Italy’s Elections: The rise of the far-right and what it means for Europe
Why are Italy’s elections gaining so much media attention?
The outcome of Italy’s 2022 parliamentary elections received considerable global media attention. Naturally, an election that installs a new government is significant for any country; in this case, it is especially of interest for European nations due to a shift towards the political right — a trend observed in other European elections this year — such as those in France and Sweden. In the wake of the Italian elections, numerous warnings of the rise of fascism with the line “Italy elects its most far-right government since Mussolini” (or something to that effect) have popped up on mainstream news sites, including CNN, Politico, NBC, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Daily Mail, and Time. Such accusations of political extremism have put Meloni in the media spotlight and cast some doubt over the future of European politics.
In this article, we will look at the elections, the campaign that led up to it, and the claims about Meloni’s fascist and far-right beliefs. Then we will discuss the phenomenon of a conservative shift in Europe and what Meloni’s victory might mean for the European Union.
The outcomes of Italy’s elections
The 2022 Italian general elections were held on the 25th of September, following the collapse of the coalition headed by Mario Draghi in July. The results showed the center-right coalition emerge victorious with an overwhelming majority.
The success of the Italian right has been attributed to several factors. The right-wing coalition reunited parties that were part of the Draghi coalition during the pandemic. Meloni’s party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) gained support as other right-wing parties shifted towards the center under the previous government. The election was marked by division among the center-left parties: the elections were triggered by Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) breaking away from the previous government. Partito Democratico failed to unite the center-left. The outcome of the Italian election was therefore not only due to right-wing populism, but the disarray of the center-left. 
The right coalition (Centro Destra) won 43,79% percent of the vote. The leading party, Fratelli d’Italia, won 26% of the vote with over 7 million votes. Fratelli d’Italia is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. Other parties in this coalition are Lega, Forza Italia, and Noi Moderati. The main party of the opposing coalition, the Partito Democratico, won just 19,07% of the vote — one of its worst performances in its history — with the coalition winning 26,13% in total. You can see the full election results here.  
Italy has not had a center-right government since Silvio Berlusconi — 11 years ago. Now, with enough seats to hold the majority in Parliament and elect its President, Italy’s next government should be formed between the 24th of October and the 16th of November. 
Finally, it is notable that these elections registered the highest numbers ever of abstentionism in parliamentary elections (36,09% compared to 27,10% in 2018), making it one of the lowest voter turnouts in European elections. As we will discuss later, it is also the third time a far-right political party has been successful in six months.
The politics of Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia
With the Centro Destra coalition holding the majority, Giorgia Meloni is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister. Yet no one is celebrating the milestone. Instead, the mainstream liberal media focused on her coalition, describing it as the most far-right government since Benito Mussolini. This characterization is due to her campaign that promoted the values “Dio, patria, e famiglia” — God, fatherland, and family. 
So, what does Giorgia Meloni stand for? Like other conservative figures, she claims that traditional values and the nation are under attack by ambiguous opponents.  She advocates for immigration restrictions, greater national independence, and the reaffirmation of family and Christian values. These seem like run-of-the-mill conservative values – especially in a country whose Roman Catholic population is estimated to be around 70%  – even if it is unusual for a government with such a platform to gain support in a European country.
This pro-family, pro-Christian platform caused people to sound the alarm; such the issues of sexual, religious, and racial minorities. Regarding LGTB issues, Meloni has expressed opposition towards same-sex marriage and adoption and surrogacy for same-sex couples . It is worth noting, however, that same-sex marriage is not currently legal and Meloni has not suggested repealing the right to same-sex unions. LGBT and religious minorities already have few recognized rights, and it is not likely they will lose further rights. Therefore, immigration policy seems to be the battleground.
In her campaign, Meloni spouted rhetoric aimed at Muslim immigrants, prompting religious minorities to express concern. Her statements are reminiscent of replacement theory: she has cited Italy’s low birth rate as a critical issue, promoting pro-natalist policies . It is true that Italy has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. An aging population, coupled with Italy’s economic issues, makes pro-natalist sentiments understandable, yet she has framed immigrants as intrusive and campaigned on restricting immigration.
Finally, on Meloni’s economic challenges: Italy is facing an economic downturn, with growth expecting to drop to 0,6%. This is partially due to rising energy costs and inflation, as well as the lasting effects of the pandemic. Meloni has promised to cut taxes to stimulate economic growth, a plan which her opponents have criticized since it would raise the deficit. While Meloni advocates for the deconstruction of welfare, her opponents want reform and more moderate action. 
Is Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia fascist?
Meloni’s victory has prompted allegations of “fascism” and “semi-fascism” (whatever that is supposed to mean). This is largely propagated by the American liberal press — quick to sensationalize and condemn anything that can be identified or inflated as fascism, populism, and extremism. The European press took a less dramatic perspective, using labels like “far-right” and “nationalist” instead.
Has Italy really turned towards fascism? Nearly every news source that denounced Fratelli d’Italia as “fascist” cited its roots in Mussolini’s party and certain “fascist” policies on which it campaigned. We will take a closer look at this question.
