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Why the rise of Giorgia Meloni is anything but business as usual for Italy

The far-Right’s latest figurehead threatens to send Italy down a dangerous authoritarian path we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe

Matteo Pascoletti
8 July 2021, 12.00am
Giorgia Meloni has reshaped the Brothers of Italy, making it a more acceptable, modern nationalist party
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Gianni Pasquini / Alamy Stock Photo

As of February 2021, there is a new political peculiarity at play in Italy. Courtesy of the country’s new government, led by the technocratic centrist Mario Draghi, Italy now finds itself with far-Right parties playing prominent roles inside and outside of government.

While Matteo Salvini’s populist Lega Nord is part of Draghi’s governing coalition, the parliamentary opposition is now dominated by Brothers of Italy and its leader, Giorgia Meloni.

Brothers of Italy – named after the opening words of the country’s national anthem – was formed in 2012, an heir to the post-fascist movement founded after the Second World War. Meloni is a long-serving politician renowned for her radical right-wing stances on immigration, LGBT rights and abortion.

For Meloni, 44, the past few years have provided an opportunity to reshape her party, moving it towards a more ‘acceptable’ modern nationalist platform while ensuring its manifesto still includes less-than-subtle links to its roots. The slogan “Italy and Italian people first”, for instance, is popular with contemporary fascist movements such as Forza Nuova and CasaPound: in 2015 the latter used a version of this slogan for its Sovranità (Sovereignty) campaign.

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Support for Meloni’s party has been growing slowly but steadily since the 2019 European parliamentary elections, where Brothers of Italy took 6.4%. It has gained support by demanding that the EU leaves the global compact on migration, a non-binding United Nations agreement that has been the target of far-Right conspiracy theories in many countries, and advocating a naval blockade on North Africa to stop ‘illegal’ immigration.

This success comes at the expense of Salvini’s party, which had its own surge in popularity a few years ago, but has since struggled to find an effective political strategy. Both parties now lead the opinion polls, at around 20% each. (The centre-Left Democratic Party comes third, at 19%.)

Throughout 2020, Italian mainstream media has covered the far-Right primarily in terms of a “race to the leadership of the country”. Meloni has benefited from regular airtime as an opposition leader, while generally being depicted as a more conservative and traditional politician than Salvini. She has gained international prominence, too, becoming president of the European Conservatives and Reformists alliance of far-Right and populist parties in the EU.

Don’t believe the hype

Meloni’s rise is being aided by the distortions of Italian media – particularly in broadcasting, since domestic TV and radio remain dominant news sources. In public broadcasting, jobs are distributed according to political affiliation (a practice that has its own word in Italian, lottizzare), while the private sector is dominated by a few large companies.

This is a system in which cronyism is rife, and means that a small circle of influential people have the power to anoint new political leaders. Pundits have already started betting on Meloni. Following the lead, popular newspapers such as La Stampa have started talking about the possibility of her becoming prime minister.

Even the hard-Right journalist Vittorio Feltri endorsed her during a talk show. “It is absolutely clear that Giorgia Meloni is a good politician, her sex isn’t relevant,” said Feltri, during a recent TV debate on the possibility of Meloni becoming leader. In addition, Feltri was announced as the Brothers of Italy's frontrunner for the next mayoral election in Milan, during Meloni's book event. As a historical far-Right pundit, he represents an elite that has always supported Salvini’s Lega in northern Italy, where the party is strongest.

Meloni's book contains passages laced with conspiracism and antisemitic overtones

The current mainstream discourse, however, is flawed. By discussing the far-Right in terms of leaders and their particular qualities, the media is ignoring the more important question of why support for the far-Right has grown. Meloni’s normalisation has allowed her to become a mainstream figure in pop culture, while providing a fig leaf for her aggressive agenda against marginalised groups.

Meloni’s autobiography ‘Io sono Giorgia (‘I am Giorgia’), allows an insight into the level of endorsement heaped upon her. Published by Rizzoli, a major Italian publisher, it has been top of the sales charts for weeks.

