“Una vittoria storica” – a historic victory. That’s how the website of one of Italy’s major newspapers, the Corriere della Sera, reacted to the exit polls released after voting closed in Italy’s general election on Sunday night.
With a predicted vote share of between 40-45%, the right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni looks on course to secure at least 230 of the 400 seats in the Lower House, giving it a clear majority.
Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy, was the big winner on the right, with various agencies estimating it at around 25% of the vote. This was more than the combined total of her two main allies, as Matteo Salvini’s League was tipped to receive approximately 8-9%, with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia just below that.
In just four years, Brothers of Italy has gone from minor to major player on the right. In 2018, they took 4.4% compared to the League’s 17.4% and Forza Italia’s 14%. And, if we look further back, Italy’s right-wing coalition has moved from having been dominated for over 20 years by a centre-right populist party (Forza Italia), to being dominated now by a far-right populist one (Brothers of Italy).
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Brothers of Italy’s victory represents several firsts. Italy will have its first woman prime minister. And both Italy and Western Europe will have their first far-right majority government since the fall of Mussolini and the end of the Second World War.
Who is Giorgia Meloni? Meloni’s trajectory owes much to that history. Beginning as an activist of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement in the Roman working-class district of Garbatella in the early 1990s, Meloni rose to prominence in a political milieu that didn’t deny its heritage.
She stated in an interview with French TV in 1996 that Mussolini was a “good politician” and “all that he did, he did for Italy”.
While Meloni now says Italy has consigned fascism to history, vestiges of her party’s political roots remain. For example, the flame in the party’s symbol is taken from the post-fascist Italian Social Movement, and there have been recent instances of its politicians and supporters performing fascist salutes.
Meloni and her party’s success can be traced back to Berlusconi’s entry into politics in 1994. His centre-right Forza Italia movement legitimised two smaller radical right parties (the northern regionalist League and the National Alliance) by bringing them into a coalition that easily won that year’s general election.
The coalition that will soon take power almost 30 years later contains the same three ingredients, but their internal balances have now drastically changed.
While some commentators focus on the continuity the new government will represent, there’s a historic change here. The pendulum on the right has shifted from Berlusconi’s centre-right populist governments with a far-right edge in the 1990s and 2000s, to Meloni’s far-right populist government with a centre-right edge in 2022.
What do these results mean for Italian politics? Within the overall success of the right, there are winners and losers. Meloni is obviously the former, and Salvini is the latter.
Salvini is the politician who, having revitalised his party between 2013 and 2019, has now overseen a huge fall in its support from over 35% in the polls in July 2019 to under 10% today. Only the lack of an obvious successor may save Salvini from losing his party’s leadership.
For the main party on the Left, the Democratic Party, it’s yet another bad day. Having dropped to under 20% in the 2018 general election, they look unlikely to do much better than that this time. Their failure to find a campaign narrative beyond “stop the far right” and to create a broader coalition underlined the strategic ineptitude that has long undermined the Italian left.
Another “first” of this election is the turnout, which has slipped below two-thirds for the first time in Italian post-war history, declining from 73% in 2018 to 64% in 2022. This speaks to the image of a country in which large swathes of the population, especially in the South, are disillusioned with decades of politicians who have promised the earth and delivered little.
In economic and foreign policy terms, Italy may not change much in the short-term. Meloni will be keen to show Italian and international elites that she’s a responsible leader. Powerful domestic interest groups, such as the employers’ federation “Confindustria”, must be kept onside. As must the European Union which supports Italy through its post-COVID recovery plan.
But much could change for the far-right’s “enemies of the people”: ethnic, religious and sexual minorities; immigrants; and those judges, intellectuals, and journalists who dare to criticise the new regime.
Things will also change for those far-right Italians who, as Meloni recently put it, have had to “keep their head down for so many years and not say what they believed”. So, while the Brothers of Italy’s conservation of the post-fascist flame may be more smoke than fire for some groups, for others it will be incendiary.
By Sofia Ammassari, PhD researcher, Griffith University; and Duncan McDonnell, Professor of Politics, Griffith University Brisbane (Aus)