During the national holiday of Ferragosto in mid-August, nearly all Italians are on holiday with their families. Politics is usually taboo. Not this year. Italy has been plunged into a very unusual “summer election” (polling day is 25 September), with the collapse of its flimsy, “emergency” coalition government in July. Now, the constant talk is of deals, candidates, constituencies and bartering. Italy’s holidays have been ruined.
Barring an unlikely political miracle, Giorgia Meloni will become prime minister. This will be a historic moment for Italy and for Europe: Meloni is head of the far-right and populist Brothers of Italy party – the direct political heir of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (with which it shares part of its symbol, a flag-flame). One of the central eurozone nations will be governed by a largely Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, centre-right coalition. The alliance between Meloni, Matteo Salvini’s Lega and the remnants of the 85-year-old Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia! will almost certainly have a strong majority.
The left is weak, and divided, and the links to what remains of the ultra-populist Five Star Movement (which has also split) have broken down. Without broad alliances, in Italy’s mixed and complicated electoral system, and with drastic cuts to the number of parliamentarians thanks to a long Five Star campaign backed by a referendum, the opposition looks to be in a disastrous state. Former banker Mario Draghi’s technocratic government was broadly popular, but always destined to end without any kind of political legacy.
Italy’s long agony of emergency governments and fragile coalitions appears to be coming to an end. Meloni’s government will last, barring scandal or economic meltdown, neither of which can be ruled out.
Some, including myself, have highlighted the irony of her coming to power as Italy marks the 100th anniversary of the first fascist seizure of power in the world: Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome in October 1922, which heralded the beginning of the end for Italian democracy and the institution of a 20-year regime.
Meloni’s government will last, barring scandal or economic meltdown, neither of which can be ruled out
But let’s be clear. Meloni is not a fascist. She will not command armies of black-shirted armed groups and she will not look to overturn liberal democracy. Beyond those basics, the signs are extremely worrying – for Italy, Europe and democracy. Meloni and Salvini are populists in the Viktor Orbán, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen mould. They have built their success on promises of huge and regressive tax cuts, nationalist anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric (with elements of Great Replacement theories) and anti-EU and anti-euro narratives. Much of this has been played out on social media, where Meloni and Salvini are expert players, unlike Berlusconi, who has never moved beyond television as his favourite medium.
While Meloni officially, and angrily, denies any connection with fascism, the base of her party contains many activists and others often quaintly referred to as “nostalgic” for Mussolini’s regime. Examples of these links (slogans, statues, salutes) are common and often dismissed as “folklore” – not serious, or mere window dressing. Councillors for Meloni’s party have often been seen giving “Roman salutes”, praising Mussolini and indulging in open racism. The carefully produced moderate image Meloni has cultivated for years does not always seem to have been communicated to the base of the movement.
Moreover, Italy is a country where the memory wars have been raging for decades, often around moments linked to the Second World War and the upheavals of the 1970s. It is clear that the rehabilitation of that past, the idea that “Mussolini did a lot of good things”, will gain further credence with Meloni as prime minister. Salvini, however, is perhaps the more dangerous personality. His tenure as interior minister was marked by a chaotic migrant “policy” that involved illegally blocking refugee boats from docking in Italian ports. He is likely to have a major ministerial role in any new government.
Salvini and Meloni have both been rapidly backtracking on their past links with, and support for, Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine. Despite this, Italy’s foreign policy promises to be much softer on Moscow after the election. Berlusconi has continued, in the meantime, to be a mouthpiece for his old friend and ally throughout the Ukrainian crisis. It is easy to dismiss the former prime minister as a joke figure, but his influence remains powerful, not least within his huge media empire.
A new coalition will take shape, encompassing Italy, Hungary and Poland, and with strong links to the ideas and slogans of Trump’s United States
Italian democracy will survive Meloni, and Italy will remain in the EU and the euro, but it may be severely damaged, especially if plans to alter Italy’s beautiful anti-fascist constitution are pushed through. Meloni has expressed a desire for a directly elected president. Nobody knows what effect the drastic reduction of parliamentarians (passed in the populist name of “reducing the costs of politics”) will have on the system but it is bound to lead to a much more conservative, male and older parliament.
A new coalition within Europe will take shape, encompassing Italy, Hungary and Poland, and with strong links to the ideas and slogans of Trump’s United States. Meloni and Salvini have no answers to Italy’s never-ending economic crisis, apart from scapegoating Europe, migrants, “bankers” and “Soros”. Their strange “flat tax” proposals will almost certainly make matters worse. Even darker days await for Italy, after the ravages and divisions of the pandemic, whose effects are still being felt.
Meloni’s decision to stay out of the wide emergency coalition under Draghi looks set to reap a political harvest this autumn. She has carefully cultivated her image as a mother and a patriot. Since Berlusconi first brought the far right back into the fold in the 1990s, many former post-neo-fascists have served as ministers. But the top job has never been held by someone from that tradition – until now.
• John Foot is a research director at Bristol University. His new book is Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism
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