The book’s title nods to a viral YouTube video that remixes one of Meloni’s speeches from October 2019 in which she gave a typical far-Right turn. “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am Italian, I am Christian. You can't take this away from me!” she shouted. The speech was later turned into a parody anthem. The song was even used by a journalist to introduce Meloni in a TV studio, with a musical duet between the two, in front of a clapping audience.

Yet the book is anything but catchy. Instead, it contains passages like this, laced with conspiracism and antisemitic overtones:

You see, political correctness is a shockwave, a cancel culture that tries to upset and remove every single beautiful, honourable and human thing that our civilisation has developed. [...] It is a nihilistic wind of unprecedented ugliness that tries to homogenise everything in the name of One World. In short, political correctness – the Gospel that a stateless and rootless elite wants to impose – is the greatest threat to the founding value of identities

It’s not the first time Meloni and her party have aired such ideas. In 2019, a Brothers of Italy election manifesto referred to George Soros as a “usurer”. Yet far from the book being criticised, the only controversy came when a bookseller declared she would not sell it. She received death threats and was promptly placed under police protection.

Disturbing trends

The increase in Meloni’s popularity is hardly surprising in a country whose mainstream discourse has been progressively shifting rightwards. We can see this shift in several areas of everyday life, from the mainstream media to threats to reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights. Words like “siege”, “invasion” and “assault” in media discussion of immigration. Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most-read newspaper, recently asked why Italy was not as good at rejecting unauthorised migrants as Spain had been during its recent confrontation with Morocco.

When it comes to setting the agenda, left-wing topics are dismissed or struggle to find reasonable coverage. Last year’s worldwide Black Lives Matter protests were attacked by right-wing journalists, while the Italian protests were barely covered.

In this scenario, Meloni has two advantages over Salvini. Under Salvini's leadership, the Lega Nord – once a secessionist northern Italian movement – has rebranded itself as a nationalist party. Its history of anti-southern rhetoric means that it has always struggled to gain a foothold in the south, as we saw in the most recent elections.

Salvini also saw his reputation slowly decline after his first stint in government ended when he collapsed the coalition with the Five Star Movement’s Giuseppe Conte in 2019. Salvini has never quite recovered from his failure to trigger an election and grab the top job for himself: if there’s one thing that political ‘strongmen’ can’t be forgiven, it’s faltering.

Meloni’s party is also benefiting from having avoided the compromises of government. Their anti-establishment rhetoric is less tainted than Salvini’s – not least because the vocally eurosceptic Lega Nord is now in coalition with Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank.

The nationalist international

Meloni is already placing herself in the company of Europe's authoritarian populists. After all, Brothers of Italy recently received a letter of endorsement from Hungarian president Viktor Orbán himself, who Meloni met in Brussels last month, together with other nationalist leaders, such as Janez Janša of Slovenia and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland. Even before that, conferences such as the National Conservatism Conference outlined the stages of this transition and the welding of new political networks.

Last week, Brothers of Italy signed a declaration together with other far-Right European parties (Italy’s Lega, Spain’s Vox, Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice among them) to launch a political alliance. Although it's unknown how the parties will shape an effective political platform, they're providing a clear cultural direction based on the core idea of the European Union as a ‘superstate’ centred on traditional family and against ‘mass immigration’.

Thinking about what Italy would look like as an “illiberal democracy”, where rights are a privilege reserved to some categories of citizens, requires no major effort. It would be enough to continue along the path the country is already on.

In this scenario, immigrants and asylum seekers will likely suffer the most. After all, the party that is supposed to fight for their rights, the centre-Left Democratic Party, was the one that launched a crackdown in 2017 on NGOs that rescue migrants at sea. It was an attack the far-Right later capitalised on.

Meloni, in both her book and her party manifesto, envisions an immigration system that favours foreigners from countries that manage to "integrate better", meaning immigrants from a Christian background. Integration, for post-fascists, is more like an ethnic quality than a political process.

