Meloni's march towards Rome - Italy threatened with a shift to the right

Giorgia Meloni

 Die Vorsitzende der Brüder Italiens (Fratelli d'Italia), Giorgia Meloni, bei einer Wahlkampfkundgebung

© picture alliance / EPA | LUCA ZENNARO

According to the polls, Europe's right-wing nightmare will become reality in the Italian elections at the end of the week: for the first time since Mussolini's seizure of power, Giorgia Meloni, an extreme right-winger, threatens to make her way through to the top of the government almost exactly 100 years later. For a long time, the scenario of a possible Italian prime minister, Matteo Salvini, the head of the right-wing Lega party, frightened people in the EU - Meloni is still passing him by in terms of right-wing extremism. The center-right - or rather the right-wing camp - of Fratelli d'Italia (FdI), Lega and Forza Italia is expected to win the Sept. 25 elections.

Master of self-presentation

This is made possible by the only woman among the leading candidates of the relevant parties: Giorgia Meloni. A master of self-prenentation, she is feminine, eloquent and close to the people. She stages herself in the media with home stories in glossy magazines and is a welcome guest on talk shows. Meloni was one of the first Italian politicians to use Instagram to communicate her political messages via social media. She does not rabble-rouse like Salvini, but cleverly argues her right-wing convictions. Those who listen to her are quickly seduced into believing her thanks to her eloquence. This could be observed during a recent visit to the right-wing populist Spanish party Vox, where she whipped up the enthusiastic audience with her slogans. Meloni is well on her way to becoming the new figurehead of the far right.

It pushed her into politics and extreme positions at an early age: As a teenager, she joined the neo-fascist Fronte della Gioventù (Youth Front), the youth organization of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), which emerged from Mussolini's fascist party after the war. The party later merged into the Allenza Nazionale, from whose legacy the "Brothers of Italy" emerged in 2012. At the local level, their party collaborates with far-right, violent parties. The name quotes the Italian national anthem and is intended to express a sense of belonging to the "national community." To this day, the green-white-red flame, symbol of the neo-fascist predecessor party MSI, still blazes in the party logo. Meloni has never convincingly distanced herself from the fascist legacy; on the contrary, she rebuffs every inquiry with the reference that she wants to concentrate on the future and not the past.

Fascism is socially acceptable again in Italy

Since Meloni took over as party leader in 2014, the party has grown steadily over the years: it won 6.4 percent in the 2019 European elections, over 10 percent in the 2021 local elections, and is now leading in the polls, in some cases with over 25 percent. Since then, the party has been sitting in the European Parliament with, among others, the Sweden Democrats, who just scored a razor-thin victory, or Spain's Vox party in the joint European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group. Meloni has succeeded in transforming an extremist fringe party into a future governing party that is not regional or concentrated in northern or southern Italy, but attracts voters nationwide. Thus, it could also become a model for other far-right parties in Europe. It appeals to the civil camp as well as to the disaffected who are not tied to any particular party. It could stage the Fdl as the only significant opposition party with a "clear line" outside the huge governing coalition and use it cleverly for its own purposes. Salvini, on the other hand, participated with the Lega in the coalition of "national unity," sometimes siding with the government, sometimes with the opposition - and thus, unlike Meloni, squandered his credibility.

Fascism is once again presentable in Italy. The reasons are manifold: the many years of populist movements from the left and right without a relevant center force have shaken the traditional party system and made populist slogans mainstream. Citizens' distrust of the state, institutions and politicians runs deep. Changing alliances and a fluid party landscape go hand in hand with a tendency to personalize the parties. As a result, the top candidate or the face of the party is often known, but the party itself is not. Too often, more insults are exchanged than substantive arguments. Too often, those involved lose themselves in political trench warfare out of self-centeredness and slow down the ability to act politically. Too often, parties are misused as political clubs focused on their own advantage instead of being guided by criteria for the common good. The constant turf battles in the political circus in Rome is frustrating and tiring in the long run for the people watching. Along with a sense of resignation goes the so-called "menefreghismo," the "I-don’t care-attitude"; the expected historically low voter turnout reflects this. A trivialization of fascism has taken hold in society - "Mussolini wasn't so bad, after all"- that creates fertile ground for right-wing populists like the charismatic leader. Meloni hooks right in there and, in the best right-wing populist, conspiracy-theory manner, cultivates anti-elite rhetoric in which she repeatedly invokes the alleged contrast between the good people she champions as a political leader and the self-serving elite that harms them, such as the Brussels bureaucrats.

The domestic political climate is likely to heat up

Italy's rehabilitation as a trustworthy partner at the European level under Draghi is passé. The shock waves in an "Orbanization of Italy" are likely to be felt throughout Europe. In a TV duel with Enrico Letta of the social-democratic PD, she attacked the EU with unusual sharpness. She calls for a "Europe of the people," rejecting any move toward a federalist Europe or a two-speed Europe. Meloni demands a "reassessment of all EU treaties and wants to renegotiate parts of the "Next Generation EU" plan on the Corona billions with Brussels, which is categorically ruled out there. Italy is the biggest beneficiary; however, EU Corona aid requires a multi-year, detailed commitment to investment and reform in order to access EU funds. The reform stalemate could plunge the country into a renewed growth crisis.

In addition to expensive election promises, the right-wing alliance's election program includes tax cuts, an earlier retirement age and a fight against illegal immigration. The free-market economy and the promotion of SMEs are of particular concern to Meloni. If you look closely, you can see that state aid for companies is supposed to be for Italian employees only. You could call that "Welfare chauvinism"; benefits from the welfare state are to be reserved only for Italians. "Italy for the Italians" could be the headline of her party-political program, in which she continuously serves the populist binomial "us against them." Meloni rages against everything that is not white, Christian and fits into her worldview. She stylizes immigration as a danger; xenophobia is an integral part of Fdl propaganda. Proposals to stem migration across the Mediterranean include a naval blockade of the Mediterranean and a ban on NGO ships. As modern as Meloni appears, her views are not. Meloni stands for hardline law-and-order and God-father-family politics. Her statements on the "natural family" show what could be in store for women, migrants, homosexuals and the diverse. She is for the "natural family" and against the "LGBTI lobby." She does not support adoption rights for homosexual couples and abolish quotas for women, she condemns abortions. In the election program of FdI, women play no role in Italian society. The domestic political climate is likely to heat up; after a phase of unaccustomed political stability, Italy is tipping toward the extreme. Meloni's nationalist dreams are nothing more than a vision of an illiberal society in which equal rights do not apply to all and basic democratic principles are undermined. Let us hope that Italy will soon wake up.

Rahel Zibner, Project Manager for Spain, Italy and Portugal at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Madrid.