The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Italy’s election will likely bring the far right to power. Here’s why.

Italians attend a rally in Rome on Thursday before a giant poster of Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right Fratelli d'Italia party is expected to lead a conservative coalition to victory in the election Sunday. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
7 min

ROME — Italy doesn’t feel like a country that’s about to swing to the far right.

Two-thirds of Italians say they’re optimistic about the future of the European Union, whose stimulus helped buoy the country — and boost the image of the bloc — after the pandemic’s economic shock. What’s more, the country has been led for the last year and a half by economist Mario Draghi, a paragon of centrist stability who continues to earn high approval ratings.

But if the national elections on Sunday go as expected, Draghi’s successor as prime minister will be Giorgia Meloni, a firebrand from the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party who wants her country to push for more autonomy in Europe, blockade the Mediterranean against undocumented immigrants and defend a traditional family identity she says is under attack.

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Crucially, in a country rebuilt after the ruins of war and fascism, Meloni would be the first Italian leader from a party with a post-fascist lineage — as well as a tricolor flame logo that harks back to an earlier, more extreme political movement formed shortly after Mussolini’s death. She would take power 100 years after the March on Rome, the death knell for Italian democracy before World War II.

Here are the factors — historical, contemporary and structural — that have made such a scenario possible.

Ping-pong politics

Instability is at the heart of Italian politics, and incongruous zigzags are a feature of the system, not a bug. Since the end of World War II, Italy has cycled through governments every 400 days or so. Careers rise and crash at super-speed. Voters coalesce around parties and then drop them. To the extent that there’s any recent constant, it’s that 40 to 50 percent of voters tend to favor the right. And Meloni, in recent years, has pulled votes away from competing parties — in part because Fratelli d’Italia has remained in opposition.

Giorgia Meloni’s interview with The Washington Post

The system’s design also plays to Meloni’s benefit. Voters don’t directly pick the prime minister. And because there’s such fragmentation, a figure like Meloni needs to only convince a plurality of voters of her party’s fitness. In this instance, Fratelli d’Italia is expected to be the choice of about one-quarter of would-be voters — enough to make it Italy’s most popular party. And based on its coalition with others on the right — in contrast to infighting on the left — it has overwhelming odds to prevail in the vote.

But national votes, even seemingly decisive ones, rarely bring the tidal change that they might in, say, France or the United States. Italy’s last national vote, in 2018, is a good example. That election looked as if it were the start of a populist revolution, and it led initially to a government of anti-establishment forces on the left and right. But their agreement was brittle. One government collapsed and then the next. Eventually, in the middle of the pandemic emergency, Italy’s president handpicked Draghi to lead a unity coalition. In other words: Three years after a populist revolt underpinned by heavy Euroscepticism, Italy was being run by a former European central banker chosen by one man and devoted to burnishing Italy’s stature in Brussels.

An attempt at moderation

In her social views, Meloni has much the same profile as Viktor Orban, the orchestrator of Hungary’s autocratic turn. Meloni is emphatic about the importance of protecting what she says is Europe’s Christian identity. She blasts the “wokeness” of the left and its positions on gender identity.

But on other issues, Meloni has tried to make herself more palatable to Italy’s center, a tactic that has helped take her party from the fringes. She once argued for the dissolution of the euro zone; now she says Italy’s place is within Europe. She used to trot out conspiratorial ideas about unnamed forces deliberately orchestrating mass migration to Italy; she no longer speaks in those terms.

She compares Fratelli d’Italia to the Tories of Britain and Likud in Israel — conservative parties, not norm-wreckers. And she has portrayed herself as working at times to support the initiatives of Draghi, including on measures related to Ukraine, a country that she has backed unequivocally against Russia.

“She has developed a way to talk to international interlocutors, sounding reasonable,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian International Affairs Institute. “But she is also able to speak with her Roman accent, fiery voice, in a way that gets the message across [to her base]. So she’s an effective politician.”

Fascism? Not here!

One of the fiercest debates among Italians centers on the country’s past — and to what extent strands of fascist DNA still linger in Meloni’s party. Meloni last month issued a video saying the Italian right had handed over fascism “to history” decades ago, and condemned the anti-Jewish laws that were among the most virulent elements of Mussolini’s reign.

But that hasn’t ended the discussion.

Italy never had a German-style break with its war identity, in large part because of the messy way the conflict ended: with Mussolini’s fall in 1943, with the creation of a German-backed puppet state and a fierce resistance movement that had some ex-fascists joining in. There was never a major purge of the Mussolini-era administration. Some of his loyalists, in the aftermath of the war, formed the Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist group that never got more than single-digit support and was dissolved in 1995. Subsequent, incrementally less extreme iterations included Fratelli d’Italia, which was founded in 2012.

So what connects Meloni to the fascist era? Critics say some threads remain. Over the years, two Mussolini descendants have run under the party’s banner. Several party members in 2019 attended a dinner to commemorate the March on Rome. Meloni herself said, in 1996 during her late teens — in a video that made the rounds during the campaign — that Mussolini was a “good politician.”

In Italy, such remarks are hardly disqualifying. In 2013, Silvio Berlusconi said Mussolini was a good leader in many respects, despite the anti-Jewish laws. Berlusconi leads another party in Meloni’s would-be coalition.

The disarray of the left

Weakness on the left translates into strength on the right — and the left has rarely been on shakier ground. If all the left-leaning parties pooled together, they could have made the vote a contest. But given how splintered they are, they have almost no chance.

It wasn’t always like this. In 2019, the leader of another far-right party, Matteo Salvini, orchestrated a government collapse in an attempt to force new elections and win power for himself. Salvini’s League, at the time, was by far the most popular party. But his gambit didn’t work. That’s because the center-left Democratic Party and the anti-establishment (and vaguely left-leaning) Five Star Movement set aside years of vicious rivalry and banded together to form a coalition that staved off elections and closed the door to Salvini.

This time around, the Five Star Movement and Democratic Party are on tense terms. Both had been a part of Draghi’s government, but the Five Star Movement helped initiate its collapse, in part because it opposed a waste incinerator project. The Democratic Party fiercely opposed the Five Stars’ maneuver.

The rift between the parties, Democracy Party leader and former prime minister Enrico Letta said in July, had become “irreversible.”

They are now running separate campaigns against the right.