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Giorgia Meloni has won. What will she do in office?

Italy’s new prime minister may turn to the centre right for support in a war against ‘woke culture’

Giorgia Meloni is seen holding a placard quoting "Thanks Italy" in the press room. Photo: Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Italy has now followed Sweden in lurching towards the right. Giorgia Meloni, the country’s farthest-right leader since Mussolini, looks set to become Italy’s first female prime minister.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) despite winning just over a quarter of the vote, will form a coalition on the right that has secured support of around 44 per cent. It’s notable that among the first messages of congratulation was one from Mateusz Morawiecki, the hard right president of Poland, where his Law and Justice Party has rolled back human rights and picked a fight with Brussels over EU law.

Another came from Balázs Orbán, a longstanding political ally of Hungary’s hardline president Viktor Orbán (no relation): “We need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges.” Other European far right leaders, including the leader of Spain’s Vox party, have broken out the champagne.

European and US leaders are clearly worried. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s statement included an implicit warning: “ we are eager to work with Italy’s government on our shared goals: supporting a free and independent Ukraine, respecting human rights, and building a sustainable economic future”. French prime minister Elisabeth Borne refused to comment directly on the election result, but said, in a dig at Meloni’s anti-abortion stance: “We will be attentive, with the president of the European Commission, that these values of human rights, the respect of one another, notably the respect of abortion rights, are respected by all.” Two days before the elections, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen issued a veiled warning, referencing EU action against Budapest and Warsaw for breaking its rules: “If things go in a difficult direction, I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland – we have tools.”  

For many, both inside and outside Italy, it feels like yet another liberal citadel of Europe has fallen to dangerous hardliners. It follows the right’s strong recent electoral showing in Sweden, France and Hungary, and expected gains in Spain and Portugal, as well as the British Conservative government’s continuing move further to the political and economic right.

“Overt Fascists elected in Italy, Putin calls up the reserve and (Liz Truss) and (Kwasi Kwarteng) create a run on the pound. Frightening times,” wrote Labour MP Chris Bryant, a former undersecretary of State for Europe, during the vote count that is expected to crown Meloni.

But Meloni has been trying to reassure Italy and the world that she is not some divisive far right, anti-Western populist. Holding up a sign that said “Thank you, Italy,” she told reporters that she would “govern for everyone.” The jury is out on that one.

The contrast between the old and new government is palpable and troubling, certainly for the left. Meloni and her allies – the right wing firebrand Matteo Salvini and the controversial former premier Silvio Berlusconi – are preparing to replace the pragmatic grand coalition of the respected former European Central Banker, Mario Draghi. Draghi’s government was popular, although it did create unease among some voters for being unelected – he was put in charge after fractious coalitions had failed to address Italy’s problems. 

His presence had put Italy, a founding member of the European Union, back at the top table of European states as they grappled with the Covid fallout and the energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tri-partate Kyiv visit by Draghi, Emmanuel Macron of France and Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, was emblematic of Italy’s resurgent importance. Any future combined trips are unlikely to include the Eurosceptic Meloni.

She still has to go through lengthy coalition talks and convince president Sergio Mattarella that she can form a government, but the prospect of a Meloni premiership is already stoking fear. Roberto Saviano, author of the acclaimed crime saga Gamorrrah, said that the election had led to the creation of #Saviano on Twitter, as users invite outspoken opponents of the right, like him, to leave the country: “These are warnings. This is the Italy that awaits us. They are already preparing an initial blacklist of enemies of the homeland, despite those who say that fascism is something quite different.”

However, as the anti-fascist reaction goes into overdrive, the financial markets which have been reacting so furiously to the British chancellor’s unorthodox, tax-cutting “mini budget” in the UK, have been particularly unmoved about Italy so far. Italy’s blue-chip FTSE MIB index rose by 1.3% in early trade.

Italy analysts have also been sounding a note of caution over using the “f word”. Despite Meloni’s teenage far-right activism and praise of Mussolini, they maintain that from what they have seen the “fascist” trope is overblown. Francesco Gallietti, co-founder of the political consultancy Sonar, who worked with Meloni in government, defines her as a “selective populist”, an odd combination of right-wing social dogma with liberal financial and international political tendencies. Regularly comparing herself to British Conservatives and Ronald Reagan, Meloni has been at pains to speak like an Atlanticist and someone at the right of European conservatism. The Italian analysts and academics I have spoken to in the past weeks are inclined to agree with that appraisal. Fascism comes from a different intellectual stream, they say – the dictionary definition of “a way of organising a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government,” is not quite the same as fighting culture wars and talking of a naval blockade of refugee boats – unpleasant as that might be.

