Italy is poised to make history this weekend. If surveys are right, Italian voters on Sunday will pave the way for Giorgia Meloni to become Italy’s first female prime minister and for her party, the Brothers of Italy, to lead the country’s most far-right government since World War II.
But the Italian election matters for reasons that extend far beyond Italy. After years of failing to break through completely sanitary cordon around the far right – which has similarly prevented the far right from taking office in other major EU countries, including Germany and France – some European far-right parties like Meloni’s have renamed themselves to soften their image and broaden their appeal, although support many of the same policies. If Meloni’s Brothers of Italy emerges as the largest party in the Sept. 25 race — an outcome in which Meloni is likely to lead a coalition government alongside far-right leader Matteo Salvini’s Northern League party and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forward Italy party — not only will it provide a guide for following like-minded parties, but it will represent a new face of the European far right: one that is more polished and electorally savvy than ever before.
When you ask Italian politicians and analysts what is behind the sudden rise of the Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots that barely got more than 4% of the vote in Italy’s last election in 2018, the most common answer is that is the only opposition party on the ballot. Of all the country’s main political parties, it was the only one to opt out of the rare unity government led by independent technocrat Mario Draghi until its collapse earlier this summer after weeks of infightingmaking him a likely beneficiary of the protest vote.
“[Meloni] gets the support of many people for one reason or another: inflation, the price of energy, anyone who is not happy with the current situation,” says Piero Ignazzi, a political scientist at the University of Bologna and an expert on the Brothers of Italy. “These people will vote for an opposition party.
But Meloni’s past worries many. The 45-year-old’s interest in politics dates back to at least 1992, when as a 15-year-old growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Rome, she joined the Italian Social Movement. The neo-fascist party was formed in 1946 by supporters of the deposed dictator Benito Mussolini – whom the teenage Meloni praised as “a good politician”—and is seen as predecessor to the Brothers of Italy, which Meloni co-founded a decade ago. Meloni has since retracted his praise of Mussolini, but vestiges of the party’s neo-fascist nostalgia remain. Her party’s logo, a tricolor flame, is a symbol of the Italian social movement; some of the Descendants of Mussolini they even contested elections under his banner.
The idea that Meloni’s party is seeking to restore the fascist regime in Italy is “ridiculous”, says Ignazzi. However, her political style has all the characteristics of a far-right politician. She warned of the dangers of “ethnic replacement”, driven by immigration (a not-so-veiled reference to “great substitute” conspiracy theory) and opposed the “Brussels bureaucrats”, the “LGBT lobby”, “climate fundamentalism” and the “globalist” left. IN speech earlier this summer, rallying support for the far-right Vox party in Spain, Meloni told party supporters that “they will say we are dangerous, extremists, racists, fascists, deniers and homophobes”. The comments resonated similar remarks made by Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who in 2018 encouraged supporters of far-right French politician Marine Le Pen to “Let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists.” Wear it as a badge of honor.
What makes Meloni different, however, is that she seems to have learned from the mistakes of her far-right allies in Europe – a lot, but no everything from which they were removed by voters and political parties because they were considered too toxic to vote for or govern with. During the campaign, Meloni tried to soften his party’s image and market himself not as a nativist or Eurosceptic like Salvini, but as a defender of family values, an ardent supporter of Ukraine and NATO, and wife, mother and Christian. In doing so, Meloni “attempts to transform himself [Brothers of Italy] in a broad conservative party,” says Luigi Di Gregorio, professor of political science at Tusia University. “In Italy we have many political parties, but her ambition is to be the leader of the most important right-wing party in Italy. The most important right-wing party in Italy cannot be a far-right party.
This strategy has been tested elsewhere with varying degrees of success. In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats, despite their neo-Nazi roots, are ready to play a major role in the next government after winning the second largest share of the vote in election earlier this month. In France, Le Pen presented her party for a national rally the best election performance so far, despite falling short of a rematch against Emmanuel Macron earlier this year.
Italy’s Meloni Brothers party is expected to come out on top, ahead of the Sweden Democrats and the National Assembly, in part because it appears to have convinced enough Italian moderates that it is worth the risk. As a voter told France 24“She’s the only one we haven’t tried yet – which means she’s the only one who hasn’t succeeded yet.”
And Meloni sought to win over moderates by stressing his respect for parliamentary democracy. in address addressing the international press last month, she dismissed warnings that her rise to power was a harbinger of authoritarianism in Italy, noting that she and her coalition partners “vehemently oppose any anti-democratic movement” and shared the values of other traditionally centre-right parties around the world . She also pointed to her staunch support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion as evidence of her Atlantic credentials.
However, not everyone is convinced by these overtures. Meloni’s opponents argue that her international allies – including Spain’s Vox, Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice party – should tell Italian voters everything they need to know about the kind of Italy she will lead.
“You can already see the policies they are taking in their countries,” Eli Schlein, an independent candidate on the Democratic Party’s Progressive Italy list, told TIME of the far-right governments in Hungary and Poland. Both countries have undermined rule of law and introduced legislation restricting the rights of Women, migrantsand The LGBTQ community. Indeed, the European Parliament recently voted to brand Hungary as “electoral autocracy” over her democratic retreat. (The Meloni brothers from Italy voted against that resolution.) “How could it be clearer than that?” asks Schlein.
European lawmakers are not convinced either. A far-right government in Rome that features two of its main players like cute to the Kremlin could undermine Western cohesion when it comes to supporting Ukraine. Moreover, Brussels’ continued efforts to protect the rule of law within its borders could be undermined if Meloni becomes an ally of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who has previously protected. For example, to reduce the current EU funding for Budapest under consideration, must be signed by a qualified majority of 15 member states representing 65% of the EU population. “It’s a tough hurdle [clear]says Daniel Freund, a Green Party member of the European Parliament from Germany and one of the negotiators behind the rule of law mechanism used by European lawmakers to withhold EU funds. “If Italy is not part of this coalition supporting the protection of the rule of law, it becomes almost impossible to actually achieve a qualified majority.”
It remains to be seen whether Meloni will continue his moderation efforts if he takes office. But that decision may not be entirely up to her. Meloni will have to contend with coalition partners (who are not as united as they appear) and her party’s core base of supporters, many of whom could choose to defect to Salvini or Berlusconi if she is seen to have conceded too much soft.
“Even if he tries to change, he can’t do anything with his electorate and above all with his party members,” said Teresa Coratella, program manager at the Rome office of the European Council on International Relations. “The big test for her will be to see if she can use the election victory as a way to completely reshape her party.” But as of today, I don’t think she can do much.
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