Italy’s drift to the far right began long before the rise of Giorgia Meloni

<span>Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Giorgia Meloni scored a remarkable success in yesterday’s Italian election – and is all but certain to become prime minister. Her post-fascist Brothers of Italy party’s 26% of the vote makes it the largest party nationally. Overall, the rightwing coalition it now leads will have a considerable majority in both houses of parliament.

Part of the explanation lies in the weakness of the opposition. The eclectic Five Star Movement (15%) and the centre-left Democrats (19%) did not join forces and, after years of failing to improve working-class living standards, were unable to rally the left’s historic base. Turnout was easily the lowest in the republic’s history, with only 64% of Italians voting.

Yet this isn’t just the story of Italy making a sudden and sharp turn to the right. It’s the latest product of a long normalisation of far-right parties. The media often casts the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as a “moderating” influence, but he played a key role in today’s far-right breakthroughs. He has boasted that he “invented the centre-right in 1994” by allying with “the League and the fascists” – “we legitimised and constitutionalised them”. From the outset, Berlusconi made harsh anti-immigrant statements, routinely trivialised Mussolini’s crimes and appointed lifelong neo-fascists to top jobs.

Berlusconi’s last government was felled by the sovereign debt crisis in 2011, and he then supported a technocratic cabinet. Then, in 2013, he was banned from public office after a tax fraud conviction. This offered room for first the League, then Brothers of Italy to claim leadership over the rightwing coalition, foregrounding their narrative of civilisational decline and nationalist resistance.

Much of Brothers of Italy’s more recent rise is due to its position as the only major opposition to Mario Draghi’s crossparty cabinet, which both Matteo Salvini and Berlusconi joined upon its creation in February 2021. Meloni emphasised she would pursue a “constructive” approach to Draghi and continue his distribution of post-pandemic EU funds, but without making deals with the centre-left. This entrenched her as leader of the righwing coalition, with the other parties now promising to make her prime minister.

If Italy will now have its most rightwing prime minister since 1945, this does not mean a mere return to the past. Brothers of Italy is rooted in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a neo-fascist party created in 1946 which ran in elections but retained a deep hostility toward the republic created at the end of the anti-fascist resistance.

During Berlusconi’s governments, MSI leaders formally accepted liberal-democratic values, dropped their old name and condemned Mussolini’s antisemitism. Yet many still cherished the legacy of postwar neo-fascism, and Brothers of Italy was created in 2012 as an explicit reassertion of the MSI tradition. This is a party that seeks to rewrite history textbooks to highlight the crimes of anti-fascist partisans. But it also draws on other, more international far-right memes like the “great replacement” of Europeans by immigrants – a conspiracy theory that has inspired multiple terrorist attacks.

Brothers of Italy has promised major changes to the political legacy of the postwar republic. One is to marginalise parliament and parties by introducing a directly elected presidency. But many critics fear it will go further. This month, Brothers of Italy and the League were the only Italian parties to vote against an EU parliament resolution that damned Viktor Orbán’s Hungary an “electoral autocracy”. Meloni’s party has also mooted a constitutional ban on “apologia for communism and Islamic extremism” – imitating catch-all measures used in Budapest to squash leftwing critics.

Related: Giorgia Meloni is a danger to Italy and the rest of Europe | Roberto Saviano

The process of government formation usually takes at least a month, even when there is a clearly identifiable majority. Brothers of Italy leaders have insisted that they expect the outgoing government to take key measures on soaring energy bills before they arrive in office. Yet this crisis and the war in Ukraine could cause major problems. Despite her own statements, Meloni’s base is mostly hostile to sanctions on Russia, and the League leader, Salvini, has raised doubts over their future.

We can expect Meloni and her new MPs to lean into attacks on immigrants, “LGBT lobbies”, trade unions and other groups they call the “leftwing establishment”. The call for a “naval blockade” in the Mediterranean seeks to harshen the existing EU border regime. The rightwing parties also plan vast tax cuts and the abandonment of jobseeker benefits. Even with a large majority, faced with today’s dramas it is not clear that they will be able to pursue their whole agenda. But the real fear is who this government will choose to offload the fallout of this crisis on to.

  • David Broder is the author of Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism In Contemporary Italy

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