Italy: triumph of the far right
The Brothers of Italy, a far-right party that sprang from the neofascist movement, came first in Italy’s September election. Its leader Giorgia Meloni is set to become prime minister. A new right-wing nationalist European alliance could be on the cards, bringing Italy together with Hungary, Poland and Sweden. This may offer a test of European Union sanctions towards Russia, since the other two parties in the likely government have a history of supporting Vladimir Putin. Domestically, a right-wing government can be expected to attack the rights of migrants and LGBTQI+ people, and women’s rights to access abortion. Italy’s civil society needs to be prepared to defend excluded groups – and itself – from attack.
Giorgia Meloni is set to be Italy’s next prime minister. Her party, Brothers of Italy, came first in the 25 September election. It leads the right-wing alliance that together took around 44 per cent of the vote, which translated into over half of the seats in both chambers of parliament. A party with its origins in a neofascist movement founded by former members of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party is to take the helm of a G7 nation, one of the European Union’s (EU) most powerful members. Italy will have its most right-wing government since the Second World War.
Right-wing alliance triumphs
It’s an abrupt rise for Meloni’s party: at the last election in 2018 it took around four per cent of the vote, but this time it won 26 per cent. It’s been rewarded for positioning itself as an anti-establishment party, appealing to voters looking for something new while playing down its extremist origins.
Meloni’s government can only be bad for the groups that already have least power, including migrants and minorities.
Brothers of Italy was the only major party to stay out of the national unity government put in place as Italy struggled during the pandemic in February 2021. Internationally, the government was broadly acknowledged as having done a good job at steering the country through an economic storm, but it collapsed in July when three of its members – right-wing parties Forza Italia and the League and populist party the Five Star Movement – refused to take part in a confidence vote.
Parties on the right had been pushing for a snap election. The polls favoured them, so they only needed to hold their alliance together. With this powerful incentive, the three biggest right-wing parties – Brothers of Italy, Forza Italia and the League – presented a reasonably united front during the campaign.
They didn’t face a similarly united opposition. The centre-left Democratic Party ran in alliance with three small left and green parties, but lost one of its coalition partners, the centrist Azione party, after less than a week. An alliance between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement looked the only way of preventing a right-wing government, but the two have a history of disagreement and a deal never seemed on the cards.
The Democratic Party was accused of running a lacklustre campaign, focused on promoting itself as the party to stand up to Russia and as the responsible alternative to Brothers of Italy, but lacking a positive vision. Many voters saw it as part of the establishment – and they were looking for something different.
Over past Italian elections, voters have reacted to economic and political strife by backing in turn Forza Italia, the Five Star Movement and the League, each of which emerged as disruptive new forces ready to shake up the status quo. Brothers of Italy is the latest to benefit from voters’ willingness to embrace outsiders, capitalising on anger over the economy, and particularly with high fuel prices. An emotive appeal won out over the centre-left’s managerial approach.
But disaffection was communicated in another way: by staying at home. Turnout stood at around 64 per cent, nine percentage points down from 2018. It seems many couldn’t find anyone palatable to vote for.
Human rights under attack
Despite having no experience of government, Brothers of Italy is now in the strongest position among the right-wing parties. Not only has it come first, but it’s done so at least partly at the expense of its allies: the League’s support fell from over 17 per cent in 2018 to a little under nine per cent, and Forza Italia’s from 14 per cent to around eight per cent. The League did so badly that its leader, Matteo Salvini, may face a leadership challenge. Brothers of Italy performed particularly well in the country’s north, where the League’s support is usually strongest. It will expect to play the senior role in government.
Meloni may have detoxified her party, but her political journey started when she joined the youth wing of the Brothers of Italy’s forerunner, the neofascist Italian Social Movement, whose torch symbol the Brothers of Italy continues to bear. One of her party’s candidates described her as a ‘modern fascist’ while also praising Hitler; he was suspended as a sign of the party’s determination to deny its neofascist underpinnings.
Her government can only be bad for the groups that already have least power, including migrants and minorities. Meloni has persistently demonised Muslim migrants and has invoked the white supremacist ‘great replacement’ theory, which holds that a plan is being deployed to replace global north white populations with non-white, non-Christian migrants.
