Italy’s hard-right parties ready to fill void if Draghi quits

Polls indicate Meloni’s Brothers of Italy lead the way ahead of possible snap election

Shortly after Mario Draghi offered to resign as Italy’s prime minister last week, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign calling for “Elections Now”.

“This legislature is finished,” she wrote. “We will fight to give back to the Italian people what citizens of all other democracies have: the liberty to choose who will represent them.”

Meloni’s enthusiasm for snap elections is hardly surprising. Her Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), which has neo-fascist roots, is now the country’s most popular political party. Polls suggest it is favoured by about 22.5 per cent of voters, up from securing 4.8 per cent of the vote in 2018 general elections.

Two ideological allies, Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, are together backed by a further 22.8 per cent of voters. The centre-left Democratic party polled at just under 22 per cent while the populist Five Star party — which triggered the current crisis by refusing to support Draghi’s government in a critical vote — mustered fewer than 12 per cent.


Analysts say this means a coalition from the right would be almost certain to come to power if Draghi fulfilled his threat to quit and elections were called, although rivalries between ideologically aligned but personally competitive leaders could complicate the formation of any government.

The prime minister is due to clarify his intentions in an address to parliament on Wednesday, with Italians in the dark over whether he will quit or agree to stay on — as many have appealed for him to do.

A new hard-right coalition could have significant implications for Italy, its stretched public finances and Rome’s approach to the war in Ukraine.

“Any government in western Europe will have to face popular discontent over inflation driven by energy prices, raw materials and above all food,” Alessandro Marrone, head of the defence programme at Italy’s Institute of International Affairs, said of the impact of the war.

“Western Europe is not as resilient as Russia in terms of sacrifices. It has to be seen what Brothers of Italy, the League and Forza Italia promise in the campaign to connect with voters.”

The Rome-born Meloni used to be a strong Eurosceptic, openly criticising “Brussels bureaucrats” and calling for Italy to renegotiate its relationship with the European Commission — although she never went as far as Salvini, who wore a “No Euro” T-shirt.

But Meloni has recently softened her tone, reflecting Italians’ more positive view of Brussels since the launch of the €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund — of which Rome is to be the largest recipient.

“Italians are not as angry with the EU as they were five years ago because the EU is finally doing something for them,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a political professor at the UK’s University of Surrey. The large sums at stake, he said, would encourage even a hard-right government to be “much more moderate and avoid picking huge battles” with Brussels.

Although established only a decade ago, Brothers of Italy is a descendant of the Italian Social Movement, the neo-fascist party founded after the second World War by associates of Benito Mussolini. For decades, the party’s links and ideological sympathies with the wartime dictator put it on the fringes of Italian politics.

That changed in 1994 when Berlusconi invited its successor party, the National Alliance, to join his coalition, leading to a series of administrations in which it participated.

Brothers of Italy is the only leading political party that has remained outside Draghi’s national unity government since it was formed in February 2021, arguing that it was preferable to have new elections.

However, Meloni has endorsed Draghi’s tough stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, often sounding more supportive of tough measures against Moscow than members of Draghi’s own coalition.

Although the League and Forza Italia are part of Draghi’s government, Berlusconi has long had warm personal ties with Vladimir Putin, while Salvini has also been an admirer of the Russian president.

Deepening economic pressures on Italy as the war drags on could hasten a change in approach to the Ukraine conflict, analysts said.

“Brothers of Italy took a very clear position to condemn Russia,” Marrone said. “But there will be pressure in Italy, France and elsewhere to place the economy first, lift the sanctions [on Russia] and negotiate.”

But, he stressed, even a hard-right coalition would not break from Europe. “It’s not going to be a unilateral move by the Italian government. It’s going to be a negotiation within the EU,” he said.

Meloni, who has been active in right-wing politics since she was a teenager, served as youth minister in Berlusconi’s government from 2008-2011. But Brothers of Italy — known for its anti-migration stance and highly conservative family values — has been in opposition since its formation in 2012 as part of a party split.

Even if Italian voters handed a mandate to hard-right parties, analysts warned that would not offer any guarantee of stability given the personal rivalry between Meloni and Salvini.

The League won about a third of the popular vote in the elections for the European Parliament in 2019, but has lost considerable support to the Brothers of Italy, as Meloni has become the dominant opposition voice while appearing more serious than Salvini.

“The big question is whether Salvini is prepared to step aside and allow her to be the prime minister,” said Albertazzi. But, he added, “even if they accept her and a government is formed, they will start squabbling after a few months”.

Roberto D’Alimonte, a political-science professor at Rome’s Luiss University, predicted Salvini and Berlusconi would try to thwart Meloni by arguing that she was unqualified to head the government.

“They will use any argument ... but the real reason is that they do not want Brothers of Italy to get stronger,” he said. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022