Italy’s general elections in late September saw the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia scoop about 26% of votes, positioning Giorgia Meloni as the leader of a right-wing coalition that has a clear majority in the new parliament. Media in Italy and abroad have since been talking about the victory of a “fascist adjacent”, and of a “return to fascism” in the country. The election of hard-line conservatives as speakers of the two houses of parliament has only sharpened the debate.
But is fascism really coming back to Italy, exactly 100 years after the rise to power of Benito Mussolini? How much of a disruption will Meloni, who is poised to be the country’s first female prime minister, represent on the national and European political context? Despite the clear election outcome, there are a series of factors that might affect the stability of her cabinet.
For one, Meloni will have to manage the expectations of Silvio Berlusconi (leading the liberal Forza Italia party) and Matteo Salvini (leading the populist Lega Nord), two political heavyweights who will be instrumental in keeping a majority in both houses of parliament. Berlusconi, who has been cultivating a moderate image following his political rehabilitation, now wishes to position himself as a power broker within the coalition – possibly coveting higher political office in return. On the other hand, Salvini suffered significant electoral losses and now needs to differentiate his party from Meloni’s.
On top of the internal power struggle, Meloni will also have to meet the expectations of the financial markets and international stakeholders. In Italy, past experiences of anti-system parties working in governments have traditionally failed. Meloni will have to prove that hers is different – especially in the face of a looming recession in a country plagued by structural inefficiencies, suffering from historically sluggish growth, and still sporting a worrisome debt-to-GDP ratio.
In the very short term, the first stress test of the new government will be to pass the budget. The time span is narrow: new ministers will take office in early November, leaving them with only a few weeks to reach a deal. In the longer term, Meloni will have to try to keep the promises made during the campaign, such as proposals of tax cuts and financial measures to alleviate the rising cost of living, whilst having very little real agency. Tensions will remain between her party’s appetite for increased public spending and the fiscal prudence required by the Eurozone.
Over time, Meloni’s cabinet will also need to carry on with the crucial reforms needed to secure the remaining Next Generation EU funds. The country’s track record so far has been positive. Unsurprisingly, however, the resilience plan was a matter of political debate ahead of the elections. Albeit in vague terms, Meloni stated publicly that she sought to revisit the plan, and potentially shift some of the green transition funds to more immediate uses – namely, providing immediate relief to families and businesses facing rising costs of living. But her margin for changes is again very limited, and these proposals are not likely to go forward.
In terms of economic policy, analysts will also be looking at whether the incoming government will be able to support both foreign investments and domestic economic ventures. Fratelli d’Italia’s electoral manifesto focused on promoting entrepreneurship and “Made in Italy” businesses and SMEs, especially those in fashion, agri-food, technology, and infrastructure, both domestically and abroad.
With regard to Meloni’s aim to raise Italy’s international profile, her government’s foreign policy will also be under scrutiny, notably against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a dramatic departure from the praise she gave Putin upon his re-election in 2018, Meloni has taken a decidedly pro-Kyiv and pro-NATO stance – at odds with the Russia-friendly views of her coalition partners.
In Europe, Meloni’s victory brings benefits to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, of which Meloni has been the President since 2020. It is no secret that she has historically been close to Viktor Orbán, often defending Hungary’s democratic record. This will certainly be a matter of friction when Meloni meets her counterparts in Brussels. She will be representing a party that has traditionally defined itself as anti-system, whilst being well aware that an Orbán-style disruptive approach may cost her the political capital gained so far. Again, she will be walking on a tight rope: juggling between her promises to voters at home and the credibility that is expected of her at the negotiating table.
It is worth taking a look at how the rise of Meloni is perceived outside Italy’s borders. Leaders such as Orbán, Marine Le Pen and Jair Bolsonaro predictably hailed her success. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, however, many wonder whether she represents a far-right, or even a fascist drift, in one of the founding member states of the European Union. Others have defined her party as yet another variation of the political disruption that seems to be taking hold across the continent.
European political leaders have vowed to be vigilant on human rights, primarily the right to abortion and LGBT+ rights. It is a concern that is fuelled not only by Meloni’s own political manifesto, but also by the cultural heritage of her party, accented by the use of symbols traditionally associated with post-fascist groupings such as the tricolour flame. The debate is already in full swing, with a conservative senator having submitted a proposal for an amendment to Italy’s civil code that could indirectly criminalise pregnancy terminations.
Only a few weeks after the elections, however, the tonality of the international debate appears to have changed. Meloni’s efforts to set a clear political course will need to take into account several hurdles within her coalition, at national level, and in the European context. In all instances, she will have to strike a balance between her hard-line rhetoric and the credibility that will be expected of her.
Although it remains to be seen how much of a disruption Meloni will bring about and the new centre-right government is unlikely to yield drastic changes, the success and the stability of her mission will likely set a precedent for many other right-wing parties with increasing popularity in Europe.
Alessandro Gardino, Francesca Colaci, and Valeria Saluci contributed to this article.