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A new Italian era: the inevitable rise of Georgia Meloni

Can the newly elected postfascist Italian leader Giorgia Meloni last, asks Andrea Pisauro

7 to 8 minute read

The greatest tragedy of the far-right’s victory in the Italian general election was its inevitability. Italian electoral law favours coalitions of parties. More than a third of Parliament is elected through a first-past-the-post electoral system and parties can coalesce around joint candidates. While the right coalesced, progressive parties were divided. As a result, right-wing candidates prevailed in 82 per cent of direct seats.

Yet Italians have not turned decisively to the right. Two thirds of seats elected through proportional representation show that more than 50 per cent of voters chose progressive or centrist parties, against 44 per cent for the right-wing coalition. The right didn’t make any gains since the 2018 election and actually lost a few hundred thousand since the 2019 European elections.

With 26 per cent of the vote, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) emerged as the largest party, leading the right wing coalition to 59 per cent of parliamentary seats. Meloni therefore became prime minister – the first woman in this office – on 22 October 2022. Despite its modest change in the popular vote, the Italian 2022 general election risks being one of the most consequential.

For one thing, it is the first in 15 years to deliver a clear parliamentary majority. Both the general elections of 2013 and 2018 resulted in hung parliaments and were followed by profound political instability.

A dark mandate

The last time there was a clear parliamentary mandate was in 2008 when Berlusconi won a landslide majority, starting four tumultuous years of governments rocked by financial instability and sex scandals. Following his resignation and a brief national unity government, in 2013 and 2018 Italians split in three: Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, a centre-left coalition organised around the Partito Democratico (PD) and the populist Five Star Movement, which claimed to be neither left nor right.

Over the decade all parties participated at different times in the government. All except one: Meloni’s FdI. Let’s try her too, some people thought, particularly those opposed to Covid-19 vaccines and restrictions.

Meloni is the first Prime Minister rooted in the political tradition of  Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, which led a dictatorship between the World Wars

The international significance of that ‘ventennio’ (Fascist period) of Italian history cannot be understated. As observed also in this essential perspective from Adam Tooze, its ideology inspired countless authoritarian regimes, starting from Hitler’s Nazism, and even added the term fascism to the dictionaries of thousand languages worldwide.

Italian democracy is seemingly not at risk. In her first parliamentary speech, she condemned all dictatorships, ‘fascism included’, and labelled Mussolini’s racial laws in 1938 ‘the lowest point in Italian history’. She was trying to distance herself from her past (in her twenties she told a French TV that Mussolini was a great politician) and that of her party, whose logo features a flame said to symbolise the fascist spirit burning at Mussolini’s tomb.

Yet, on the same day while Meloni was talking in parliament about being ‘willing to sympathise with those demonstrating against her’, police violently repressed students protesting against one of her MPs in Rome’s ‘La Sapienza’ University. Meloni’s condemnation of the fascists who assaulted Italy’s largest trade union in October 2021 was ambiguous too, suggesting that Niccolo Milanese is right in saying that ‘migrants, Roma, racialized groups, LGBTQI+ people, women and trade unionists all have reason to feel at greater risk of violence’ both from the state and the far right.

As pointed out by Barbara Serra, unlike Germany, Italy failed to process its historical shame. Every year thousands commemorate the march to Rome and fascism nostalgia is still ubiquitous in Meloni’s party. The bond with the past goes down generations: the second name of the new President of the Senate La Russa is Benito, chosen by his fascist father to honour Mussolini.

Like La Russa, most of the old elite of FdI had their formative years in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), formed by Mussolini loyalists who fought the antifascist partisans at the end of WWII. Because of this, for 50 years this party was excluded from government.

Antifascism was the founding value of the Italian Republic

It risks being that no longer. As noted by David Broder, MSI’s exclusion from power generated a sense of victimhood. This was evident in Meloni’s first speech as PM, when she reflected on fascist militants killed by left-wing violence during the 70s but said nothing on violence perpetrated by fascists, both during the ‘ventennio’ and throughout the 60s and 70s, when fascist terrorists took dozens of lives.

Meloni’s attempt to create some sort of equidistance between fascism and antifascism is cheap history à la carte. She offends the constitution when she neglects to honour the antifascist Resistance that gave Italy its democracy. She may fail to celebrate the 25th of April, the national commemoration of Italian Liberation from Nazi-fascism, and omit to commemorate the socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti on June 10th 2024, the 100th anniversary of his assassination by Mussolini’s henchmen, which ushered in the dictatorship. Any attempt then to rewrite history could and hopefully will undermine her premiership.

