In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period”, will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people. “Everything must change for everything to remain the same,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.
By Luca Mancin
A Brief Summary of September 25
“From the Italians, a clear indication came in these general elections for a centre-right government led by Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy)” Giorgia Meloni said in the early morning of the 26th of September, as exit polls presented a first image of the Italian vote. “Now it is time for responsibility,” she added. In the face of criticism and doubts resounding in foreign media, Meloni aimed to reassure both national and international audiences that she will govern in the name of all Italians.
The winning coalition – consisting of Fratelli d’Italia, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – reached a majority of 235 MPs thanks to their combined 43.79 percent of the vote. While Italian media has described this coalition as “centre-right”, the foreign press categorises their movement as being dominantly populist radical right, with only Berlusconi holding moderate and pro-European positions relative to his coalition partners.
While Meloni’s triumph was largely predicted, the level of electoral success (25.99 percent) came as a surprise in comparison to the party’s 2018 score (4.35 percent). Fratelli d’Italia managed to monopolize its role as the dominant opposition party to Mario Draghi’s grand coalition government in the last year and a half. After all, in a government of national unity composed of leftist, centrist and rightist parties, it is quite easy to bring out the political ambivalences and hypocrisies of both opponents and allies. Berlusconi’s party reached an unexpected 8.11 percent, despite polls preceding the vote predicting it to be around 5%. Matteo Salvini failed to reach previous successes as the Lega achieved 8.77 percent of the vote. This result represents a loss of almost 10 points from the 2018 domestic elections and 26 from the 2019 European vote. This dissatisfaction with Salvini’s leadership started growing within the Lega’s electorate, following his decision to join Draghi’s government in February 2021.
The Five Stars Movement, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, did better than expected compared to opinion polls prior to the election. This surprising result of 15.43 percent was achieved through its strong showing in the south of Italy. The greatest losses came at the expense of the centre-left alliance led by Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party (PD). Independently, the party garnered 19.07 percent of the vote, however it lacked support from its junior partners, who only contributed an additional 7.06 percent to the alliance. Rounding out the Parliament is the so-called “third pole”, the centrist alliance between Carlo Calenda’s Azione and Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (7.79 percent), who collectively gained 21 seats.
Background to the Vote
Since the last time Italians voted, the 4th of March 2018, three governments have gone by – two of which were led by Giuseppe Conte (Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega (2018), M5S and Democratic Party (2019)) and one by Mario Draghi. In July of this year, M5S, Lega, and Forza Italia withdrew their confidence in the executive, causing a crisis which resulted in the collapse of the Draghi government.
Draghi’s resignation on the 21st of July, dissolved the grand national unity coalition which featured internal divisions, constant struggles, and a sense of perennial electoral campaigns. The subsequent election occurred in the shadow of the Ukrainian war, a burgeoning energy crisis, management of the Next Generation EU funds, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The elections were further complicated by the reduced number of MPs following the 2020 constitutional referendum and the upcoming deadline for the 2023 economic and financial plan (DEF).
However, what kind of campaign has it been?
A Short, Summer Campaign
In a nutshell, the campaign has followed an inconsistent pace: vacuous during August and frenetic in September. The opinion polls favouring the populist radical right rendered opposing citizens and parties demoralized to compete effectively with Meloni’s rising popularity. In particular, the centre-left seemed resigned to a defeat, content to “lose with style,” as Columbia University professor Nadia Urbinati stated in an op-ed in “Domani”.
While there has not been a strong central theme throughout the electoral campaign, as reddito di cittadinanza was in 2018, some notable themes can still be identified. These include the energy crisis, the populist radical right’s “flat tax” and fiscal relief, the polarization between populist radical right and Democratic Party on the necessity of Atlanticism and Europeanism, and the management of the Next Generation EU funds.
The energy crisis and its economic consequences on all levels of Italian society served as one of the main battlegrounds for the electoral campaign. While all parties agreed on a necessary price cap on oil and gas, marked differences emerged on alternative sources of energy. While the right-wing coalition pushed for nuclear energy, Calenda’s Azione stood for regasification plants, and the left-wing groups advocated for renewable energy sources. Additionally, no consensus was found concerning national debt and financial support for citizens struggling the most with inflation.
Second, the relationship between the frontrunning right-wing parties and Putin was brought into question. This was combined with debates on Italy’s stance to continue economic sanctions on Russia. However, every party attempted to present itself as pro-Europe and pro-NATO, even Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega, historically more sceptic and critical of Europe. The political debate was exacerbated by US leaks regarding Russia’s funding of European parties. This brought about a tumultuous climate of mutual accusations regarding who received Russian funds and who did not. Particularly scandalous were Berlusconi’s words justifying Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Finally, the campaign picked up where Draghi’s government left off: the distribution of the Next Generation EU (NGEU) funds in the National Plan of Recovery and Resilience (PNRR). Meloni strengthened her political aura and authority over the right-wing coalition by repeatedly stating her intention to go to Brussels and “renegotiate” the NGEU details, despite this being neither legally nor politically feasible. Her populist approach failed to mention the European Green Deal, in spite of sustainability’s significance in the NGEU fund. Across the political axis, environmental concerns were lacking, and only considered by Sinistra Italiana-Verdi and some minor left-wing parties. Meanwhile, PD and M5S’ programmes were largely environmentalist in name only and could even be categorised as greenwashing. Geopolitically speaking, instead, major problems were the migration flow from Libya and the absence of any agreements with the African country and within the EU’s member states (cf. Dublin Regulation III).
