God, family, fatherland: will Italy go black today?

Nearly a century after Mussolini’s march on Rome, Italy could see a hard-right party, which still sports the neo-fascist tricolor flame in its emblem, on the brink of winning power. But how big is the risk of Italy becoming a second Hungary?

This way to the right: hard-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni
This way to the right: hard-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni

The latest polls suggest that Italy will elect a supermajority for a right-wing coalition, which is expected to win over 60% of seats in both chambers – close to a two-thirds majority which would enable the winners to write constitutional rules.

As the leader of the party with most votes in the coalition, Fratelli d’Italia’s Giorgia Meloni will not only become Italy’s first female Prime Minister but also the first hailing from a party rooted in fascism, whose slogan “God, Family and fatherland” sends jitters across Europe.

But with so much at stake in terms of avoiding economic collapse and a ruinous exit from the eurozone, one may well expect a continuation of Mario Draghi’s cautious fiscal policies, with business as usual in economic and foreign policy, spiced up by a divisive rhetoric which may further embolden bigots across Europe.

The long march to Rome

Symbolism apart, nobody is expecting a return to Mussolini’s authoritarian rule. But Meloni’s victory does spell an important landmark in the long march of the Italian right-wing towards political respectability.

For what Italy offers is a lesson on how granting legitimacy to the far right, by offering them the opportunity to prop up centre-right governments, can eventually pave the way for them to supplant their once larger and more moderate partners.

Prof. Carmen Sammut, a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the University of Malta, says the Italian election may well set the trend for other European countries, especially in view of Meloni’s influential role as president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a pan-European umbrella party which once included the British Tories along with an assortment of parties to the right of the European People’s Party (EPP). “Fuelled by fervent patriotism, Giorgia Meloni has become the face of the far-right firebrand in Europe’s third biggest economy. She is poised to join like-minded friends in Poland, Hungary, Spain and Sweden, where a coalition government is likely to include a far-right party founded by neo-Nazis and skinheads.”

Friends... with Hungary bad boy Viktor Orban
Friends... with Hungary bad boy Viktor Orban

Back in 1994, in the aftermath of Tangentopoli, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi brought to power a coalition which included Gianfranco Fini, who had just changed the post-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano’s name to the more inclusive Alleanza Nazionale. It also included Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord, a regionalist party which at that time was more concerned with southerners than with migrants. But back then it was clear that Berlusconi was the boss, with his party Forza Italia built on the remnants of centrist parties devastated by Tangentopoli. It emerged as the dominant force in Italian politics for the next two decades.

While the two right-wing parties reluctantly paid the price of shielding Berlusconi from the “judicial persecution” by the so-called red togas – “toghe rosse” – he took pride in having tamed the two beasts and anchoring them in the political mainstream.

By 2003, Gianfranco Fini was describing fascism as an absolute evil. Six years later he disbanded his own party, which formally merged with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in the now defunct Popolo delle Libertà. By the time he became Speaker of the House, Fini even started showing signs of unease with Berlusconi’s judicial obsessions. A right-wing drift saw the Lega reinventing itself as the main anti-immigrant party, substituting its invective against southerners with one directed against African migrants and Roma communities, in a bid to become a national party supplanting AN as the main party of the hard right.

Yet it was only four years ago that Forza Italia formally lost its dominance, being surpassed by Matteo Salvini’s Lega as the main party of the right.

After disorienting his electorate by first teaming up with the populist 5-Star Movement (M5S) and then supporting the technocratic Draghi government in a bid to gain international legitimacy, Salvini found himself overtaken by Giorgio Meloni, the energetic leader of Brothers of Italy (FdI), the successor to the MSI and AN, which distinguished itself by its opposition to COVID mandates and the unelected Draghi government.

Now it is the rivalry between the two leaders of the Italian hard right – Salvini and Meloni – that will condition the actions of the next Italian government, with an octogenarian Berlusconi fashioning himself as  the guarantor of Italy’s liberal credentials in a coalition he no longer controls, losing his role as arbitor of this contest between strong-(wo)men politicians.