When talking about immigration, Meloni also refers to the non-Christians already in the country, regardless of their citizenship status. In particular, Muslims are often targeted. In 2019, the Pew Research Center revealed that 55% of Italians had negative feelings towards Muslims.

Meloni’s proposals also feature heavy opposition to the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights, under the guise of the protection of free speech. The current public debate in Italy is dominated by the so-called “DDL Zan”, a bill proposed by Alessandro Zan MP. The draft law is designed to combat discrimination and violence based on sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability. Despite a similar bill being first proposed 24 years ago, the law has faced a stark opposition where the extreme right, so-called ‘gender critical’ feminism, and ultimately the Vatican, have united under the same banner.

Should Brothers of Italy gain even more support, women's rights could be the target of a fiercer attack

Brothers of Italy’s Carolina Varchi claimed the bill is a potential Trojan horse to introduce “gender ideology” in schools, while Meloni calls it a threat to freedom of speech. According to Meloni, declaring that families are founded on the marriage between a man and a woman, for example, would be considered hate speech. More recently, former Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi asked the draft law to be modified to match some of the far-Right and conservative Catholic's requests, including removing reference to gender identity.

In a country like Italy, where a homophobic crime is committed every three days, a bill protecting Italy’s LGBTQ+ rights as well as women and disabled people is desperately needed. According to Over the Rainbow, a report by the OECD on LGBT inclusion internationally, Italy is rated 39% for inclusivity, closer to far-Right dominated countries like Poland (33%) than Germany (68%) or France (74%).

Women's rights is also fertile ground for the far-Right, since they are already threatened on a daily basis. Reproductive rights, and abortion in particular, are strongly opposed. The first obstacle women face is the high rate of conscientious objection to carrying out abortion by medical professionals. According to the latest report from the Ministry of Health (2018), it exceeds 70% in nine out of 20 Italian regions, making it particularly difficult for women to access abortion services, especially for vulnerable people who might not be able to afford travel costs.

Should Brothers of Italy gain even more support, women's rights could be the target of a fiercer attack. Meloni’s refrain is that “abortion is a defeat”, in the words of her favoured slogan, but she is cautious when talking about pro-choice laws. When she spoke at the conference of the Christian Right, World Congress of Families, in Verona in 2019, she limited herself to defending the right of women to consider alternatives to abortion.

The activities of her party at a regional level are much more explicit, however. In recent years, Brothers of Italy has been trying to limit access to the abortion pill (also known as RU486). Political and economic support has also largely been given to anti-choice groups ‘working’ in free clinics, a battle that parties like the Lega and Brothers of Italy are now fighting in every municipality or regional government where they have a majority. This happened in the Le Marche region, where RU486 isn’t available without hospitalisation. In Liguria, Brothers of Italy has proposed a bill granting free spaces to anti-choice groups in hospitals.

What comes next

Italy is no stranger to far-Right parties joining coalition governments. Aside from the Lega, the Italian Social Movement – an ancestor of Meloni’s party – has taken part in government, under Silvio Berlusconi during the 1990s. It might seem, then, that it’s a bizarre but relatively stable feature of the Italian political landscape.

Yet thinking that democracy is capable of surviving, no matter how many shocks it takes, is a fundamental error. Democracy is something that can be broken or even emptied from within. The slow transition towards authoritarian regimes that we are seeing in countries like Poland or Hungary, or that are now at an advanced stage in Turkey, should have taught us that such collapses are possible. One of the main requirements for these models is for politics to be turned into a constant battle of ‘us’ against ‘them’.

In Italy, the ‘them’ has changed over time. In Berlusconi’s day, the enemy was the ‘illiberal Left’ that sat in Parliament. The Left, however, was a peer with the power to oppose this type of discourse. Today the far Right targets specific social groups and their rights, while pointing to obscure and diffuse threats – ethnic replacement, gender ideology, the globalist elite. If the land that needs heroes is unlucky, think how unfortunate the land that needs such enemies must be.

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