In Italy, general elections will be held on September 25, the results of which will not only determine the face of the new government, but will also have dramatic consequences for the country, the European U-nion and NATO. Opinion polls predict the success of a coalition of right-wing forces with the participation of a party genetically linked to the fascist past. Surprisingly, the liberal elites consider it beneficial for a strong leader of a pa-rty close to neo-fascists to come to power and promise to support Ukraine.
If the polls are correct, the right-wing coalition will win a landslide majority, and the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party will nominate its leader, George Meloni, for the country’s first far-right prime minister since Benito Mussolini. Although, according to Foreign Affairs, George Meloni herself rejects any connection with fascism, her party retains many of the symbols and values of Italy’s fascist past . It is therefore not surprising that the prospect of her coming to power has terrified both the markets and international observers.
But here a paradox arises – despite the concern of the international community about the coming of the Italian far right to power, a strong George Meloni may be preferable to a weak one in the eyes of Western elites.
The leader of the Brothers of Italy is rapidly trying to shed his former populist public image, presenting himself instead as something of a traditional conservative. Her political preferences are generally in line with EU and NATO directives. Thus, it is not Meloni who poses the greatest risk to Italy’s stability and its place in the West. In the eyes of this very “collective West”, the danger is not Meloni, close to the fascists, but her likely allies in the right-wing coalition, especially the League party, which has a reputation as being friendly towards Russia, and its leader Matteo Salvini.
In the long run, Meloni could hurt Italian democracy, Foreign Affairs admits, noting her clear ambition to strengthen the executive’s power over parliament and strengthen her position. Her conservatism and program of constitutional reforms will be controversial in Italy and across Europe. But in the short to medium term, a strong Meloni appears to be more stabilizing than disruptive – while a weak Meloni may have to compromise with Salvini in a way that Italy’s allies will deem “unpleasant.” And Meloni’s very bad result could leave Italy without a government in a time of national crisis.
Italy’s experience of fascism – its suppression of democracy, its colonial ambitions, its alliance with Nazi Germany, and its participation in the Holocaust – led to a major reassessment of values after World War II. Immediately after the end of the war, some Italians struggled to deny that fascism as such was to blame. Instead, they argued that Mussolini’s main mistakes were not in his domestic politics or ideology, but in his alliance with Nazi Germany.
Former fascists created the Italian Social Move-ment parliamentary party, which regularly participated in national elections and pursued social conservative goals, trying to bring far-right ideas into the mainstream. However, other parties systematically excluded the movement from government, and the US-aligned centrist Christian Democ-ratic Party dominated successive governments in Ita-ly. Its main rival was the Communist Party. The far right appeared at key mo-ments, usually to support the Christian Democrats against the communists, but they rarely became known, and none of their representatives ever held high office.
The isolation of the far right ended after the end of the Cold War, when the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democ-rats collapsed, creating a political vacuum that made room for a new kind of populism. Parties such as the separatist “League of the North” (later to become the “League” led by Salvini) advocated the independence of northern Italy. And billionaire media tycoon Si-lvio Berlusconi became pri-me minister with a promise to replace the professional political class with business leaders. In this context, right-wing politicians began to return from political exile and participate in government. The “Italian Social Movement” was renamed the “National Alliance” and successively entered governments under Berlusconi in 1994, 2001-2006 and 2008-2011, carefully distancing itself from the fascist tradition from which it emerged.
Paradoxically, the return of right-wing parties to power did not cause political polarization. On the contrary, in the 1990s, Italian voters as a whole began to gravitate towards the center. Berlusconi went from a populist troublemaker to a mainstream centre-right politician, an evolution fueled by his rivalry with centre-left leader Romano Prodi. These two politicians succeeded each other for more than ten years as prime minister.
The “National Alliance” also moved to the center. At the same time, the party gradually lost its political identity, and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish it from Berlus-coni’s party, Forza Italia.
This convergence of political views came to an end after the eurozone crisis led to the removal of the last Berlusconi government in 2011. Italy’s established political parties failed to respond effectively to the crisis, disappointing voters. The new, smaller protest parties have won the most.
As part of a wider uprising against traditional Italian elites, George Meloni, youth minister in Berlusconi’s last cabinet, created the Brothers of Italy in 2012, driven by a feeling that the National Alliance had betrayed its core values.
At first, the appeal of Meloni’s right-wing politics was limited. In the 2010s, the Brothers of Italy won only two to four percent of the vote in national and European elections. Voters were much more enthusiastic about the anti-establishment, anti-European Five Star Movement, which won more than 25 percent of the vote in the 2013 national elections and more than 32 percent in 2018. And the anti-European, nationalist League party won more than 17 percent of the vote in the 2018 national elections and more than 34 percent in the European Parlia-ment elections a year later.
Five Stars and The League formed a coalition government in June 2018. This marked the beginning of a process in which the two parties have evolved from outsider groups into something closer to traditional elites, Foreign Affairs notes. They compromised their choice of finance minister, made concessions to the European Commission on the budget, and failed to reform pensions and the labor market as promised. In 2019, the transformation continued when Five Stars formed a new government with the centre-right Dem-ocratic Party, and culminated in 2021 when both Five Stars and the League joined Prime Minister Mario Dra-ghi’s national unity coalitio-n along with the party Be-rlusconi and the Democratic Party. Meloni and her “Br-others” remained outside of each of these coalitions and thus became the main voice of the opposition.