Friend-ish... the grand right-wing coalition has its own strongmen: Matteo Salvini, and old cad Silvio Berlusconi
Friend-ish... the grand right-wing coalition has its own strongmen: Matteo Salvini, and old cad Silvio Berlusconi

Arnold Cassola, a former centre-left Italian MP, and Maltese green politician, suspects that bad blood between the two politicians may well impact the longevity of the government. “Will the Italian centre-right coalition last the whole five years of its mandate? Judging by the venomous digs at Meloni by ‘allies’ Berlusconi and Salvini during this election campaign… I have my strong doubts.”

Despite his aversion to Meloni’s ideology, Prof. Cassola is not surprised by her political rise from leader of a minor party, which gained 4% of the vote in 2018, to leading Italy’s largest party.

Meloni was first elected to parliament in 2006, when she formed part of Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale. It was in the same year that Cassola was elected as a Green MP in Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition.

 “I have first-hand experience of Giorgia Meloni’s abilities. Despite being only 28 at the time, she stood out as one of the four Deputy Speakers in Parliament... Brilliant, intelligent and an innate orator, she was simply a pleasure to listen to, even though we sat on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum.”

Project Fear

But how big is the risk of Italy turning black? As the centre-left democrats tried to conjure fears of a leap in the dark, in a bid to present themselves as the responsible party anchored in European values, Meloni walked on a tight-rope, emboldening bigots by lashing out at so-called gender ideology, promising a European blockade of Libya to stop migrant arrivals, but also conveniently ditching her past admiration for Vladimir Putin and her past pledge to leave the eurozone.

And when asked whether she agreed with her predecessor on fascism being an absolute evil, she replied that she had never disassociated herself from that statement. The end result is a coalition which is more Tory-like in economics – promising a flat tax which favours business – but which has inserted itself in former left-wing neighborhoods, mostly appealing to migration fears. And while the left is accused of conjuring unrealistic fears of a restoration of fascis, which Meloni dubbed as ‘Project Fear’, the right increasingly thrives in a culture of fear of others in everyday life, in a country plagued by bad governance which magnifies insecurities.

With so much to lose in terms of EU funding and reputation, the end result may well be business as usual, spiced by symbolic and divisive measures aimed at keeping the ultra-right base happy, which could take the form of regular showdowns with other EU countries, including Malta, on migrant arrivals.

No Italexit on the horizon

Peter Aguis, an MEP candidate in the last round of European elections, and a former close collaborator of Antonio Tajani, a former president of the European Parliament hailing from the moderate wing of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, does not expect Italy to make a radical shift in its foreign and economic policy.

“Since Brexit, with its empty promise of ‘sunlit uplands’ nowhere in sight, everyone has become wiser. Today, there is no political force of any electoral relevance anywhere in the EU that advocates exit from the EU or the eurozone. This includes Italy and Meloni’s party.”

Moreover, surveys show that the Italian people, like the Maltese, realise the huge added value of European cooperation. “I believe that no one in their right senses leading Italy would ignore this and risk European achievements like free movement of people, the stability of the euro currency and an internal market of 500 million citizens for the ‘Made in Italy’. This is why Giorgia Meloni has toned down much of her anti-EU rhetoric in the past months, in view of the seat at Palazzo Chigi.”

Surely the stark nationalistic tone of Meloni still sends jitters in Brussels. “To some extent, Meloni’s call is a reminder that the EU is a union of different peoples united through common interests. I do not associate with Meloni’s caricatural attacks on Brussels’ initiatives and her use of faith as a dividing factor. I do believe, however, that it is not illegitimate to fight for one’s own country’s national interest in Brussels. We must strive to find European common ground but we must never neglect the needs of our communities at home.”

Neither does Agius believe that a Meloni government would be detrimental to Malta’s interests.

“We have to work intelligently to keep furthering Malta’s interests if Meloni is elected to lead Italy’s government. We need to remember, first, that with Brexit we lost a main ally around the negotiating table. Malta needs to consolidate alliances with member states who have similar interests to be able to mould the Union to fit our needs”.

One of the major concerns is that hard right government in Italy would trigger migration standoffs which soured relations with Italy whenever the far right was in government.

But according to Agius.Malta should consider closer cooperation with Italy on migration and sea rescue operations while acknowledging that “the difference of interpretation” of international rules between Malta and Italy “results in continuing cases of migrants left in distress without a clear port of call”.

