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26 September 2022

Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist party triumphs in the Italian election 

The Brothers of Italy leader is on the verge of becoming prime minister, thanks especially to a divided left.

By Jeremy Cliffe

ROME — Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) was the big winner of the Italian election on Sunday 25 September. With most votes now counted the party is comfortably in first place on just over 26 per cent of the vote, a huge increase from its 4.3 per cent at the last election in 2018. Addressing supporters and the media at a hotel in Rome in the early hours of the morning, Meloni said: “Italians have sent a clear message in favour of a government of the centre-right, led by Brothers of Italy.” She is now set to become the first woman to be the country’s prime minister.

The term “centre-right” deserves to be challenged. Brothers of Italy has roots in Italian neo-fascism and its allies are the nationalist-populist Lega party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Together this block took just over 44 per cent of the vote, which under Italy’s electoral system gives it comfortable majorities in both the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament) and the Senate (the upper house), though in both cases short of the two-thirds supermajority that would have allowed it to change the constitution without a referendum.

Sunday’s election also had a secondary winner: the Five Star Movement. A populist party hard to place on the left-right spectrum, it had taken first place and almost 33 per cent at the 2018 election. Having sat in all three Italian governments since 2018 and in the process lost much of its anti-establishment appeal, support for the party had fallen to about 10 per cent according to polls this summer. But since then its leader, Giuseppe Conte, has given it a sharper, left-of-centre identity rooted in Italy’s poorer south, thanks especially to its policy of defending its 2019 introduction of “citizens’ income” payments for the lowest earners, who are mostly concentrated in southern regions. Five Star was rewarded with a modest rebound, capturing 15 per cent of the vote – still a big fall from 2018 but high enough to stabilise the party and establish it as a significant force on the Italian left. 

The biggest loser from the election is clearly Matteo Salvini’s Lega. As recently as 2019 he was Italy’s most prominent politician and his party (having ditched its old name “Lega Nord” and reached out beyond its traditional northern heartlands) was polling at over 35 per cent. Yet a succession of tactical errors has seen it eclipsed by the Brothers of Italy. It fell to 9 per cent at Sunday’s election. An early analysis for Rai, Italy’s public broadcaster, suggests that fully 40 per cent of those who voted for Meloni’s party had been Lega voters in 2018. That Brothers of Italy surpassed Lega even in the latter’s supposed strongholds, like the north-eastern Veneto region, could put Salvini’s leadership in doubt.

The other major loser is the centre-left Democratic Party. It has not lost support per se – doing as well as it did in 2018, with around 19 per cent of votes – so much as missed out on opportunities to do better. Had it managed to forge an alliance of the centre and left to rival the right-wing block made up of Brothers of Italy, Lega and Forza Italia, it would have been rewarded under a new Italian electoral system that allocates over a third of parliamentary seats to candidates elected by first-past-the-post in single member constituencies. Yet ideological and interpersonal tensions between the Democrats, Five Star and Azione/Italia Viva (a new centrist grouping which took almost 8 per cent) prevented them from agreeing an electoral pact. Enrico Letta, the Democrats’ professorial leader, might now stand a chance of becoming prime minister instead of Meloni had they succeeded in doing so. 

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That disparity between a right capable of doing deals and a centre and left too divided to do the same is the real story of the election, bigger even than the rise of Brothers of Italy. The tripartite right’s 44 per cent is lower both than the combined right-wing vote at some past elections and the combined 49 per cent taken on Sunday by the Democrats (and their smaller centre-left allies), Five Star and Azione/Italia Viva. And yet the right won the vast majority of the first-past-the-post seats and so in total took 58 per cent of seats in the Senate and 59 per cent in the Chamber, and will thus be able to govern.

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As a result Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, will now almost certainly call on Meloni to form a government. A woman who once belonged to the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano will be the new Italian prime minister (congratulations have already arrived from the European nationalist right, including Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour in France, Germany’s AfD and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán). Italy will have one of the most right-wing governments in modern western European history. The rights of migrants, LGBT people and women will stand still in the best-case scenario and slide backwards in the worst. Economic or diplomatic meltdown is admittedly unlikely. Like Salvini, Meloni has Eurosceptic instincts but she is more cautious than him and has made reassuring both the EU and the markets a top priority. She is likely to appoint senior ministers that reflect that: Forza Italia’s Antonio Tajani, a former president of the European Parliament, is frontrunner to be foreign minister, and the new finance minister will probably be a technocrat (perhaps Fabio Panetta of the Bank of Italy) chosen to reassure bond holders. 

The big long-term question about the party-political landscape in Italy is whether its currently defining trait – a comparatively cohesive right and a comparatively fractious centre and left – remains the case over the course of the new legislature and beyond. On the right, Lega’s poor result and the pressures on Salvini from within his party could jeopardise the already tense partnership between him and Meloni and cause turmoil in the new government. On the left there are now question marks over Letta’s leadership of the Democrats and whether the party needs to rethink its approach to the surprisingly robust Five Star Movement.

If there has been one constant in Italian politics in recent years it has been a restlessly shifting balance between the major parties, especially within the two main blocks. Over the course of just eight years, four parties have enjoyed peaks of support in quick succession (the Democrats in 2014, Five Star in 2018, the Lega in 2019, now Brothers of Italy in 2022). The question now is: will we see a shift to a period of stabilisation? Or will the churn continue? 

[See also: The making and meaning of Giorgia Meloni]

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