for snap elections.
According to Andrea Pirro, a professor of political and social sciences at the Florence university Scuola Normale Superiore who spoke to Vox over email, Meloni has benefited from her constant role in the opposition.
Other experts agree: “She’s the only leader the Italian electorate does not perceive to have already tested,” Pietro Castelli Gattinara, an associate professor of political communication at Université Libre de Bruxelles, told Vox’s Jen Kirby. “She is the only one that has not yet deceived the Italian electorate. That’s her biggest ace to play at the next election.”
Meloni’s party is also benefiting from “the 5 Star Movement’s entry to parliament in 2013,” which “shook Italian politics to the core,” Pirro said, “de facto questioning the traditional bipolar competition between a moderate-left and a right-wing bloc.” That power shift, in turn, positioned Salvini’s the League as the ”new gravitational center of the right-wing bloc (at the expense of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia), steering the right-wing coalition towards far-right territories.”
The mainstreaming of Salvini’s worldview, which has historically included support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and aggressive anti-immigration measures “was, in a way, much more important in paving the way for Meloni’s rise,” Pirro said. “When the League started losing support, many voters simply opted for the untried far-right alternative, Brothers of Italy.”
Meloni has gained support, as populists do, with an underdog appeal; many of her supporters, including Meloni herself, identify with hobbits, a diminutive people from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, as the New York Times’ Jason Horowitz explained this week. “The feature that characterizes her, and the feature that is mirroring the sentiment of the Italian public opinion, is her insistence on victimhood,” Bastasin told Foreign Policy. “This is a very powerful emotional argument which goes down well for many populist politicians.”
The Italian populist, post-fascism lineage, of which Meloni is a part, has venerated the text as a “vision of spirituality against materialism, a metaphysical vision of life against the forms of the modern world,” former MSI member Umberto Croppi told the Times.
The nostalgia for a simpler time, in fact, defines and drives Brothers of Italy’s appeal, as well as the party itself. “While Brothers of Italy cannot be meaningfully labelled as ‘neofascist’, there is clearly a share of nostalgics among party ranks,” Pirro told Vox, tracing the party’s roots back to the Italian Social Movement. “Meloni has done generally little to distance herself and her organization from these elements — or openly condemn fascism, for that matter.”
Italy’s left wing has also ceded ground to conservative parties, and even mimicked some of their policies and talking points. Although Italy did have a visible leftist movement in the post-war era, political aims were overshadowed by polarization and terror from the late 1960s through the ’80s — what Italians call the anni di piombo, Years of Lead.
Now, “the main reformist party, the Democratic Party, has long lost its social-democratic credentials by parroting the far right on security and immigration issues and embracing a neoliberal market agenda at the expenses of its traditional working class voter base,” Pirra told Vox. Conte’s Five Star Movement “is currently presenting itself as a progressive force, but this is coming after years of ideological ambiguity and flirtation with far-right issues,” and anything resembling a truly left-wing party “has failed to capture sizable support in recent years.”
That’s because of a series of disappointments on the part of left-wing politicians, one Italian voter told Vox. “Politically, I’m a left-wing person, I identify with the left wing,” Gaia Celeste, a Roman left-wing constituent and community manager for a tech startup told Vox. “We have a big center-left-wing party which is the Partito Democratico — the Democratic Party — which has not fulfilled many of the desires and the needs of the left-wing electorate.” In fact, she said, over the past decade those parties had responded much more to the “sirens” of right-wing rhetoric than to the needs of the people.
Meloni’s coalition could win as much as 60 percent of the seats in Parliament, although a polling blackout since September 9 means those numbers could have changed considerably by the time people go to the polls on Sunday. And even if they do win a majority, it might not be significant enough to catapult Meloni into power, Celeste explained.
“One of the rosier pictures is that the right wing does not take too much of the majority, so that [Sergio] Mattarella, the president of the republic, can decide to nominate someone else from the government,” Celeste said. “So if Meloni’s majority is not too strong, not too big, we may have a scenario where he nominates someone else and that might still be Mario Draghi. And that might be the best scenario.”
How would the Meloni coalition govern?
If Meloni does take power, as Pirro believes she and her coalition will, her party may have a great deal of freedom to implement its agenda with backing from Italy’s other right-wing parties.
“The far-right Brothers of Italy and the League are the two main ideological drivers of the right-wing coalition, so we should expect an additional crackdown on migration policies and the rights of minorities (especially LGBTQI+ people), and in all likelihood further barriers to accessing abortion, when Meloni comes to power,” Pirro told Vox.
Abortion, which became legal in Italy in 1978, is still quite difficult to access for many Italian women; the procedure is legal only up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in most cases, and the law governing it allows for doctors to opt out of performing abortions as “conscientious objectors.” As many as 71 percent of Italian gynecological health care providers identify as conscientious objectors, according to one study published in the journal Social Science Research in 2020.
While Meloni has said she would respect Italy’s abortion law as it stands, she has also made clear that she wants to emphasize a part of the law which is “about prevention,” although what that means in practice is unclear. Overall, Meloni positions herself as “pro-family” — meaning pro-traditional, nuclear family. Fellow coalition leader Salvini has praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for his family policies, including incentives for Hungarian women to have four or more children.
Meloni also opposes what she calls “pink quotas,” or quotas for women’s participation in government and on private-sector positions of power. Many Italian women support such quotas, the New York Times reports, particularly in a highly patriarchal society where “boys’ clubs” have dominated the halls of power.
Viviana Costagliola, an art historian originally from Naples, told Vox that via WhatsApp that she’s concerned about the erosion of minority rights and abortion access under a potential Meloni government. She’s also “preoccupied with our position with the European community’s dialogue,” noting Meloni’s “proximity to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s thoughts and the Spanish extremist right parties.”
Though Meloni has recently voiced her support for the European project — especially critical so as not to threaten access to 191.5 billion euro in Covid-19 recovery funds — she’s previously expressed some euroskeptic viewpoints and openly admires Orbán, one of the biggest thorns in the side of the EU.
Meloni’s most salient political characteristic is her nationalism, highlighted with a nostalgic “traditionalism” that ties in her anti-migration, anti-equality, and debatably euroskeptic ideologies. As Castelli Gattinara put it:
What is really the core ideological tenet of [far-right] actors is nativism; is the idea that country states should be inhabited exclusively by so-called native people; is the idea that there are homogeneous communities and that any type of contamination from abroad would impoverish the sort of natural purity of the nation-state. And importantly, this applies to race or ethnic diversity. It equally applies to religion. It also applies to ideas.
In a certain sense, new ideas coming from abroad are considered a danger to the nation-state. We see that quite strongly when it comes to civil rights and, in particular, gender equality.
It’s less clear, however, how much of Brothers of Italy’s agenda Meloni will succeed in translating into policy, even if her coalition wins a strong majority.
In particular, given Italy’s challenging political system, and Meloni’s relative inexperience, opinions are mixed as to how much she’d be able to actually do as Italy’s leader, particularly if her coalition doesn’t receive a resounding majority. “I am afraid of incompetence, not the fascist threat,″ Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at LUISS university in Rome, told the AP. “She has not governed anything.”