Elections in Italy: Is It Possible to Vote the Wrong Way?

Giorgia Meloni is now facing a most direct and clear task: to be holier than the Pope. She simply has no other options, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

The recent parliamentary elections in Italy incited a powerful and controversial response in Europe and in the world as a whole. The right-wing coalition, the core of which this time was the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) led by Giorgia Meloni, was victorious. Although expected by most opinion polls, it nevertheless became an unpleasant event for the neoliberal mainstream. So bad that a few days before the election, even European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen herself issued a very stern warning to Italian voters: if you don’t vote correctly, then Brussels will have leverage to respond.

Immediately after the elections, the headlines of many newspapers were full of alarmist accusations. That “fascists” had come to power in Italy, that they are not committed to democracy and can jeopardize the European choice of the country. These fears were not dispelled even after the summing up of the voting results, when both Giorgia Meloni herself and other leaders of her election bloc made all possible ritual soothing statements about Italy’s commitment to Europe and on the topic of the day — that Italy’s support for Ukraine is here to stay. Now a lot is expected from the first steps of the victorious right-wing coalition, whether or not they are emphatically associated with hyper-compliance with all mainstream policy frameworks. Then, as the historical experience of previous right-wing governments in Italy over the past three decades shows, they will not stop being called “fascists”; this has happened periodically before, but the general chorus of discontent will become a little quieter. If Brussels or other European governments believe that these limits (or rather, red lines) are not respected by the new Italian authorities, then a sharp reaction of rejection can be expected. This has already happened in the European Union before, when a radical-right coalition came to power in Austria in the early 2000s, and it is now happening with respect to the government of Viktor Orban in Hungary.

So, Giorgia Meloni is now facing a most direct and clear task: to be holier than the Pope. She simply has no other options.

In such an unambiguous situation, it is extremely important to understand why this is happening. Why the neoliberal mainstream has become so intolerant. Moreover, with regard to the Fratelli d’Italia, one cannot even say that this is some kind of ultra-radical, non-systemic right-wing party that would focus on completely non-parliamentary methods of struggle. Far from it. The Fratelli have been in parliament for a long time, their program was and is absolutely moderate. For example, the Polish right-wing Law and Justice party, both in its ideology and in political practice, is much more radical and defiantly non-mainstream than the Fratelli d’Italia. Even Marine Le Pen, in our opinion, is a typical “paper tiger”, a convenient and harmless scarecrow for the neoliberal mainstream within the framework of the electoral restrictions existing in France with its two rounds of parliamentary elections, even if she is many times more radical than the Fratelli.

Only ghosts of a historical nature play against the Fratelli. It is known that after the collapse of the regime of Benito Mussolini, already in republican Italy, a party nostalgic for previous times was created — the Italian Social Movement. For many decades, this movement was absolutely marginal; it managed to get only one or two seats in the parliament. However, in the early nineties, amid the complete collapse of the previous party-political system of the so-called “First Republic”, the actual merging of the state and the mafia, and the new total reset of the political space in Italy, the situation changed. Then, in 1993-1994, practically all the former parties of the country had either disintegrated or gone into the shadows. Completely new political forces began to form in an empty field. Then, by the way, Silvio Berlusconi entered the political arena with his party “Forward, Italy!” At the same time, a new generation of leaders of the Italian Social Movement decided to completely reform the party, abandon post-fascist nostalgia and come out to the voters as a systemic right-wing party unrelated to the past. It was called the “National Alliance.”

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This restructuring was a success. A certain number of voters (on average 8-10%), mainly in the south of the country, cast their votes for the party. As a rule, in the 1990s and 2000s, The National Alliance became one of the partners in the Berlusconi coalition. When it won, it entered the government. And even then, as we mentioned above, from time to time someone among the foreign (not Italian) politicians and journalists spoke about “fascist ministers” in the Berlusconi government. But on the whole, it was obvious to the absolute majority that this label was unmerited. The party was quite moderate, systemic, and generally mainstream. Another partner in Berlusconi’s coalition, the Northern League, was much more radical and provocative. The then-leader of the National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, even became one of the key figures in the work of the convention on the creation of the EU Constitution in the early 2000s.

Then, the main part of the National Alliance, for tactical reasons, completely merged with Berlusconi’s party. However, some activists did not want to do it. From them, as well as from a number of other political forces, the Fratelli d’Italia were formed. By the way, their name is the first words of the text of the Italian national anthem. This is quite a symbolically saturated sign.

Over the course of several electoral cycles, the Fratelli entered the parliament, but they created only a very small faction there, and all this time they were on the sidelines. Why have they won now? I think the answer is simple. The fact is that everyone else, including the left-liberal and left-anarchist spectrum as well as their allies from the right, has already been in power. Voters were left, to put it mildly, dissatisfied with all of them. This approach of civic protest against everyone was already vividly expressed in Italy during the 2013 elections, when the newly emerged “grassroots” movement of dissidents — Five Stars — received a quarter of the vote. However, since then, Five Stars has also been in power, and judging by the results of the current elections, they had the same success in the eyes of voters as the rest. As a result, Giorgia Meloni turned out to be practically the only politician of the first row who has not yet had a chance to “rule” the country on her own. If all the others failed, then maybe she will succeed?

Why then was there such a sharp reaction in Europe? First of all, it is the “ghost of Trump” or, if you like, the “horror of Trump” — which the neoliberal mainstream has experienced in recent years. After that, the reaction to any increase in the popularity of right-wing forces, not even defiantly non-systemic, but quite moderate, like Meloni, became absolutely intolerant. This is the reason for such severe pressure on the same Marine Le Pen, who has been branded with the most unacceptable labels in the media. This is the reason for the defamation of the Alternative for Germany.

And now in Italy, we see the same thing — a new act of the same drama, sustained in the style of “cancel culture” and total intolerance.

The specter of a resurgence of global Trumpism is what is now an extremely hard red line for the liberal mainstream, beyond which it is not allowed to step. Hence the corresponding reaction of Ursula von der Leyen.

But, in addition to Trumpism and without any connection with it, there is another aspect that is worth paying attention to. Italy is not the only country where the right has achieved electoral success in recent months. Another example of this kind is Sweden. There, in the elections in September, the Swedish Democrats, a right-wing nationalist party, also significantly strengthened its electoral positions. It seems that it is already safe to talk about the revival of the right and far right in Europe — despite several years of violent attempts by the neoliberal mainstream to oust them completely from political life.

Why is this happening? In our opinion, one of the reasons may be the example of Ukraine. It is clear that everything that Moscow says about the genesis of the Ukrainian crisis, about the growth of radical nationalism and neo-Nazism there, is completely rejected in Europe. However, this negates neither the worldview nor the swastika and “black sun” tattoos of the fighters and commanders of the Azov regiment and other similar military structures in Ukraine. Among the foreigners from Europe who came to fight with them, a significant number are people with right-wing or even ultra-right convictions. There are few left-wing pacifists or greens among them, to put it mildly. They have witnessed how their Ukrainian comrades in the ultra-right struggle turned in an instant from pariahs into heroes for the entire Western media machine. Suddenly, they became real role models. They see it on a European scale, they go home to their countries and they talk about it. This is also being seen by ordinary voters in European countries — on TV and in newspapers. If in recent years, they have been afraid to vote for the ultra-right, leery of “cancel culture” amid the total media destruction of Trumpism, now for many of them the situation has qualitatively changed. If the example of the Ukrainian ultra-right has become normative heroism for the whole of Europe, then why can’t this example be repeated at home?

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.