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Election in Italy: Giorgia Meloni and the far right should win

ROME — Italy does not look like a country about to swing to the far right.

Two-thirds of Italians say they are optimistic about the future of the European Union, whose revival has helped sustain the country – and boost the bloc’s image – after the economic shock of the pandemic. Moreover, the country has been led for the past year and a half by economist Mario Draghi, a paragon of centrist stability who continues to command high approval ratings.

But if Sunday’s national elections go as planned, Draghi’s successor as prime minister will be Giorgia Meloni, an arsonist from the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party who wants his country to push for more autonomy in Europe, blocking the Mediterranean against undocumented immigrants and defending a traditional family identity which she says is under attack.

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Basically, in a country rebuilt from the ruins of war and fascism, Meloni would be the first Italian leader of a party with a post-fascist lineage – as well as a tricolor flame logo that listens to an older, more political movement. extreme formed shortly after Mussolini’s death. She would take power 100 years after the March on Rome, the death knell of Italian democracy before World War II.

Here are the factors – historical, contemporary and structural – that have made such a scenario possible.

Instability is at the heart of Italian politics, and incongruous zigzags are a feature of the system, not a bug. Since the end of World War II, Italy has passed through governments approximately every 400 days. Quarries rise and fall at high speed. Voters coalesce around parties and then abandon them. Insofar as there is a recent constant, it is that 40 to 50% of voters tend to favor the right. And Meloni in recent years has taken away votes from competing parties – in part because Fratelli d’Italia has remained in opposition.

Interview of Giorgia Meloni with the Washington Post

The design of the system also works to Meloni’s advantage. Voters do not choose the Prime Minister directly. And because there is such fragmentation, a personality like Meloni only has to convince a plurality of voters of the suitability of his party. In this case, Fratelli d’Italia should be the choice of around a quarter of potential voters – enough to make it Italy’s most popular party. And based on his coalition with others on the right – unlike infighting on the left – he has an overwhelming chance of winning in the vote.

But national votes, even seemingly decisive ones, rarely bring about the radical change that they could have, for example, in France or the United States. The last national vote in Italy, in 2018, is a good example. This election seemed to be the start of a populist revolution, and it initially led to a government of left and right anti-establishment forces. But their agreement was fragile. One government collapsed, then the next. Eventually, amid the pandemic emergency, the Italian president chose Draghi to lead a coalition of unity. In other words: three years after a populist revolt backed by strong Euroscepticism, Italy was led by a one-man former European central banker dedicated to restoring Italy’s image in Brussels.

In his social views, Meloni has roughly the same profile as Viktor Orban, the orchestrator of Hungary’s autocratic turn. Meloni insists on the importance of protecting what she says is Europe’s Christian identity. She castigates the “awakening” of the left and its positions on gender identity.

But on other issues, Meloni tried to make himself more agreeable in the center of Italy, a tactic that helped pull his party from the margins. She once pleaded for the dissolution of the euro zone; now she says that Italy’s place is in Europe. She used to spout conspiratorial ideas about anonymous forces deliberately orchestrating mass migration to Italy; she no longer speaks in those terms.

She compares Fratelli d’Italia to conservatives in Britain and Likud in Israel — conservative parties, not norm-breakers. And she has presented herself as working at times to support Draghi’s initiatives, including on moves related to Ukraine, a country she has unequivocally backed against Russia.

“She has developed a way of speaking to international interlocutors, which seems reasonable,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. “But she’s also able to speak with her Roman accent, her fiery voice, in a way that gets the message across. [to her base]. She is therefore an effective politician.

One of the fiercest debates among Italians centers on the country’s past – and to what extent strands of fascist DNA still linger in Meloni’s party. Meloni released a video last month saying the Italian right had put fascism “back in history” decades ago, and condemned anti-Jewish laws that were among the most vocal elements of Mussolini’s rule.

But that didn’t end the discussion.

Italy never experienced a German-style break with its wartime identity, largely because of the disorderly end to the conflict: with the fall of Mussolini in 1943, with the creation of a puppet state backed by Germany and a fierce resistance movement that has had some ex-fascists join us. There has never been a major purge of the Mussolini-era administration. Some of his loyalists, in the aftermath of the war, formed the Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist group that never gained more than single-digit support and was disbanded in 1995. Later iterations, less in less extremes, included Fratelli d’Italia, which was founded in 2012.

So what connects Meloni to the fascist era? Critics say some threads remain. Over the years, two descendants of Mussolini have come forward under the party banner. Several party members in 2019 attended a dinner to commemorate the March on Rome. Meloni herself said, in 1996, in her late teens – in a video that made the rounds of the campaign – that Mussolini was a “good politician”.

In Italy, such remarks are hardly disqualifying. In 2013, Silvio Berlusconi said that Mussolini was a good leader in many ways, despite anti-Jewish laws. Berlusconi leads another party in Meloni’s so-called coalition.

Weakness on the left translates into strength on the right – and the left has rarely been on softer ground. If all the left-wing parties had come together, they could have made the vote a contest. But given their breakup, they have almost no chance.

It wasn’t always like that. In 2019, the leader of another far-right party, Matteo Salvini, orchestrated a government collapse in an effort to force new elections and win power for himself. Salvini’s League, at the time, was by far the most popular party. But his bet did not work. That’s because the center-left Democratic Party and the anti-establishment (and vaguely left-leaning) Five Star Movement set aside years of vicious rivalry and banded together to form a coalition that staved off an election and shut down the door to Salvini.

This time around, the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party are on tense terms. Both had served in Draghi’s government, but the Five Star Movement contributed to its collapse, in part because it opposed a waste incinerator project. The Democratic Party fiercely opposed the Five Star maneuver.

The rift between the parties, Democracy Party leader and former Prime Minister Enrico Letta said in July, had become “irreversible”.

They are now waging separate campaigns against the right.

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