Since Mussolini’s death, no ruling party has been closer to his principles than Fratelli d’Italia. The party, which won the last elections in Italy, has connections to both neo-fascism and authoritarian Europe. Why has Fratelli d’Italia risen to power and skyrocketed in popularity over the last five years, and how can a population with the remembrance of a dark fascist past elect a prime minister and a coalition with allegations of fascism? Furthermore, what does this mean for Italy and the EU?
In the last Italian election, the far-right coalition won 43% of the vote. The coalition is composed of three parties, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (26%), Matteo Salvini’s Lega (9%) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (8%).
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the coalition of the three far-right parties. Salvini is a Euroskeptic politician who has been largely accused of pursuing xenophobic policies, such as refusing to receive refugees while also being blamed for inciting serious violence against Black people in Italy. Both Berlusconi and Salvini have had connections with Putin, at least before the war in Ukraine. For instance, Salvini said back in October 2018 that “Putin is one of the best leaders in the world right now” and in April 2017 Berlusconi praised Putin as an “exceptional leader”.
Giorgia Meloni also has a troubling record. As a 15-year-old, Giorgia Meloni became a member of the neo-fascist party Movimento Sociale Italiano, and at the age of 19 she reportedly said to French television that “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy.” Though by the time she got elected as an MP she had changed her view addressing that the former dictator made mistakes.
There have been many far-right parties in Europe increasing their support in the last decade. However, only a few of them have succeeded in taking power. This makes Meloni different from the rest of her far-right colleagues around Europe, as she has successfully won the Italian election and just got sworn in as Italy’s first-ever female prime minister. Part of this is because compared to the rest of far-right Europe, she’s been able to successfully rebrand her party. Whilst toning down her Euroscepticism and uttering support for Ukraine and NATO, she is also keeping the neo-fascist flame as the party’s logo and bringing back Mussolini’s old slogan – “God, homeland, family”. By doing this, Meloni has rebranded her party to become easier to accept and not feel as extreme as many of her companions around Europe and in her right-wing coalition, attracting a broader audience whilst still flirting a clear message to the alt-right voters. “She is playing a game whereby she addresses two audiences all the time”, Daniele Albertazzi, a professor in political science at the University of Surrey, said to SVT.
Meloni has been able to create a collective notion about “we” and “them”. A typical strategy commonly used by totalitarian and fascist states with “them” usually being different social groups and establishments. In the case of Meloni “them” is referring to immigrants, “the LGBT lobby”, the European Union and the “global left”, illustrating the belief that these associations pose a danger to Italy, provoking fear amongst Italians.
Meloni addresses the fascist and anti-democratic allegations in a video message in which she is “condemning the suppression of democracy” and says that Fratelli d’Italia “fiercely oppose any anti-democratic drift” assuring Europe that she is ready to lead Italy. However, Meloni’s condemnation lacks consistency. While protecting democratic values and freedom, Meloni also defends both Prawo i Sprawiedliwo?? in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary. Both Prawo i Sprawiedliwo?? and Fidesz violate democracy by undermining the rule of law and implementing restrictions on freedom, invading the rights of groups like women, migrants and the LGBTQ. Viktor Orbán’s rule in Hungary has been described as “soft fascism” and on September 15th, 2022, the EU declared the country an electoral autocracy, making Meloni‘s defense of the leader unsettling, to say the least. Her party Fratelli d’Italia, as one would expect, voted against the resolution.
In the election of 2017, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia got just 4% of the votes compared to this year’s 26%. The impressive increase in votes can be explained by a number of reasons. For instance, the party has been the only party in opposition in the last term of office and is therefore considered to be the only party not responsible for Italy’s issues, or as one Italian citizen put it as he spoke to France24, “She’s the only one we haven’t tried yet – which means she’s the only one yet to fail.” The government has been unstable and it has caused frustration seeing the elected not being able to solve the weak economy, a frustration invigorated by the energy crisis. While much of Meloni’s success is to blame on those in office during the previous term, it is not easy to rule in the political landscape of Italy. With 70 governments in 77 years, it is easy to conclude that Italian politics are unstable, and it is not uncomplicated to get one’s policy through in such a climate. Consequently, the reasons for Meloni’s success spring from the failure of meeting the Italians’ needs from those previously in power and from being the only party in their opposition. This, together with her charisma and newly polished party which has brought a broader crowd of voters, has paved the way for Meloni to become the first female prime minister in the history of Italy.
As great as it is to see the first female leader in Italian history, this comes with a lot of concerns, not only for the Italians but also for the EU. There is a large group of Italians feeling worried about the consequences of Meloni in power, for some, it brings back unpleasant memories. Many are afraid that Italy will move in the same direction as Hungary and Poland, for instance, through restricting abortion, as well as the rights of the LGBTQ community. As far as the EU, the worries lie in the future of the democratic force of the union, a force which was once the purpose of the cooperation. But with one of the founding countries of the union now seeming to turn in a different direction, the future is unclear.
Italy has elected its most right-wing government since Mussolini with a prime minister whose political career has sprung from the ashes of the former dictator himself. Italy will have to see what the future holds. Will Meloni manage the complicated landscape of Italian politics? If so, will marginalized groups experience their freedom as deprived as they have in Hungary and Poland? And will the right-wing coalition contribute to further undermining an already divided EU? The answer to these questions lies in the future, but until then, the uncertainty for many Italians brings concern from a not-too-old memory. A concern which can be best described by the Italian proverb, “Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio”, the wolf loses its fur but not its bad habits.