Italy faces threat of its most right-wing government since Mussolini

Dr Oliver Hartwich
20 September, 2022

In October 1922, a young journalist and agitator from the hard right marched to Rome to seize political power.

This month, a 45-year-old former journalist with far-right leanings is also running for office in Italy.

Such are the parallels between Benito Mussolini and Giorgia Meloni.

The Fratelli d’Italia (‘Brothers of Italy’) leader seems to have the best chance of becoming prime minister when Italy goes to the polls on September 25. Combining populist, extremist – and even fascist – elements, she would lead a coalition of right-wing parties.

An alliance of this nature would be the most right-wing government Italy has had since Mussolini. It may seem like a revolution in Italian politics.

But in other ways, even such an extreme government might be considered an Italian continuity.

Italy’s political scene of the past three decades differs from that of most European countries by its frequent and abrupt swings. However, such extreme politics rarely mean genuine change.

There was a time when Italian politics was different. Until the early 1990s, Christian Democrats dominated Italian politics, and the Communist Party ran second. It was a time of corrupt stability.

But after its scandals had become unbearable even for its own supporters, the Christian Democrats fell apart, while the Communists dissipated into new, less radical, left-wing parties.

As a result, new waves of parties filled the gaps, rising to prominence one after the other. Each time, the offering was a bit more radical and extreme. And each time, it hardly mattered and only paved the path for the next populist wave. This pattern was interrupted only by technocrat governments.

First was Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, a right-wing party that dominated Italy in the 1990s and early 2000s despite Berlusconi’s unending scandals.

The Five Star Movement won the 2018 election in the next populist wave. That party was founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo during the Euro crisis in opposition to the policies of the European Union.

In the European elections a year later, the Lega party under Matteo Salvini won the most votes. Like the Five Star Movement, with which it briefly formed a coalition, Lega is another populist and extremist party.

And now, in 2022, it is Fratelli d’Italia’s turn, led by Giorgia Meloni.

Like all the other parties before her, Fratelli d’Italia comes out of relative obscurity. In 2013, it received just 2 percent of the vote and nine seats in parliament. According to the latest opinion polls, it stands at about 24 percent. That could be enough to make Meloni prime minister of Italy.

From next to nothing, Fratelli d’Italia skyrocketed in the polls. However, the party has a long history.

Its origins can be traced back to the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a neo-fascist party that existed until 1995 when it became the national-conservative Alleanza Nazionale. A year later, Meloni joined that party’s youth organisation, which she later led from 2004 to 2009.

Alleanza Nazionale then morphed into Il Popolo della Libertà (‘The People of Freedom’). It lasted from 2009 to 2013. By that time, Meloni had just left the party to co-found Fratelli d’Italia.

With her party’s pedigree, it may not be surprising that Meloni previously expressed sympathies for fascism.

When she was 19, she said: “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy.” In a 2006 interview, she toned that down a bit, saying she had “a peaceful relationship with fascism”, which she regarded as “a chapter in our national history.”

Meloni went on to say that Mussolini “made several mistakes – the racial laws, the entry into the war – and in any case his was an authoritarian system”. But she was quick to add, “Historically, he has also produced a lot.”

In this year’s election campaign, Meloni tries to bury her flirtations with extremism and present herself as a more moderate leader. It is the same pattern Marine Le Pen used in the French presidential election earlier this year.

There are some differences between Meloni and Le Pen, though. And there are also differences between Meloni and other Italian right-wing politicians such as the Lega’s Matteo Salvini and Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi.

Unlike most of the European far-right, Meloni does not show any sympathies with Russia. On the contrary, she positioned herself as a staunch supporter of Ukraine and a pro-American.

After the Bucha massacre, Meloni said the images of civilians executed in the streets left her breathless. And she vowed that “every effort must be made for peace and to stop the aggression against Ukraine”.

Meloni reserves the remnants of her past radicalism for tirades against the EU, LGBT+ communities, and illegal immigrants.

That may all be objectionable, but it does not quite make her the next fascist dictator.

Regardless, if she does become Italy’s next prime minister (and indeed its first female prime minister), reality will soon catch up with her.

Italy has depended on the European Union and the European Central Bank for financial help since the European debt crisis. The EU provided €200b toward Italy’s Covid Recovery and Resilience Plan. These funds, however, are dependent on Italian reforms, which Meloni wants renegotiated.

If elected, Meloni may well try to haggle with Brussels. She may even win some concessions. But in the end, she will realise who usually has the upper hand in any such matters, and that is the institutions providing the money. And wasn’t that how Berlusconi was ousted in 2011 and replaced by the technocrat Mario Monti?

So, a Prime Minister Meloni would most likely be busy reassuring financial markets. She would try not to fall out with the EU Commission and the ECB. And she would have her hands full governing with a coalition of populists.

Put this way, it does not sound like a fascist revolution for Italy. It rather sounds like business as usual.

And in another few months, or maybe years, the next populist saviours will offer themselves to clear up the mess they say Meloni will have left. That is just how Italian politics works.

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