In terms of the approach to campaigning, there was a significant push to mobilise the youth vote. Parties turned en-masse to social media networks to create numerous, and often blatant, posts targeting this electorate. Most notably, political leaders across the spectrum used TikTok to post surreal, if not ridiculous, videos in an attempt to achieve virality. For instance, Salvini used to do long live streams on this social, chatting with users and allowing them to apply a variety of filters during his chats.
Giorgia Meloni’s Heavy Post-Fascist Burden
Since the morning of the 26th of September, the front pages of Italian and particularly foreign newspapers presented Meloni’s win as a revival of fascism Although Giorgia Meloni is likely to become the first female Prime Minister in Italian history, media attention has focused instead on her victory being a symptom of democratic decay in Italy.
Fratelli d’Italia’s relationship to fascism is clear and undeniable. Starting with the tricolour flame as the party’s symbol – this imagery is derived from the Italian Social Movement party, a political successor to the fascist Salò Social Republic. Throughout the party’s history, there has always been a respect for Benito Mussolini. Whether it be the words of a 19-years old Giorgia Meloni on the political skills of the dictator, or Gianfranco Fini’s (one of the founders of Fratelli d’Italia) statement that Mussolini was the greatest statist of the 20th century. Although the party leaders have been openly against any fascist recalls, it is clear that Fratelli d’Italia’s roots drawn from such symbolic and historical imagery.
“Fascism” is not the only peculiarity of this party, which needs further analysis. Fratelli d’Italia’s nature as a populist radical right party (according to Cas Mudde’s definition presented in the book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe) requires thorough exploration and deeper analysis. Indeed, Meloni’s strategies and communications reflect the dimensions of (1) populism, (2) nativism, and (3) authoritarianism. Opponents generally use the fascist element to denigrate Fratelli d’Italia, but risk overlooking and obscuring its more complex articulations.
According to Bologna University’s professor Salvatore Vassallo, Fratelli d’Italia has a revisionist view of the twenty years of fascist dictatorship in Italy, but leaders of the party have more than once declared the absolute condemnation and distance themselves from such a phenomenon. I would consider the role of fascism in the ideology of Fratelli d’Italia as the “theoretical premise” that influences the authoritarian dimensions of the populist radical right under the banner of authoritarian “law and order” and nativist aspects conjugated in the form of secure national borders or economic protectionism. It means that we should not expect a “fascist backlash” but, rather, an exacerbation or a polarisation of those themes that feature populist radical right’s political programmes – where the fascist rhetoric would be used, if used, by supporters of Fratelli d’Italia and not by its leaders. Considering this, it remains convenient for leftist parties and media to label and condemn Meloni’s triumph as the win of fascism, thanks to her populist and demagogue rhetoric.
What is missing in such media and political analyses is consideration of the causes behind this electoral result. If Meloni reached the 26% of the vote and won in constituencies that have voted for leftist parties since the birth of the Italian Republic, her triumph probably is a consequence of a democratic malaise, not a cause. Furthermore, I argue that defeated parties and columnists should confront the reasons behind the highest record of abstentionism in Republican history, which reached 64 percent.
The lethargic politics of Draghi’s government may offer insight to the sharp rise of the extreme right; the centrist decision-making, technocratic disengagement, and the opaque management of the Next Generation EU’s tasks prevented necessary political debate between the left and right. As Chantal Mouffe lucidly explains in her The Democratic Paradox, this tendency to operate on a “radical centre” anesthetises the political environment and indirectly favours and nourishes extremisms – be they of left or right.
If Meloni succeeds in receiving the primary responsibility from the national president Sergio Mattarella to form a government, the new executive will be staunchly conservative. We can expect attacks on civil rights in the fields of abortion, euthanasia, gay adoption, racial and homophobic discrimination, as well as stricter immigration policy. After all, Fratelli d’Italia’s slogan states “God, Family, and Homeland”.
However, the absence of new laws does not mean eliminating the old ones. The Italian Constitution boasts robust checks and balances to constrain executive power. Consequently, the populist radical right majority cannot bypass these controls without holding regular referenda. Additionally, in such a geopolitical and historical context, it is hard to imagine a decline of Italian democracy towards a “Polish” or “Hungarian” model – even if a worried Ursula von der Leyden has warned about the EU’s dissuading tools.
Last but certainly not least, we should expect some theatrical shows of strength at the EU’s expense to impress domestic supporters. For instance, Meloni is already pushing for revisions of the PNRR’s expense details in line with current inflation rates. Similarly, we can expect attempts to pressure the EU to adopt new internal regulation on migration flows through operations like naval blockades targeting NGO’s transporting migrants. Finally, on the economic front, neoliberal measures for tax relief, like the controversial “flat tax”, will be difficult to approve due to constitutional issues and a lack of funds.
The most pressing deadline facing the incoming government is the submission of the 2023 economic and financial planning document (DEF) to Brussels. Given the short time frame, it is likely that Draghi’s outgoing government will work with the new executive to draft the DEF. In light of Italy’s historical national debt problems, Meloni’s first objective will be to reassure the international markets of her moderate profile through a “Europeanism of convenience.”
Finally, it is essential to remember that, since 1948, Italy has had 67 governments, lasting, on average, 414 days. In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period,” will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people.
“Everything must change for everything to remain the same," Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.