The Italian election is about to usher in what is commonly being described as the most right-wing government since Mussolini. However, things may be a little more cheerful than they seem.
A new entry called Italexit polled 1.9 per cent. The alarming swerve to the far-right came about mainly via the cannibalisation of two right-wing parties by a third harder-right version of themselves.
Following the lowest turnout in the republic’s history, Giorgia Meloni and the Brothers of Italy won by halving the vote of the old waxwork Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and also of the rosary-kissing Matteo Salvini’s Lega party. Pulling in twice the vote of the pair’s combined total, Meloni has reduced this once swaggering pair of alpha males – a former prime minister in four governments and a former deputy prime minister – to junior coalition partners.
She also took a big bite out of the Five Star Movement over on the left. This is the one that entered politics only four years ago when its comedian founder landed a stunning 33 per cent of the vote (compared to Meloni’s 26 per cent on Sunday) with its torch-the-elites rhetoric. It went on to fulfil all the predictions of chaotic incompetence and infighting before bringing down a capable government of national unity led by former ECB president Mario Draghi; then almost imploding. It recovered just enough to prevent a total takeover by the hard right.
So it’s not all bad news. Still the right-wing alliance has a comfortable majority of seats. The question is where Meloni and Italy end up and how.
The political lessons are stark. Even with the dismal failure of Five Star, the Democratic Party and the Greens to form any alliance they still pulled in 38 per cent of the vote between them, just five points behind the righ- wing alliance which had campaigned masterfully. No doubt this will always be a great “what if” of Italian politics; what if the left had cut out the feuding and banded together against the opposition?
Second is the fact that Meloni is preceded by a long line of would-be political saviours. Being against the incumbent government has been Italy’s sure-fire election winner for decades – a hypothesis borne out by the failure of any party or coalition to get re-elected in 30 years. Meloni’s genius was to remain the “being against” party during Draghi’s government of national unity, enabling her to emerge as the “new” face or the last resort after everything else was tried.
Just four years ago her party was at 4 per cent and the Five Star Movement was that year’s “saviour”; riding the zeitgeist when populism was at its zenith.
Now Italy has a government focused on tax cuts, a small state, freedom from foreigners, a miraculous resurgence in national pride and much else that seems familiar from Liz Truss’s wishlist (before the meltdown). The virulent if confused Euroscepticism is similar. Truss’s swivel-eyed suggestion that France might be a foe – while an actual war is raging in Europe – is matched by Meloni jumping to Viktor Orban’s defence when the European Parliament deems Hungary no longer a fully-fledged democracy. He won elections, said Meloni; the familiar refrain that absolves all.
But unlike Truss, Meloni had to dial down the campaign rhetoric. She had to demonstrate some capacity to handle the vital €200 billion EU-funded recovery fund and the European Central Bank’s bond-buying scheme which underpins the Italian national debt.
What lies beneath is another matter. Brothers of Italy still boasts the notorious flame logo and undoubtedly contains some fascists. Both she and Orban have recycled the great replacement conspiracy theory which holds that white European populations are being replaced by non-white populations at the behest of unidentified elites. Her rabble-rousing speeches insist that the nation, family and Christianity are under attack from the left, migrants and gays.
She will share a government with Salvini who rejoices in his bare-chested, strongman image, posing with submachine guns, endorsing Trump, Bolsonaro and The Movement, Steve Bannon’s Brussels-based right-wing populist organisation. He pronounced Putin “the best statesman currently on earth” before executing a U-turn when the best statesman on earth irritated even Xi Jinping.
He lashes out at sanctions against Russia, as does his coalition partner Berlusconi, who has managed to crash this glittering constellation a decade after being kicked out of parliament and banned from public office for tax fraud.
Berlusconi told a recent Italian chat show that Putin was “pushed by the Russian population, by his party and by his ministers to invent this special operation. The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace Zelenskyy’s government with decent people and then leave. Instead they found resistance, which was then fed by arms of all kinds from the west.”
Though portrayed as a “moderating” influence after four spells as prime minister, his strongman tendencies have long been noted. What legacy will the octogenarian want to leave? How will the notoriously combative Salvini and the Lega adapt to a Rome-centric woman-led government?
Meloni will have scant time for the nation, family and Christianity shtick. The era of populism as a big TV performance – played for drama and fantasy as opposed to the dull, hard grind of everyday politics and compromise – is ebbing. She is being pitched into a cauldron like no cauldron that has ever been, as Trump might put it.
There is a view that she will make a competent administrator, prepared to seek out respected advisers, and work with other parties and civil servants to effect her far-right-wing policies. But that means losing the “being against” card.