Is Giorgia Meloni Italy’s first fascist prime minister since the Second World War? Not exactly. The Italian constitution expressly forbids ‘the reorganisation in any form of the dissolved Fascist Party’. The constitution came into force in January 1948. The Movimento Sociale Italiano had been established more than a year earlier under the leadership of Giorgio Almirante, Mussolini’s culture minister in the Nazi puppet state established in northern Italy in September 1943. By the end of the 1950s, the anti-fascist consensus of the immediate postwar period had long since given way to the anti-communist exigencies of the Cold War, and the Christian Democrats occasionally relied on the support of the MSI’s two dozen MPs to sustain their minority governments. The arrangement didn’t last long: after the Socialist Party went into coalition with the Christian Democrats in 1963 the MSI returned to the parliamentary fringes, where it remained until the demise of the First Republic in 1994, having reached its electoral high-water mark in 1972 with 9 per cent of the vote.
The MSI wasn’t exempt from the reorganisation that all Italy’s political parties went through in the mid-1990s. Gianfranco Fini, its leader since 1987, oversaw its dissolution and reconstitution as the Alleanza Nazionale. The new party kept the MSI’s logo, the fiamma tricolore (a red, white and green flame), but embraced liberal capitalism and Atlanticism, and with all apparent sincerity disavowed fascism while insisting that ‘right-wing values’ had predated and survived Mussolini, and acknowledging – the bare minimum, you might think – that anti-fascism had been a ‘historically essential moment’. Fini’s post-fascists took 13 per cent of the vote in the 1994 general election, as part of a winning coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (21 per cent) and Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord (8 per cent). The first Berlusconi administration lasted only eight months, but when he returned to power in 2001 it was again with the AN and Lega Nord as coalition partners and Fini as deputy prime minister (and, later, foreign minister). In 2002, Bossi and Fini cooked up a repressive immigration bill that among other measures made it easier to deport people, tied residency permits to work contracts and authorised the Italian navy to intercept suspected people smugglers in the Mediterranean.
When Berlusconi returned to office in 2008 after two years in opposition, it was at the head of a new party, Il Popolo della Libertà, formed by the merger of Forza Italia and the AN, with the Lega Nord once more as a coalition partner. Fini didn’t have a cabinet post but was speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. The PdL’s youth minister was 31-year-old Giorgia Meloni, who had entered parliament two years earlier on an AN ticket, having joined the MSI in 1992, at the age of fifteen. With the unravelling of the PdL, Meloni was at the forefront of the move to reweave the AN strands of the party as Fratelli d’Italia, becoming its leader in 2014 (‘Fratelli d’Italia’ is the national anthem, so it’s a bit like having a British political party called God Save the King). One of the party’s early symbols was a knotted red, white and green rope, though it has since reverted to the fiamma tricolore.
The PdL, Lega Nord and FdI ran together in the 2013 election, losing narrowly – the margin was less than half a percentage point – to the centre-left, though a quirk in electoral law (introduced in 2005 and since abandoned) handed the winners enough bonus seats to secure a stable majority. The Lega took only 4 per cent of the vote that year, and the FdI less than 2 per cent. In 2018, following five years in opposition, Forza Italia, the Lega and FdI contested the elections as the usual coalition, now led by the triumvirate of Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini and Meloni. Under Salvini, a tireless performer on both social and traditional media, the Lega had ditched the ‘Nord’ from its name and expanded the scope of its xenophobic messaging: rather than promising to unshackle the wealthy north from its indigent compatriots south of the Po Valley, the party was now looking to secure southerners’ votes and directing its hatred at immigrants from points further south and east. Its electoral base in the north was still, unsurprisingly, attached to the party’s founding principles, a contradiction that would come back to haunt Salvini, but at that time served his purposes. The Lega overtook Forza Italia to become the largest party in the coalition, which took 37 per cent of the vote – a plurality, but not enough to secure a majority in parliament (no bonus seats this time).
The right-wing alliance disintegrated almost as soon as the results were in, and Salvini took the Lega into government with the Movimento 5 Stelle, which claimed to be neither left-wing nor right-wing but was in fact an unsustainable amalgam of both. Barely a year later, with his party riding high in the polls, Salvini tried to force elections by withdrawing from the government, but was thwarted when the M5S formed a new government with the centre-left Partito Democratico. That coalition collapsed in January 2021, when more than four hundred people a day were dying of Covid, and the former central banker Mario Draghi stepped in at the head of a technocratic government. Every party in parliament agreed to back Draghi, except one – the FdI. In July this year, when the M5S, the Lega and Forza Italia withdrew their support, Draghi resigned and elections were scheduled for the end of September.