Meloni and her allies are no newcomers to power. Eleven of her new ministers were in the last Berlusconi government, including Meloni herself. Berlusconi was in fact the political godfather of postfascism’s return to power. Its entry into politics was preceded by his endorsement of postfascist leader Gianfranco Fini in the 1993 Rome mayoral election.

Fini and his allies, who rebranded the MSI Alleanza Nazionale in 1995, served in all Berlusconi’s governments and in 2008, when he even asked them to co-found his new party Popolo delle Libertà. When in 2012 Berlusconi cancelled a leadership contest where she wanted to stand, Meloni left the Popolo della Libertà to found Fratelli d’Italia. Ten years later she brought down the curtain on his 30 years-long domination of the Italian Right.

Whilst Forza Italia is crucial for the government’s majority, it is unlikely that Berlusconi will pull its support as Meloni’s foreign minister and vice-premier Antonio Tajani (a former European Commissioner and president of the European Parliament) is the leader of Berlusconi’s party in Parliament. Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s age and unpopular excuses for Putin’s war in Ukraine are likely to marginalise him further.

Neoliberal failures

Meloni adopted the far-right narrative introduced by Trump, Orban and others in response to the failure of neoliberalism. Her signature slogan ‘I am Giorgia, I’m a mother, I’m Italian, I’m Christian’ — which even became a dance track – is a rearrangement of the traditional trittic God, Country and Family. Meloni calls her ideology national conservatism.

As noted by Paolo Gerbaudo ‘it’s the official ideology of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR), an alliance in the European Parliament that Meloni has led since 2020. ECR combines radical social and cultural conservatism with moderate Euroscepticism, and counts among its members Poland’s long-ruling Law and Justice Party, the Sweden Democrats, and Spain’s far-right Vox party.’

Like her European counterparts, Meloni will fight culture wars against progressive values, rights of migrants and minorities – as demonstrated by her pick of ministers. These include an anti-abortionist as Minister for Family and a professor known for blaming immigration for the fall of the Roman Empire as Minister for Education.

Like her European counterparts, Meloni will fight culture wars against progressive values, rights of migrants and minorities

Yet on the socio-economic agenda Meloni is likely to shift modestly from Draghi, prioritising more tax cuts over welfare spending to appeal to her electoral base of self-employed and business owners. She is unlikely to follow ‘Trussonomics-style’ class warfare, not least because she is constrained by EU rules. In fact she will benefit from the EU-funded grants to fund the climate transition.

Meloni doesn’t seem very concerned by the climate emergency. Tellingly, she renamed the Ministry for the Ecological Transition ‘Ministry for Energy Security’. Her priorities are clarified by the appointment of Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, who only resigned as lobbyist for the association of the Italian arm industry the day before assuming office. Indifference to potential conflicts of interests characterise Meloni’s sovereignist agenda, unscrupulously on the side of national capital.

Divided resistance

In the short term, the Italian left is unlikely to challenge the government. Progressive voters split their support in three and the bad blood among former leaders was sufficient to divide the progressive electorate and pave the way for the Right victory.

Class and geography also divide progressives with young, poor and working people in the South preferring the Five Star Movement, whilst the old progressive middle class in the centre and North predominantly for the Partito Democratico. Centrist support was highest among the well-off in city centres. An ecosocialist list allied to the PD obtained 3.5 per cent, mostly from young precarious workers, electing a small contingent of working class MPs.

Policy differences in the progressive camp were hardly insurmountable. With all parties supporting migrant rights, the EU and Ukraine, differences related to the socio-economic agenda. Renzi’s centrist list wanted to scrap an unemployment benefit introduced by the Five-Star-Movement in 2018, when they entered a populist alliance with Salvini’s League.

The movement campaigned vigorously to defend it, yet it lost 6.5 million votes, a figure close to the number of new abstentions, mostly among disillusioned unemployed and low-income voters, with democratic participation at its historical low (63.8 per cent). Democratic apathy is the real risk for Italian democracy in the coming years.

Yet, a civic, cultural and social backslash to Meloni’s reactionary agenda is bound to develop across Italian squares. Italian progressives must seize that moment to transform a necessary resistance into an overdue resurgence.

Andrea Pisauro is a researcher in neuroscience at the University of Birmingham, member of the Italian ecosocialist collective Manifesto di Londra and joint-coordinator of Europe for Scotland

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