Agius believesItaly and Malta can work together, as they did in the past “to consolidate and reinforce an EU policy for Libya and Central Africa, where the Union invests heavily in measures ensuring economic growth for Africans to build a future in Africa”.

Cassola is less optimistic. “The probable installation of Matteo Salvini as minister of the interior will probably put an end to Italy’s ‘welcoming’ policy for migrants, shifting much more pressure on our authorities here in Malta. The days of asking Italy to take the responsibility for migrants in Malta’s SAR aree will be over.”

Moreover. a win for Meloni will not only bring about an ideological change in Italy, but will also translate into further complications for the European project. Cassola says Meloni is a convinced sovereigntist “opposed to the concept of a stronger political union in Europe” and that this will certainly prevent closer co-operation on common European financial measures and a closer collaboration in defence issues.

Carmen Sammut recognises a shift in Meloni’s discourse on European integration. “In the past she did not mince her words about her Euroscepticism, even if her stance has mellowed.”

But Meloni will now be in a position “to influence European responses to the hot war in Ukraine, the resulting energy and cost of living crises, the looming recession and the climate chaos that characterize the post-COVID era.”

Culture wars to keep the base happy

Will Meloni become a Trojan horse weakening Europe from within, or will her appointment as PM make her even more careful and responsible? In the absence of any change in overall economic and foreign policy direction, the new government may be tempted to simply play the culture wars game in a bid to keep right-wingers in the party’s base happy while playing to the EU’s rules.

In a sign of things to come, Isabella Rauti, one of Meloni’s lieutenants, grabbed the headlines by lashing out at the Peppa Pig cartoon for featuring a lesbian polar bear couple. “The last thing the world needs in these troubled times is a far-right European movement with its annoying divisive rhetoric and dangerous cultural wars. Sadly, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” Sammut points out on this incident.

And while Meloni herself has made it clear that she would not restrict abortion rights, the new government may be tempted into tinkering with abortion laws by forcing women to listen to the fetal heartbeat before aborting, an Orban-inspired measure introduced by the right in the Italian region of Marche.

In fact, the slogan ‘God, country and fatherland’ – reminiscent of the Maltese Nationalist Party’s ‘religio et patria’ tagline, suggests a historical regression to aggressive nationalism. But how far the Italian right wing can go in eroding existing civil liberties, remains doubtful, even if its victory makes the introduction of gay marriage impossible and will abort the extension of citizenship rights to children born and schooled in Italy.

Sammut also notes the dissonance between Meloni’s trailblazing role as Italy’s first female PM, and the conservative agenda she promotes. “Italy is set to appoint its first female prime minister and I am not delighted,” she points out, saying feminists have expressed concern about her family planning policies, her lip service to the “traditional” family, and her unsympathetic position on minority rights. “They conclude that her political arguments do not auger well for female representation or women’s rights. Still, while Meloni is no feminist, she still has a duty towards Italian and European women because, whether she likes it or not, she is a trailblazer.”

The failures of the left

And why has Meloni been so successful while the centre-left and its allies so powerless in stopping her? For Sammut, Meloni personifies European resentment towards the failures of the left and its disconnection from the masses. “Like many of her supporters, she hails from a staunchly left-wing industrial heartland, which was previously a Communist Party domain.”

But one major reason behind Meloni’s rise is her ability to capture the anti-establishment mood by offering a simplistic narrative based on soundbites which can easily go viral on social media. “Her blunt opposition to political correctness coloured her profile as nemesis of the political establishment,” Sammut notes.

In contrast, established parties frequently lack a coherent political vision. “Traditional party representation is often immersed in mediatised hype and pastiche politics,” Sammut says, “where the grassroots are disconnected, disenchanted and their resentments and fears ignored. The pressures of immigration and multiculturalism frequently emerge at the forefront of the issues at hand. She presented herself as an alternative to all this.”

Added to the existential crisis of the left is its inability to assemble a united coalition, which includes Giuseppe Conte’s Five Star Movement, with whom the Democrats governed between 2019 and 2021. For while the right is on the brink of a supermajority, with some commentators speculating on the not-so-remote possibility of it winning a two-thirds majority to rewrite the Constitution, the combined sum of the allied right-wing parties does not add to more than 48%.