Meloni’s decision to remain outside of Draghi’s coalition gave her a distinct advantage over both the Five Star Movement and t-he League. The Draghi Co-alition represented everything that the Five Stars and the League had once rejected. Mario Draghi is a technocrat who served as Presi-dent of the European Centr-al Bank before taking over as prime minister in 2021. As prime minister, his policies were centrist and pro-European. Its main goal was to prepare Italy – by reforming its courts, civil service and other institutions – to receive European support for its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Draghi also typified a method of government that allowed little internal pr-otest. He cemented his coa-lition by insisting on consensus and collective respo-nsibility. This involved the Five Star Movement and the League in every step of the complex process of institutional reform and gave Meloni and her Brothers of Italy a reason to argue that both parties were guilty of hypocrisy.
As such, the popularity of Five Stars and the League steadily declined in the polls during Draghi’s tenure as their decision to support an establishment-led government was seen by voters as the latest act of abandoning their former populist principles. In late July, both saw an opportunity to escape their seemingly irreversible decline. When the Five Stars refused to support the social assistance bill, the Liga and Forza Italia refused to remain in government with the Five Stars, saying the party proved unreliable. Draghi, who had always demanded consistency and loyalty from his supporters in parliament, had no choice but to dissolve the coalition.
The collapse of Draghi’s coalition has given additional momentum to Meloni, who is now also backed by voters looking for a new face. According to recent polls, the Brothers of Italy are now on their way to winning over a quarter of the vote in the country.
Now that Meloni has solidified her lead among the protesting voters, she has every incentive to present herself as a credible waiting prime minister and bolster her international credibility. She knows that the long-term viability of her government will depend on whether the markets accept her leadership. As such, she makes an effort to appear mainstream.
She recently assured allies that her government would continue to support Ukraine. She also clarified that, contrary to her previous statements, she unequ-ivocally supports Italy’s membership in the eurozone. And the joint election manifesto that Meloni neg-otiated with Salvini and Be-rlusconi is generally reassu-ring for moderates: it promises “respect for [Italy’s] commitments as part of the Atlantic Alliance” and “full commitment to European integration.”
Matteo Salvini wants to challenge Meloni’s leadership, and he can only do so by taking away protest votes. His strategy is to outflank Meloni. The League proposed a flat tax to replace the existing progressive income tax and a pension reform that would give every Italian access to a full pension after 41 years of work. These plans alone are estimated to cost an additional 57 billion euros a year, or roughly 3.3 percent of gross domestic product.
Such heavy borrowing plans are likely to spark another budget showdown with Brussels, similar to the one that Salvini orchestrated in 2018.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the European Central Bank has made it clear that it will not intervene to prevent market turmoil in member states that do not comply with Brussels’ fiscal rules. A crisis of confidence in Italy’s ability to service its debt could call into question the long-term viability of the single currency, as it did in 2011-2012.
From the geopolitical point of view of the EU, NATO and the “collective West”, Salvini’s position is also unreliable. A few wee-ks ago, he publicly called for a review of EU sanctions on Russia, although he later included “reverse”.
Salvini points to rising prices and interest rates that Italians are facing to defend his proposed tax cuts, pension reforms, increased public spending and a softening of the EU’s response to the Ukraine conflict. He claims to be a man of the people.
Not to be sidelined, Mel-oni will have to convince Italians that high energy bills are an acceptable price to pay for Europe’s long-term security and that massive fiscal transfers are not a responsible way to deal with the economic hardships they face. But according to a recent poll, 51% of Italian voters would like to lift sanctions against Russia. With the onset of winter, this proportion is likely to increase.
The challenge for Meloni is to find a way to soften or accommodate Salvini without diminishing her credibility with EU partners and international investors. By compromising with Salvini on these issues, Meloni risks splitting the Western united front on Ukraine, fighting the EU over budgets, or both—a nightmare scenario for the Western establishment.
Even if Meloni stands firm, the very presence of a strong Salvini in her government will raise doubts about how long she can withstand his pressure.
Matteo Salvini will only be able to put pressure on Meloni if he maintains firm control over the League. His party is internally divided between the radicals, who want to keep the party as a voice of protest, and the moderates, who want to move to the center and believe Salvini missed an opportunity when he contributed to the collapse of Draghi’s government. There are signs that an important part of the business community is sympathetic to Meloni’s more moderate position.
At the annual Forum Ambrosetti in Cernobbio, the most important gathering in Italy for prominent industrialists, financiers and businessmen, she won applause by promising continuity in achieving the common goals outlined by Draghi. Salvini cannot afford to lose this key constituency.
If the League wins less than ten percent of the vote, which is a bad result for Salvini, he will have to strengthen his position in his own party, and not argue with Meloni. This will allow Meloni to soften her policies and build confidence in her government in Europe, NATO and the bond markets without interference from her unreliable ally.
Other possible outcomes are less attractive. A bad result for Meloni could lead to a weak right-wing government likely to collapse long before the five-year parliamentary mandate expires, perhaps in just a few months, forcing Italy to re-run elections with the cost of living and the energy crisis in full swing. Even worse would be a very weak performance by Meloni, which would have prevented her from forming a coalition at all, given the deep divisions among the centre-left and the inability of the Brothers of Italy to govern with the Democratic Party. This would leave Italy without a government in a moment of national crisis.
“A good result for Meloni will at least ensure stability and allow her to take charge of running Italy,” Foreign Affairs concludes. By significantly softening her previous populist stance in recent months, Meloni has shown she understands the stakes. In the long term, Italians will have to judge her far-right agenda and her plans to transform their democracy. But in the short term, for Italy, as well as for the EU, the US and Ukraine, a strong Meloni will be better than a weak one.”