Italy’s democracy is notoriously fragmented, with parties forming, breaking up, and reforming at a baffling pace compared to its European neighbours. Especially since the breakdown of the post-war party system in the early 1990s, Italian elections have been characterized by the rise of firebrand populist leaders who captivate the electorate with anti-establishment rhetoric, but after taking power largely maintain the political status quo.
Lorenzo Zamponi is an assistant professor of sociology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence and a co-editor at Jacobin Italia.
This time around, however, things appear to be a bit more serious. A party whose symbol directly reflects the heritage of Italian fascism is set to win the general election on 25 September. Fratelli d’Italia (the “Brothers of Italy”, or FdI) was started in 2012 as a reboot of the Italian radical right after the coalition built around long-serving prime minister Silvio Berlusconi fell apart. Both its name and its symbol mark it as the formal as well as spiritual heir to the Alleanza Nazionale (AN), which in turn represented the mainstream-conservative evolution of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the party that united the neo-fascist minority within democratic Italy from 1946 to 1995. After receiving 2 percent of the votes in 2013 and 4.4 percent in 2018, the party, led by 45-year-old Giorgia Meloni, is now polling between 23 percent and 25 percent. This means that one in four voters is likely to choose a party that comes as close as possible to standing for the tradition of Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship.
It would be easy, exactly one hundred years after the March on Rome in October 1922 that brought Mussolini to power and 77 years after Italy’s liberation from fascism, to draw comparisons with the past. Whether it would be useful, however, is another matter. After all, Meloni has not called for the end of the Italian Republic, and the millions of people who plan to vote for her cannot simply be written off as irredeemable fascists. But if millions of Italians have not been converted to fascism overnight, then what exactly is happening? How has a radical-right party managed to become the leading force in Italian politics, and what implications could it have for the country’s future?
Reshuffling on the Right
The right-wing coalition built by Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s consisted of four main parties: Berlusconi’s own liberal-conservative party, Forza Italia, served as the anchor, flanked by the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (Fratelli d’Italia’s predecessor) on the right, the post-Christian Democratic Unione di Centro in the centre, and the Lega Nord, which secured the anti-central government and anti-immigration vote in the northern part of the country. This alliance was able to capture well over 45 percent of the electorate throughout the 2000s and remained remarkably stable.
Yet the 2008 financial crisis, compounded by Berlusconi’s legal problems and accusations of paying for sex with a minor, triggered his coalition’s collapse at the end of the decade, as a large chunk of its supporters decamped in favour of the new “neither left nor right” populist formation, Movimento Cinque Stelle (“Five Star Movement”, or M5S). In 2018, the Lega became the strongest force in the right-wing coalition for the first time, after being transformed under the leadership of Matteo Salvini into a national radical-right party following the model of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. Salvini’s star continued to rise after the Lega entered a cross-populist coalition government with M5S, culminating in the party winning an astonishing 34.3 percent of the vote in the 2019 European elections.
Salvini’s choice to leave the governing coalition in August that year, hoping to cash in on his popularity in a snap election that would never be called, instead caused the Lega’s polling numbers to tumble. By the fall of 2019, FdI began to fill that space, moving from 8 percent in October 2019 to 10 percent in December, 12 percent in February 2020, and continuing to skyrocket from there.
Indeed, Giorgia Meloni’s party has grown primarily at the expense of its own allies. Since 2019, the old right-wing bloc shrunk back to the level of support it enjoyed prior to the crisis, between 45 percent and 49 percent of the electorate. The only significant difference is that the leading force is now FdI. In that sense, we are witnessing the comeback of the same right-wing bloc that has governed Italy on several occasions (Giorgia Meloni in fact served as Minister of Youth in the last Berlusconi cabinet from 2008 to 2011), albeit marked by a clear radicalization further to the right.
Meloni has not been able to convince significant numbers of centre-left voters to switch to her camp, nor to stop the steady decrease in overall turnout that has plagued Italian elections for the last two decades. Instead, she has succeeded in establishing herself as a credible figure among the core of right-wing voters: populist and radical enough to compete with the Lega, but credible and mainstream enough to convince former Forza Italia voters.
The Responsible Populist
One thing sets FdI apart in the Italian political landscape: it was the only party to consistently remain in the opposition throughout the last parliamentary term. When Salvini defected from the previous right-wing coalition to form a government together with the M5S in 2018, Meloni was in the opposition. When the M5S, abandoned by the Lega, built a new majority with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and other smaller left-leaning formations a year later, Meloni remained in the opposition. Then, in 2021, when Mario Draghi was called to lead a technocratic grand coalition supported by the largest majority in Italian history (including both the Lega and Forza Italia), Meloni was still in the opposition. She has carefully avoided all chances to govern in spurious alliances under compromising conditions, preferring to bide her time and build her forces from the opposition.
It was in the opposition that Meloni built her political profile as a twenty-first century right-wing leader. Facing the M5S-PD centre-left government that was tasked with handling the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Meloni managed to provide a political pole of attraction for the discontented without explicitly opposing lockdowns, anti-contagion measures, or vaccines. This political balancing act is rooted in her own political biography as a radical-right politician who once led the youth wing of the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale but also as a former minister with mainstream credibility, and allowed her to come out of the pandemic stronger than before.