Meloni was a member of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) which was indeed rooted in Mussolini’s party in the post-war period. But by the 90s, the party was nearly dead; it reformed and rebranded itself into the Alleanza Nazionale, of which Meloni also was a member . Throughout the ‘90s, its leader Gianfranco Fini distanced the party from its fascist roots: retracting his former statements, condemning fascism and Mussolini’s racist laws, and adopting a more moderate platform. After Berlusconi’s center-right coalition fell apart in 2006, Alleanza Nazionale joined Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in 2007 to create Popolo della Libertà, returning him to power. The formal merging occurred two years later . Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia formed out of a faction of this coalition.
Does Fratelli d’Italia’s origins in Mussolini’s movement still warrant the label of fascism? It seems to be rooted in Mussolini’s party, albeit many times removed and reformed. For comparison, the U.S Democratic Party went from being the party of Black disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and segregation to one that champions racial equality and civil rights within a similar span of time (albeit in a two-party system). Parties change. At the same time, while the party became more moderate in the ‘90s and distanced itself from Mussolini, it has not shed its nationalism.
It is also worth noting that the parties of Meloni’s coalition were in Berlusconi’s governments from 1994 to 2011, as well as the Draghi government. Popolo della Libertà in turn was in the coalition of Mario Monti and Enrico Letta. This begs the question: did these parties get more fascist suddenly?
Origins aside, does the current stance of Meloni’s coalition warrant the label “fascist”? We will look at the Fratelli d’Italia, the party with the biggest support in its coalition by far. Much in the way Fini made his party more moderate, Meloni has also walked back on some of her statements leading up to the election.
As we will cover later, Meloni took an EU-skeptical position that angered many European politicians. She has since changed her stance, shifting towards calls for a less active, more efficient EU . She has also pledged to maintain the positions of previous governments on NATO policy and EU policy toward Ukraine and Russia. Domestically, her party has promoted pro-family, pro-nationalist policies, and Christian values that have shaped her stance on LGTB issues, economic reform, and immigration.
We have seen in the recent decade the resurgence of the term fascism. It generally connotes a far-right sentiment today, But at its rise in the early 20th century, it was more difficult to characterize. Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco are the leaders most people identify as fascists (the term originates from Italy). The last is most associated with the far-right values of today. The term also relates to the socialist sentiment at the time. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (even the communist states) were all nationalist, restrictive of immigration, and restrictive of civil rights. The Mussolini and Nazi brand of fascism is characterized as more in the realm of conservatism despite their opposition to religion and certain socialist policies due to the obsession with the restoration of a traditional image and idea of social hierarchy. The term “red fascism” referred to extreme left-wing Marxism or Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism.
What really is fascism? The term describes a form of authoritarian government characterized by militarism, nationalism, suppression of beliefs, economic intervention, and autocracy. It typically contains beliefs in ethnic or national superiority and natural hierarchy.
The instance of the term “fascism” to classify Meloni’s position is subjective. It has undoubtedly appeared in the media used to stir attention. The promotion religious values and international cooperation go against traditional fascist doctrine. Nationalism, anti-immigration, and restrictions on civil rights are of course more far-right policies that have inspired concern and can appear like “fascist” policies — if the government takes extreme action that is.
Is it right to classify Meloni’s politics as fascist? More recently, term fascist has referred to any far-right belief regardless of the extent to which authoritarian power is used to enact them. George Orwell notes in Politics and the English Language “Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Calling Meloni a fascist might therefore be the media looking to sensationalize her story and promote political aims. The truth can only be seen in the actions her government takes in the future, even if one sees the governing coalition as far-right.
What does this election mean for Europe?
The election is significant for the future of Europe for two reasons. First, it confirms a trend in improved right-wring performance in European elections. Second, it is perhaps another party that brings EU solidarity into question on issues of the economy, immigration, and Ukraine.
The Partito Democratico’s failure to unite the center-left was obvious during the last election. People have been talking about the decline of the European center-left for years now. In the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy center-left parties have been losing popularity. While some are quick to point to populism, others attribute the decline to political stagnation and “Third Way” pragmaticism and compromise that has led to a lack of identity. You can read more about it here.
So is the far right on the rise? Recently, the Sweden Democrats also performed well, gaining 20.5% of the vote. They also campaigned on a platform of restrictive immigration and refugee policy. In France, the nationalist Rassemblement Nationale’s Le Pen gained points since the 2017 election, winning 41.45% of the vote in the second round compared to 33,90% in 2017. Furthermore, the far-right Eric Zemmour won 7.1% of the vote in the first round; he ran on an extremist message of anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and nationalism. 