“Firstly, the role of neofascism in the support of Giorgia Meloni is very weak,” Federico Niglia, associate professor of history at the University of Foreigners in Perugia, told me earlier. “This is the first fact against her as the representative of the extreme, extreme right. If she gets more than 20% this means she is capable of reaching the centre of the system, not the extreme. There is a second aspect – this is not the first time that the far right is in the government. We had with Silvio Berlusconi the Alleanza Nationale, which was the evolution of the old neo-fascists. Giorgia Meloni is another story – it would be easy but completely wrong to present her as a fascist. She is of course a right-wing politician on many topics.”

However, the fascist nostalgists and right-wing crackpots that she has kept on as activists and the post-fascist base she has courted alongside the mainstream vote could make it difficult to shake the impression that she is a politician with a sinister edge.

“Meloni’s challenge is to completely free herself from post-fascism and anti-establishment posturing in order to move to the right-wing axis of European governance,” said Lorenzo Castellani, of Luiss university in Rome, after the elections.

Part of the problem in defining her, and some of the confusion over precisely what she represents, is due to the absence of any clear evidence of how Meloni’s policies will take shape. She was last in government as a youth minister with Silvio Berlusconi before he had to resign amid corruption allegations, and she has little experience of governing. In fact, that inexperience could cripple or even end her leadership of what will be a difficult-to-manage coalition at a time of national crisis, making the fascism argument redundant. Her popularity rests on her refusal to join in with the outgoing unity government, but this also makes her difficult to judge. Her manifesto contains few clues, other than that she supports families, wants to reduce immigtaion and cut taxes, but none of this has been taken seriously. 

The “far right surge” narrative is also to be challenged. Firstly, although Meloni’s right wing coalition is in first place, there hasn’t been an explosion of right wing votes. Left wing and centrist parties were divided and arguing, as they often are. Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party (PD) – which came second to the FdI, ahead of a resurgent Five Star party – had wanted to form a broad coalition. But when he approached the far left, the possibility of an alliance fell apart.

The vote for the right has not surged. It could fall short of earlier projections of 48% amid a record low turnout of around 63.91%. It’s just that the right’s votes are concentrated within a coalition rather than rival parties.

In fact, Meloni’s rise from a dire 4% four years ago is partly due to internecine fighting. She took votes from Salvini’s La Lega (The League), Italy’s largest party in 2019’s European elections, when it won 34% of the vote. According to Rai News 24, Meloni won more than 30% in the Salvini’s stronghold of Veneto.

Last time round, Salvini was the one sparking fear in liberal hearts – now, with 9%, his party is a pitiful shadow of its briefly relevant self. He could be both fighting for his political life and fending off attacks from people in his party who were angered when he turned away from its founding idea that northern Italy should separate from the south. The League’s stints in two governments were not political successes, with the volatile Salvini instrumental in bringing down both of them.

Meloni has shown signs of being savvier. She has positioned herself as the reasonable one, softened her slogans, pulled away from publicly supporting right wing authoritarians and tried to detox the more extreme parts of her party, which grew out of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, or Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist party set up after the war by a group of Mussolini supporters. She has kept her cool and stayed in the so-called “centre right” alliance, even after being pictured, head in hands, as Salvini sat by her side and shared his eccentric views.

She may be hard right wing and merciless on LGBTQ rights and immigration, but Meloni is no fascist. And the Italian vote is only superficially similar to Sweden’s two weeks ago, when years of social troubles led to the rise of a neo-Nazi linked party in a country where the liberal democrats have com first in every election for a century.

Italy has had its fair share of fascist-linked politicians, including Berlusconi’s alliance with “post-fascist” politicians when he was in government. This is a country that never had to fully reckon with its fascist past because they joined the allied side before the second world war ended, and felt no need for a Germany-style painful reckoning.  

Although she has kept many fascist symbols for her party, Meloni does not seem to be trying to return to the days of blackshirts and racist fascist laws. When she has not been trying to be moderate, her outspokenness has been more about “culture wars” than actual violence.

“Everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would like us to no longer have an identity and to simply be perfect slaves to consumerism,” Meloni said, in a widely shared YouTube video. “And so they attack our national identity, they attack religious identity, they attack gender identity, they attack family identity… I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No. I must be citizen x, gender x, Parent 1, Parent 2. I must be a number.”