Her real opportunity to shine, however, emerged during Draghi’s 17-month tenure at the head of the government. As the only substantial opposition to the cabinet led by the former European Central Bank president, Meloni was granted an extremely powerful position within the public debate, and was once again able to deploy the political arsenal of contemporary right-populism (anti-“gender” rhetoric, xenophobia, homophobia, fake news, etc.), while at the same time positioning herself as more serious and credible than Salvini. When the war in Ukraine began, for example, Meloni staked out an unabashedly pro-EU and pro-NATO position.
In the weeks leading up the election, she has proven more dedicated to reassuring international allies and financial markets than Italian voters. After all, Meloni already enjoys broad cross-class popular support — if she wants to avoid Salvini’s fate, she will need institutional cover. After years spent attacking same-sex couples or calling for a “naval blockade” in the Mediterranean to stop immigration, she now focuses mainly on the quintessentially Berlusconian promise to cut corporate taxes (even hinting at a “flat tax”) and pledging unwavering loyalty to the US in foreign policy. In that sense, her campaign has proven to be a rather peculiar blend of post-2008 right-wing populism anchored in the free-market consensus of the 1990s.
Technocracy Won’t Save Us
Given how politically lucrative opposing Draghi has proven to be, it is clear that the “government of the best”, as the mainstream press dubbed his technocratic administration, was not nearly as popular as the media claimed. The grand promises associated with the implementation of the “Next Generation EU” recovery plan disappointed many voters, given the lack of a real plan to transform the Italian economy in both social and environmental terms. The energy crisis in particular is hitting the country hard, and expectations for the next few months are rather dire.
Meloni has been trying to play both the role of the only coherent opponent to Draghi’s policies as well as the responsible and moderate European liberal-conservative leader. This is made easier by the fact that she has no real contender. The PD, already weakened by a full decade of participation in almost every governing coalition (especially the technocratic ones) without ever winning an election, now functions as little more than the representative of the EU in Italy and the party of institutional responsibility, without any credible message for change.
Most of the mainstream media and political establishment has treated Meloni’s victory as something unavoidable for some time. The only formation that appeared to have even a chance at contending with her rise was the M5S-PD coalition led by Giuseppe Conte between 2019 and 2021. Although by no means a radical or even left-wing alliance, during the pandemic it granted at least a few minor concessions to the middle- and working classes. The PD’s choice to break up the alliance after M5S refused to continue to support Draghi in July 2022 was the straw that broke the camel's back: the centre-left essentially chose not to seriously challenge the Right, granting it easy wins in most constituencies.
Prioritizing loyalty to Draghi over any hope for a non-right-wing government and identifying Draghi’s legacy as the foundation of its own politics has not helped the PD gain back the working-class votes it lost over the last decade. Meanwhile, the proper Left is once again divided: Sinistra Italiana (“Italian Left”) and Europa Verde (“Green Europe”) have built a shared list in coalition with the PD, while the former mayor of Naples, Luigi De Magistris, has launched his Unione Popolare together with the further-left parties Potere al Popolo and Rifondazione Comunista.
M5S, for its part, is running a campaign that focuses mainly on the minimum wage and environmental policy, seeking to challenge the PD from the left and capture as much of the progressive vote as possible, especially in the south and in working-class and lower-middle-class constituencies. Meanwhile, former prime minister Matteo Renzi and his minister of economic development Carlo Calenda are challenging their former party from the centre with their Macron-esque formation known as Azione–Italia Viva (“Action–Italy Alive”).
What is happening in Italy is in many ways similar to what can be observed throughout Western democracies: the neoliberal transformation of social democracy and the structural crisis of the Left has allowed the populist radical right to consolidate a foothold within certain social strata, bolstered by “culture war” issues and seizing on a broader de-alignment between class and politics as a result of the erosion of the post-war party system since 1989.
Yet within this general context, there are some particular Italian characteristics: the collapse of the party system that took place in the early 1990s and the Berlusconi era that followed have left a legacy of weak and ephemeral party organizations, in which populism is the main political logic and leaders, acting in the style of political entrepreneurs, play an outsized role for a parliamentary democracy. At the same time, Italy’s massive public debt and the strict EU fiscal criteria leave very little room for any policy initiative. This tension is what best explains the rapid rise and fall of so many political formations in recent years. Whether Matteo Renzi, the Five Star Movement, Salvini’s Lega, or now Meloni — Italian politics is prone to rapid rises and equally rapid falls, as new populists emerge on an anti-establishment platform, only to find themselves discarded by disillusioned supporters after an election cycle.
The key to Italy’s future will be in the hands of the social opposition that Meloni will face after the elections: will it be a mere reaction against right-wing populism in the name of respectability and competence, paving the way for another technocratic government, or will it embody a real mass movement for freedom and equality, anchored in the workers’, climate and women’s movement? Without the latter, any hope for a credible progressive alternative in Italy will be vain.