As mentioned before, Giorgia Meloni has been known as a Eurosceptic. Only more recently has she taken a less aggressive stance. Italy is a very active (and founding) member of the EU. Furthermore, the success of Italy’s economic recovery depends on European cooperation. For example, Italy wants a slice of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan and needs to meet 55 targets set by the European Commission. There are worries about whether the Italian government will use the funds effectively. People were alarmed when Meloni indicated that she wanted to renegotiate the EU National Recovery and Resilience Plan made by the previous government; however, she has since backtracked her statement towards “adjustment”. Her stance on pro-natalism, while perhaps a response to immigration, does point out a genuine threat to maintaining the economic prosperity Europe has enjoyed in the last decades 
As far as international cooperation is concerned, Meloni has promised to remain aligned with NATO and EU policy toward the Ukraine-Russian conflict despite her criticism of the impacts of the sanctions on Italy.
Now, regarding the largest issue: immigration policy. We have seen a rise in parties taking a stand against immigration. The issue will remain a central concern in Europe. Meloni’s criticism seems to address migrants from Africa and the Middle East.
The more recent arrivals of immigrants and refugees have shaped Europe in the last decade. Right-wing groups have been able to capitalize on new fears: terrorist attacks from radicalized groups and the failure of true integration have caused a shift in the view of immigration and particularly feelings towards Muslims, an estimated 25 million+ of which now live in Europe. Earlier this year, such tensions boiled over into a series of riots and murders in Sweden to the point that even the prime minister had to admit that immigrants were not successfully integrated . Some nations already have immigration policy shaped by conservativism, like Hungary and Poland. This has already created tensions between these two countries and the European Union, which has not adopted such a policy. These changes in the cultural landscape and the violence were bound to have right-wing pushback eventually, which is maybe what we have been seeing with the success of the anti-immigration parties in Europe. Instead of looking at domestic solutions to integration, these parties often instead look to restricting further immigration.
Immigration is an issue not only because of its social effects, but because many people are risking their lives to reach Europe. In just the first two months of the year, a reported 120,000 migrants arrived in Greece — double what was seen in the first half of 2015. There is no doubt about the problems with European immigration: an estimated 400 migrants have drowned in the Aegean Sea and many have taken a dangerous path through Libya. There seems to be another boat of migrants that capsizes or other immigration disasters every few weeks This has increased the prevalence of human smuggling and other dangerous attempts to enter Europe. Reception centers in Greece and Italy are overcrowded, and many immigrants are stuck in mass camps along the way or at borders. 
Because most migrants come through Turkey, Italy and Greece are the European gateways for immigrants. EU data shows that 23% of asylum claims from migrants of Turkish origins were deemed well-founded in 2014. There have been some attempts to enforce the border, such as Frontex, but such efforts have been in vain and are to an extent unfeasible. If Italy goes forward with its propositions for immigration reform, the EU will need to adopt a holistic approach that takes into account national sovereignty as well as logistical, economic, and humanitarian issues. 
Italy repeatedly raised the issue that the rest of Europe does not have the same burden in managing immigration. This plagued previous Italian governments too. The EU’s criticism towards Italy for its anti-immigration policy only creates more division. The same issues are playing out between the EU and Poland and Hungary too. 
There is no straightforward solution. The aggressive zero-immigration stances shared by Hungarian and Polish governing parties would not be a humanitarian solution. Keeping migrants out of Italy, for example through coordination with Libya, would only increase the number of immigrants stuck in dire conditions in Turkey and other countries in the Mediterranean . Because of EU immigration and border policy, making reforms affects all nations. Perhaps by bringing the issue to the forefront, a more sustainable solution can be found.
Returning to Hungary and Poland, the two countries at odds with the EU welcomed Meloni’s success. Many in the EU worry that the nationalist promises of the new government will weaken EU sovereignty. It is unlikely that we will see Italy do anything as drastic as leaving the European Union, but their stance might embolden Hungary and Poland. If the EU’s opposition to these nations continues to alienate them, the fabric of the European Union could be further pulled apart. On the other hand, Meloni’s government is a center-right coalition and the other parties in that coalition have pressured her to adopt a moderate platform. If she does not fulfill her promises of cooperation with the EU, it will be the end of her coalition and thus her government.
Meloni is a new addition to a series of right-wing victories, largely due to the disarray of the political left, increasing concern for immigration, and low voter turnout. She is another politician skeptical of the EU or at least advocating for reform. As for domestic policy, she may be the country’s first female prime minister, but she will not be an ally for women’s rights and will not further the rights of the LGBT community and religious minorities.
This story gained a lot of attention in the American media as a warning sign of the rise of fascism. While Meloni’s party had roots in fascism many generations ago, it has since become more moderate. Though many fear the new government’s treatment of racial and religious minorities and the LGBT community, as well as anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment, it remains to be seen what policies it will enact — if this government lasts long enough, that is.
Meloni’s government will be quickly put to the test if she can hold her coalition together. If it is to withstand, she will need to keep her word in adopting a more cooperative and moderate stance towards the EU. Her tax plan and the challenge to meet the requirements for European economic aid will determine Italy’s economic recovery. With regards to immigration reform, it may not necessarily be bad if the issue is made a high priority for the EU; however, it also threatens to cause division.
By Luke Ravetto
Image Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP
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