This excited the Republican right in the US, among whom she is well known. “Spectacular,” responded Texas senator Ted Cruz. “So beautifully said,” wrote the Republican Congresswoman and Trumpean conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Congratulations to Giorgia Meloni and to the people of Italy.” Meloni has been invited to speak at the influential and increasingly unhinged CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) in the United States, and enjoys the support of former Trump adviser and right-wing figurehead Steve Bannon, who has likened her to Margaret Thatcher.

The “American Conservative” website, co founded by the Trumpist, serial presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, carried the following, effusive praise for Meloni’s video:

“If this is fascism, let’s have more of it! Of course it’s not in any way fascism – a slur that the US media apply to Meloni to avoid having to take her ideas seriously. Do we have a single American politician capable of speaking words like that with such force, and such conviction? I can’t think of one. Giorgia Meloni has more balls than a Congress full of Republicans. She is going to wipe the floor with Ursula von der Leyen, Mark Rutte, and the Brussels gang.”

As she remains an enigma in many policy areas, it is her cabinet that will indicate her political intent. There are expectations that it will contain more “moderate” right wingers, maybe even some close to Draghi. This is the development that markets are watching – a misstep here could trip her up and she is expected to be careful.

Meloni knows that if she doesn’t stick to economic orthodoxy, she would risk the next tranche of the €200 billion Covid recovery funds the EU has earmarked for Italy, on condition that it makes the requisite reforms.

And that funding is much needed. The economic problems facing Italy, compounded by its reliance on Russian energy, which has been cut off after Vladimir Putin ordered the assault on Ukraine and the EU enforced harsh sanctions. That economic malaise was one of the reasons the public turned to FdI, choosing, in a vote of desperation, the only party that remained in opposition as Draghi gathered others under his political wing.

On foreign policy, too, she has softened her image. She no longer talks about leaving the EU and abandoning the Euro. Instead she speaks of the need for Italy to gain more “sovereignty” within the bloc. In practise, the optimists hope, this will mean little beyond railing against “Brussels”, negotiating something insignificant and claiming a resounding victory to sell to voters who will be none the wiser.

She has been close to Orban in the past, but has not been vocally supportive of him since her premiership became increasingly likely. There are fears that with her social agenda she could try to cleave a path closer to Poland’s Morawiecki, but Italians may not stand for it. While Hungary and Poland have clamped down hard on abortion, the anti-abortion Meloni would have less scope for this because of its broad popularity in Italy. She could, however, slow down the process in the hope of delaying terminations until too late. Although the daughter of a single mother and an unmarried mother herself, Meloni – avowedly not a feminist – declares herself a “family values” politician.

On national social policy she is likely to tack further to the right than with internationally sensitive issues. Her government would be expected to scrap the “citizens income”, a populist benefit created three years ago to help those below the poverty line of €780 a month. LGTGQ rights may not be rolled back, but they won’t be extended. Harsher action is expected on pushing back boats of refugees.

But on Russia, she has stuck to Draghi’s pro-Ukraine, pro-sanctions stance, although the populist right is more likely to support Putin than Nato. She has supported arming Ukraine.

It’s not the same for her alliance partners, which have been described to me as politically “radioactive” because of their Russia connections. Salvini could cause trouble on sanctions, especially if he feels that his base would like it and it would destabilise Meloni. Although nominally on the same saide, Salvini resents Meloni’s usurpation of his voters. And only last week Berlusconi – an ageing political relic trying to stay relevant by trading his party’s 8% of the vote, was making excuses for Putin, suggesting he was forced into the invasion by others. If voters thought that the former conservative premier would moderate Meloni’s right wing instincts, they were probably wrong.

The FdI polled more than both parties’ votes altogether, which may temper, but not stop their attempts at causing mischief. These two will be millstones around her neck, even if we were to believe that Meloni sincerely wishes to be a mainstream conservative rather than a closet fascist, as per the accusations from her left wing opponents.

For Meloni, the fascism tag, if it sticks, could actually be a useful distraction from the real problem, rather like the “Islamist” fears fanned in an earlier decade against Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan did nothing to stop his authoritarian progression. As the left attacked him for perceived Islamism that most of the population didn’t believe, rather than for his policies, he easily divided the nation and was able to orchestrate an assault on human rights, persecuting his opponents while gaining a stronghold on the media and the organs of the state to transform a vibrant, if flawed democracy.

If Meloni continues to attract anti-fascist attacks, will her individual policies go unexamined until too late, allowing them to slip into the mainstream?  After all, European parties, including the UK’s Conservative party with which Meloni identifies, have managed to shift farther to the right in plain sight. Meloni may pose as a Conservative. But in recent times, the staid conservatism of the status quo has come to mean something very different.

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