There’s nothing here her fellow right-wing parties could disagree with: Meloni’s rise has been enabled by years of work, by the League in particular, to normalise what were once considered outrageously extreme positions.
The League’s Salvini has pledged to close Italy’s ports to refugees. He did just that when he served as deputy prime minister – in a coalition with the Five Star Movement from June 2018 to September 2019 – when he prevented rescue boats docking, leaving people stranded. Salvini is currently on trial in Sicily over his order to block a rescue boat in August 2019.
Italy’s Roma people may well be in the firing line too: a League politician posted a video of himself standing next to a Roma woman saying people should vote for the League to ‘never see her again’.
Meloni also has a track record of attacking LGBQTI+ rights and has made much of her opposition to what she calls the ‘LGBT lobby’ and ‘gender ideology’. Last year, Brothers of Italy and the League prevented the passing of a law that would have criminalised harassment and violence against LGBTQI+ people. Meloni and Salvini have both voiced their opposition to same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.
Meloni may be her country’s first female prime minister, but she’s far from a feminist. When it comes to reproductive rights, the future looks alarming. Where Brothers of Italy holds local power, such as in the Marche region, abortion rights have been eroded to the point of making it almost impossible to get an abortion. In the Piedmont region, the right-wing government gives cash handouts to pregnant women if they agree not to have an abortion. All this seems consistent with far-right thinking that majority populations need to increase their birthrate, which makes abortion a threat to white supremacy.
Having tested regressive policies at a regional level, right-wing parties will surely now try to transfer them to the national level.
Europe’s far right on the rise
Identity politics and attacks on excluded groups might provide the ideological glue that helps keep the coalition together. There’s far less agreement on one of Europe’s most pressing issues: Russia.
Meloni has emphasised her support for the EU, NATO and Ukraine, but her allies aren’t on the same page. Salvini is historically close to Vladimir Putin – in 2019 he called him ‘the best statesman currently on earth’ – and in 2017 his party signed a cooperation deal with Putin’s United Russia party. Forza Italia has also long had links with Russia. Its leader, Silvio Berlusconi, said Putin was ‘pushed’ into invading Ukraine and only wanted to put ‘decent people’ in charge.
Meloni has defended sanctions against Russia, which are broadly unpopular among right-wing voters, but she criticised them when Russia first invaded Ukraine to illegally annex Crimea in 2014. Salvini has said sanctions harm Italy.
The parliamentary committee that oversees Italy’s intelligence agencies warned about the role of Russian disinformation in the campaign. If pro-Russia voices prove influential, it could harm the EU’s sanctions policy.
More broadly, there could be trouble ahead for the EU. Italy’s election follows on the heels of Sweden’s, where the far-right Sweden Democrats came second and look set to play a part in government. Right-wing nationalists have long been in power in Hungary and Poland.
It was once feared that right-wing nationalist parties would seek to pull their countries out of the EU. But following the UK’s chaotic Brexit, that idea has largely fallen out of favour. Instead, right-wing nationalist parties want to stay in the EU – and change it from within. They seek to extract economic advantage from EU membership while eroding its ability to set and enforce democracy and human rights standards.
For all their nationalism, far-right parties in Europe are linked by networks of support and share tactics: among those quick to congratulate Meloni were Spain’s far-right Vox party and France’s National Rally, the model for all far-right parties seeking to present themselves as respectable to attract mainstream support. There now seems clear potential for a reinvigorated bloc of governing right-wing nationalist parties to seek to influence the EU.
The EU’s major states, including France and Germany, now need to hold a high line on human rights, and not to be prepared to overlook attacks on rights from Italy’s new government.
Italy’s civil society needs to respond too. It needs to put itself at the forefront of generating new, progressive ideas to feed into the country’s ever-volatile politics. And it needs to get ready to defend excluded groups – and itself – from the attacks that are surely going to intensify.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
EU institutions should scrutinise the new government’s human rights record and call out abuses.
The government of Italy should continue to support the EU’s policies on Russia.
Civil society should work to defend the rights of women, LGBTQI+ people, migrants and ethnic minorities from attack.
Cover photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images