The first far-right prime minister in postwar western Europe will be a woman: Giorgia Meloni. Assuming the exit polls are right, which is likely as they are in line with the last polling before the elections, the far right-dominated “centre-right” bloc will win about 42% of the vote. Because of the disproportionate system, and the lack of an electoral coalition between the centre-left Democratic party and the reformed Five Star Movement, this will give them a massive majority in parliament.
The most important change is in the internal power dynamics within the “right bloc”. Until 2018, the coalition was dominated by Silvio Berlusconi, who was problematic from all kind of perspectives, but he was not far right. In 2018, Matteo Salvini’s Lega became slightly bigger than Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, but now Meloni’s “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy will dominate the bloc.
The massive victory of this bloc will further fuel the media frenzy about the rise of the far right in Europe. But these accounts are largely ahistorical and factually incorrect. First, they ignore the various electoral defeats of far-right parties in other recent elections, including Germany, Norway and Slovenia. Second, far-right parties have been entering the political mainstream and forming governments since the beginning of this century.
If there is anything remarkable about the victory of the Brothers of Italy, and the Sweden Democrats two weeks earlier, it is that both parties have their ideological and organisational roots in (neo-)fascism. But even that is not unique; so did the National Alliance, the predecessor of Brothers of Italy, which was part of Berlusconi’s early governments before merging with Forza Italia. And, more importantly, ideologically, Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats are neither more radical nor more moderate than other populist radical right parties, such as the Austrian Freedom party or Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.
Similarly, the speculation that the new far-right Italian government is going to significantly impact the EU, let alone be a victory for Vladimir Putin, is not just overstated but wrong. It is true that both Meloni and Salvini have long championed Putin, but both have toned that down significantly in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. More importantly, the coalition is dominated by Meloni and her Brothers of Italy, who have aligned themselves with the European Conservatives and Reformists, a political group dominated by the Polish Law and Justice party, the most outspoken critic of Putin.
Like Poland, and Hungary, Italy is very dependent upon European funding, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The new government has little interest in putting these funds at risk, let alone initiating an exit from the EU. That being said, there is a good chance that the Italian government will provide cover for Poland in the European Council, making the Polish government less dependent upon Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, with whom relations have soured since the beginning of the war.
Still, there are good reasons to expect the new government not to become a particularly relevant actor in European politics. First, the success of Brothers of Italy is based on keeping a low profile, by keeping out of several governments. Meloni profited from being the anti-Salvini, a relatively calm and predictable candidate. As noted by Simon Kuper, while Berlusconi and Salvini are representatives of the Trumpian showman type of populism, Meloni is more similar to Orbán, with more policies and fewer political stunts.
Second, Meloni is a relatively untested political leader, who is dependent upon two seasoned politicians, both with huge egos and a burning desire to be at the centre of attention and power. Although she seems to have relatively little ego for a politician, and has been good at sharing the spotlight with others, Berlusconi and Salvini are also typical macho men. Will they really be able to play second fiddle to a woman?
Third, the new government comes to power at the worst time. Like the rest of Europe, Italy is facing a cost of living and an energy crisis, sure to worsen this winter. And both crises were already worse than in most other countries, as Italy is still feeling the impact of another recession and the pandemic, while it is particularly dependent upon Russian gas and oil. Although its parliamentary majority is large and can easily accommodate individual defections, all the coalition parties will nervously follow the polls in the months to come.
In short, the Italian elections were both unique and usual. They were unique because Meloni will be the first female prime minister of Italy and the first far-right prime minister in today’s western Europe. But they were usual in the sense that far-right parties (and ideas) have been part of the European political mainstream for at least two decades now. What is most stunning, and depressing, is that liberal democratic parties still seem to have no idea how to deal with that reality.
Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the school of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia