The recent Italian elections saw the far right Brothers of Italy, headed by Georgia Meloni, emerge victorious. Giulio di Basilio assesses Italy’s new far right coalition and how can the Left can confront it.
Italy will soon have its first female prime minister. Ironically, it will be someone at the helm of a far-right party with clear origins in the post-fascist Italian tradition; certainly not a tradition known for its feminist ethos.
Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia or FdI) emerged as the winner of the 25 September Italian elections, with 26% of the votes. She is leading a right-wing coalition made up of Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, who each won 8% of the votes. Collectively the right-wing coalition reached 44%.
How can a party which won just 4% in the 2018 elections have so rapidly become the biggest political party in Italy? They were clearly on an upward trend (they got 6% at the 2019 European elections), but more is needed to explain their sudden rise. The answer largely lies in recent Italian political developments: Meloni’s was the only party that refused to join former ECB president Mario Draghi’s government of ‘national unity’, recently brought down after 17 months in office. Moreover, in the current crisis of the Ukraine war, Meloni’s competitors, Salvini and Berlusconi, have been largely discredited due to their ties to, and sympathies for Putin. An image of Salvini, in particular, proudly sporting a pro-Putin t-shirt on the Red Square in Moscow, did the rounds on Italian media, and surely didn’t work in Salvini’s favour given the current international context.
There are important questions raised by the results of the Italian elections for leftists to consider. First, and most urgently, is Italy seeing the resurgence of a fascist mass movement?
The answer seems to be in the negative for now. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy does not seem to be backed up by a mass movement. Her recent success is largely due to a swap of right-wing votes. More precisely, Meloni has stolen Salvini’s thunder (who got 17% of the votes in 2018; Forza Italia got 14%). More generally, if one counts the votes received by Italian right-wing parties in the last decades, it becomes clear that the absolute figure has substantially remained the same. Italy’s right-wing electorate has been on the look-out for a political leader since the early 90s. Given Italy’s notorious electoral volatility and long-standing political personalism, Italian right-wing voters have now converged on the young leader who, despite her troubling political past, presented herself with a somewhat reassuring face and, importantly, was yet to be given a chance of forming her own government.
The Politics of Fratelli d’Italia
Brothers of Italy can be traced back to the Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano, MSI), a party founded by former members of Mussolini’s Salò Republic (1943-1945). Meloni’s party still retains the tricolour flame in its crest, the historic symbol of MSI; it puts forward relatives of Mussolini in local elections; and its party members are notorious for toasting to Mussolini as soon as the cameras turn away.
Apart from its worrying origins, what do the Brothers of Italy stand for today? To begin with, Meloni has vociferously reassured the international establishment that her government is going to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion, and is going to adhere to the constraints imposed by the EU. In a country where markedly different types of anti-establishment politics, most recently Salvini’s Lega and the Five Star Movement, have ended up supporting Draghi’s government, Meloni’s tack has perhaps appeared more credible to the Italian electorate.
Second, the whole right-wing coalition advocates for a constitutional reform to turn the Italian political system into a Presidential Republic. Italy is a country notoriously difficult to govern, where, in addition to electing the President, the parliament has significant leeway to form and bring down governments. Meloni and her cohort propose a direct election of the President. However, in Italy constitutional reforms require two thirds of the vote, and Meloni’s coalition has failed to reach the above threshold.
On economic issues, the Brothers of Italy’s policies are run-of-the-mill Thatcherite in spirit: tax cuts for companies that employ more workers, a commitment to balance the books and to scrap the Jobseeker’s Allowance scheme recently introduced by the Five Star Movement (a meagre, heavily means-tested poverty subsidy), as well as, most importantly, a plan to introduce a flat tax (very close to Salvini’s heart and its own electoral base).
Most frightening of all, arguably, is the party’s stance on immigration. Here Meloni picks up where Salvini left off by calling for a naval blockade and setting up hotspots in North Africa for immigrants to be assessed before being allowed access to Europe.
Finally, Meloni has stoked up many a culture war on civil liberties issues. While not intent on changing the Law 194 on voluntary abortion, she claims she wants to ‘prevent’ abortions: this connects with her party’s fearmongering on Italy’s low birth rate, which in turn feeds into fears of Great Replacement theory, widespread among Italian right-wing circles. Vocal against same-sex adoption, scaremongering about ‘the LGBTQ lobby’, her agenda on the above themes is in line with a global reactionary trend (notably the overturn of Roe v. Wade in the US and similar rulings in Poland). Meloni is likely to engage in a culture war around environmental issues too: she seems set on reopening the debate around nuclear energy, which has twice been rejected in referendums by Italians. She is also likely to reclaim a stronger role for Italy on the geopolitical scene, with a special emphasis on the need to achieve energy independence.
Behind Meloni’s Rise
In view of the sudden electoral gains of the far-right, one might expect a country like Italy, with its own proud antifascist tradition, to mobilise against Meloni and her party. Unfortunately, this is not happening.
There are at least three reasons for this. First, fascism in Italy has been somewhat normalised from the ’90 onwards: in particular, Berlusconi’s governments (1994-1996; 2001-2005; 2005-6; 2008-11) have repeatedly featured post-fascists in ministerial positions, Meloni included. Relatedly, there has been a growing narrative, according to which fascists, too, were victims in WWII. Especially important in this sense is the foibe massacres, perpetrated in Yugoslavia by resistance fighters against Italian occupiers. Italy now has a national day of remembrance for the victims of the massacre. All this feeds into a long-standing narrative whereby Italians were never as bad as the Germans, that Italian fascism was a dictatorship with a human face, and that the root cause of its excesses lay in the mistaken decision to side with Germany in the run-up to and during WWII. It is astonishing the degree to which this narrative is still widespread in Italy.
Second, the Italian antifascist tradition has largely disintegrated. The Italian Communist Party, which hosted this tradition and counted Resistance fighters among its members, has split and splintered since the early ’90 only to disappear into thin air eventually. And of course partigiani, with an alive memory of the fight against fascism, are no longer among us. After the ’90 the heirs of the Communist Party have shifted towards the centre, their party has become the party of the institutions, the EU first of foremost. The political parties of the centre-left have become indistinguishable from, and often have governed together with, Italy’s technocratic governments, which in three decades have pursued a neoliberal agenda, disempowered workers, and eroded the country’s standards of living.
Third, Giorgia Meloni has lent a more reassuring face to the fascist tradition and the far-right more generally. Whether or not she offers a ‘feminised’ version of fascism is a question that can be debated at length (the majority of her voters are men), but she clearly fares much better, PR-wise, compared to Trump, Bolsonaro, and Orbán. She has been a household name for some time and, having been a militant politician from her teenage years, has probably looked to many people like enough of an alternative to Draghi’s technocratic government.
The Fascist Threat and the Challenges for the Left
If Trotsky is right and fascism is an intrinsically counterrevolutionary phenomenon, then the implication is that fascism cannot possibly be on the rise in Italy, for the sheer reason that no revolutionary threat has been posed to Italy’s ruling class in the first place. In the country’s recent history, left-wing progressive movements have been few and far between (e.g. the striking autoworkers of the GKN plant near Florence) and have come nowhere near being a threat to the capitalist system. However, it does not follow that we have nothing to fear. We cannot be complacent about the results of the Italian elections as this amounts to a message of encouragement to the far-right as a whole both within and outside of the country. Within the country Meloni’s success is likely to embolden neofascist street squads, first and foremost Forza Nuova, who only a year ago stormed, in genuinely fascist style, the headquarters of Italy’s biggest trade union, the Italian General Confederation of Labour or CGIL. Outside of Italy, Meloni’s success encourages many other far-right parties, some of which have close ties to Brothers of Italy, for instance Vox in Spain, Orbán in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, Trump in the US, and Le Pen in France.
It is worth mentioning that the last Italian general elections have seen a record-low turnout (63%). Apart from the absolute figure, this is almost 10 percentage points lower than the last general elections in 2018, one of the most severe drops in Italian history. Surely the fact that, unlike the right, centre-left and left-wing parties have spectacularly failed to form an electoral united front, despite Italy’s electoral law clearly rewarding coalitions, has discouraged people from voting. Be that as it may, there is significant political potential dormant in Italy’s abstentionism. We are left hoping that in the near future a left-wing force will finally be able to re-engage these voters and build up a new movement capable of keeping the far-right at bay.
Whatever left-wing force will emerge in the near future should first and foremost set itself the task of taking on Meloni. To achieve this result the left should, to start with, expose Meloni as a defender of the élites and not as an anti-establishment figure. Meloni is following the standard far-right playbook by positioning herself as anti-élite and as a defender of disenfranchised nationals. In reality all she will do is attack minority groups instead of the country’s ruling class and, in fact, represents the last resort of that class to protect their privileges and safeguard the economic status quo. The task of debunking Meloni has become easier since, to establish her political credentials, she has had to side openly with the establishment both internationally (NATO, the EU) and within the country (Italian employers’ federations and other economic élites). The rallying point of the left should be that one cannot expect any significant change from such a political movement.
Moreover, the incoming government faces the tall order of addressing the ongoing cost of living and energy crisis. It is likely that Meloni’s government will not make the grade, which in and of itself is a significant opportunity for change – what into, though? Italy can either default, once again, to technocratic forms of governance, the standard option for Italy since the early 90s; or to left-wing alternatives. But to achieve transformative change the left needs to start from the ground up, and notably make inroads into that huge section of the population who do not show up at the ballot box. To do so, it is not sufficient to come up with an electoral alternative; arguably this time around there was such an alternative, namely Popular Union led by the former mayor of Naples Luigi de Magistris. Italy needs a political force capable of re-engaging working-class communities with a bottom-up approach of building struggle on the streets and in workplaces. It is vital to fight back against Meloni’s preferred targets (the LGBTQ community, migrants, Muslims), but one needs to do so from the vantage point of an intersectional struggle, which is to be led by a renewed working class finally capable of fighting against those élites that Meloni is ultimately set to defend.