As in almost every ballot since 1994, Forza Italia, the Lega and the AN-FdI ran as a bloc. As in 1994, 2001, 2008 and 2018, their victory followed a period of centre-left or technocratic government. Both their vote share (44 per cent) and total number of votes (12 million) fell short of their results in 2001 and 2008. The FdI’s surge from 4 per cent in 2018 (1.4 million votes) to 26 per cent last month (7.3 million) is precipitous and alarming, but many of Meloni’s votes were cannibalised from Berlusconi and Salvini – the Lega and FdI fought an internecine battle for the racist vote, with a Lega candidate in Florence filming himself next to a Roma woman and asking people to vote for him to get rid of her, and Meloni tweeting a video that appeared to show a black man sexually assaulting a white woman in Piacenza – and in fact the total number cast for right-wing parties was a hundred thousand fewer than four years ago. Turnout, which has been in continual decline since 2006, was down eight points to a record low of 64 per cent.
As for the parties now in opposition, the Partito Democratico and its allies did badly (26 per cent), though not quite as badly as last time (23 per cent). The worst performing member of the centre-left coalition was Luigi Di Maio’s Impegno Civico, which split from the M5S in June and got less than 1 per cent of the vote. The residual M5S under Giuseppe Conte got 15 per cent: one of the planks of its platform was to maintain the reddito di cittadinanza, the welfare payment it introduced when in government in 2019. The centrist alliance of Italia Viva and Azione, led by the former PD prime minister Matteo Renzi and his onetime minister of economic development, Carlo Calenda, took 8 per cent. The remaining 7 per cent of votes were distributed among a dozen minor parties.
The Italian electorate, in other words, has not made a sudden lurch to the right. Or if it has, it’s as much through apathy or despair as enthusiasm for Meloni’s programme. But she has, for now, a commanding majority: a third of seats in both houses are allocated by a first-past-the-post system; the remaining two-thirds are distributed proportionally. The number of seats has been reduced, from 630 to 400 in the lower house, and from 315 to 200 in the Senate (plus six senators for life). The right-wing bloc has 237 of the former and 115 of the latter, more than enough to get its legislation through – as long as Salvini and Berlusconi play ball – if not the two-thirds supermajority required to change the constitution without putting it to a referendum: the 24th of the 25 commitments in the FdI manifesto is to introduce an executive president and centralise power in Rome (number one is about increasing the birthrate).
Salvini is already causing trouble, demanding that he be given the interior ministry – or, if not the Viminale, then something equally ‘high profile’. With this slight concession he appears to have blinked first. Meloni has so far shown herself the cannier politician, willing to wait for her moment rather than grasping at power at every opportunity and failing fully to seize it, becoming less convincing with every attempt. She may well win the face-off, but Salvini still has the power to pull the plug on her government by withdrawing the support of his 66 MPs and 29 senators (unless they ditch him as leader first; there were calls from senior members of the Lega for him to go the day after the election).
Meloni may also find she has less time than she hoped to do what she wants as her oppositional shine is rapidly tarnished by exposure to the realities of power. Italy, like everywhere else, faces a tough winter of soaring prices and uncertain gas supplies. Covid cases are on the rise again, with no public health measures in place and no plans to reintroduce them. In July, with temperatures consistently above 40°C and forest fires raging the length of the peninsula, Nature warned that Italy needs to prepare for a future of chronic drought. But Meloni’s government is more interested in its regressive social policies, which have frightening implications for the rights of women, immigrants, the poor, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. In theory the EU should protect those rights, though its record – in Hungary, for example – is patchy at best, and Brussels (like other European capitals) is as culpable as Rome when it comes to the murderous anti-immigration policies enforced in the Mediterranean and its North African littoral.
On the morning of 25 September, a few hours before voting, I went to an exhibition at the Chiostro di Bramante in Rome. CRAZY: La follia nell’arte contemporanea is on until January 2023. The title is unfortunate, especially perhaps to an English ear, and the wall captions reflecting on the relationship between art and madness are not very helpful, but most of the art is good enough to speak for itself. At the centre of the show is Lucio Fontana’s Ambiente Spaziale, made for Documenta in 1968, a cramped maze of narrow corridors between off-kilter white walls with one of his signature slashed canvases at the centre, an ambiguous promise of invasion or escape. Most of the other installations are more recent, and more colourful, though queasiness and claustrophobia are recurring themes. Near the end of the exhibition, just past the gift shop, are two giant inflatable clown heads by Max Streicher, one lying on the ground on its side, the other balanced precariously on top at the same sort of angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They look as if they have toppled, or are toppling, from a height, and it was hard not to read them as a postmodern Ozymandias, or – wishfully – as a satirical portrait of Berlusconi and Salvini. In the afternoon I cast my vote for the Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra, the green/left fringe of the PD coalition. They got just over a million votes in total, 3.6 per cent. A meagre result, but – and this really is wishful thinking – not far from the FdI’s in 2018.
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