In Italy’s Deserted Democracy, Far-Right Giorgia Meloni Has Emerged Victorious

Yesterday’s Italian election brought victory for Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Fratelli d’Italia — and record-low turnout. The opposition between technocrats and the far right is the symptom of a deeper decline.

Giorgia Meloni is seen during a press conference on her party’s victory in the Italian elections, held on September 25, 2022, at Parco Principi Hotel in Rome. (Valeria Ferraro / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Italy’s election result is another far-right breakthrough — and another indicator of the radicalization of the Right. The right-wing coalition scored 44 percent, but the big winner was just one part of it: Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, whose 26 percent score was far up on the 4 percent it took in 2018.

Meloni’s allies performed feebly. In the case of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (8 percent), this was expected. Yet the Lega led by Matteo Salvini (9 percent) — just a few years ago the rising star of anti-immigrant politics — slumped well below poll ratings and did badly even in its old Northern heartlands.

Part of Meloni’s success lay in the sense she was an “outsider” — or at least, she used this framing to rally the right-wing electorate. Fratelli d’Italia was the only one of the three right-wing parties not to join Mario Draghi’s “national unity” government in February 2021; throughout the last eighteen months she combined outward respect for Draghi with a promise that only she could lead a government directly chosen by Italians.

Yet this result, including the dismal performance of what passes for the Left, is also the product of a wider desertification of the political field. While Meloni’s party has definite ties to the neofascist tradition, its success is also due to a distinctly postmodern phenomenon, which has increasingly dominated Italian public life over the last three decades: the reduction of political horizons to the alternative between technocratic crisis resolution and a far right that is reactionary in its both economic and civil rights policies.

The grimness of this choice is also visible in massive popular disengagement from the electoral process. Italian democracy in postwar decades was based on mass parties with millions of members; electoral turnout consistently stood above 90 percent until the 1980s. In yesterday’s election, it was below 64 percent, with massive abstention in the South and (judging by previous similar contests) among working-class and younger Italians in general.

In this, Meloni’s opponents have grave responsibilities. Part of these lie in the so-called Rosatellum electoral law passed in 2017 (granting the largest coalition a large majority of seats even with a minority of votes). Added to this was the failure to form a broad and radical alternative coalition that could have made this election competitive.

But the underwhelming results for supposedly “progressive” parties, from the liberal-Europeanist Democrats (19 percent) to the Five Star Movement (15 percent) — are also symptoms of a decades-old undermining of the connection between working-class life, left-wing politics, and even democratic participation itself.

Illustrative, in this sense, is the rapid rise and fall of Five Star. The big winner of the 2018 election, it had taken 32 percent support promising to put Italians back in control of the democratic process. Instead, it proved eclectic and unaccountable, forming coalitions with first the far-right Lega, then the centrist Democrats, then both plus Draghi. All this exploded its internal contradictions and dropped its poll numbers into single figures. While leader Giuseppe Conte’s focus on its social programs in the 2022 campaign produced a small rebound, it was still under half its 2018 vote.

In many European countries we have seen that historic center-left parties are no longer able to mobilize their bases through the fear of the Right alone. This, even when as in the Italian case, the right-wing parties combine a reactionary stance on civil rights issues with regressive economic policies, such as introducing a flat income tax rate and getting rid of unemployment benefits. Italy is a land of great labor and anti-fascist history. The last-minute appeal to this tradition in the bid to stop Meloni at the gates could mobilize only small minorities.

Dismal Campaign

The day that the Italian election campaign was launched, I published an opinion piece entitled “The Future Is Italy, and It’s Bleak.” It cast Italy — as I have done here — as a country caught in permanent stagnation and a narrowing of political horizons between technocrats and far-right “outsiders.” It said that this is not because Italy is odd but represents a broad trend in the West, an age of hollowed-out democracy and perma-crisis.

In Italian media, my mention of Fratelli d’Italia’s neofascist roots was widely cited as evidence of US fears over Meloni. Despite her record campaigning for foreign far-right parties like Spain’s Vox, Meloni three times damned my article as foreign interference; her blowhard colleague Ignazio La Russa claimed to have gathered “various pieces of evidence” that this opinion piece was the product of a “conspiracy to damage Italy.” Some online commenters even worried about the hand of the State Department.

Surely most international media coverage told a somewhat different story. With the right-wing coalition’s victory near guaranteed from the start of the campaign, many accounts instead focused on Meloni’s personal charisma, leadership skills, and break with the fascist past. Such accounts seemed to have a hard time reckoning with her repeated defense of “great replacement theory” — that is, the literal claim that the Left, in cahoots with “usurers,” plans the destruction of Western civilization.

As Fabio Chiusi pointed out, the more fawning coverage of the latest rising star was a typical “miracle of those who narrate Italian politics: the closer to the prime minister’s office she gets, the more moderate she becomes.” This bandwagon effect has also drawn previous members of other more center-right parties into her camp, and earned indulgent comments even from Hillary Clinton.

Meloni’s supporters often seem to think she needs congratulating for distancing herself from Fascist dictatorship and antisemitism. Yet the insistence that she respects the electoral process is a very low bar. The risk from a Fratelli d’Italia government is not the end of democracy but a worsening erosion of the public realm, this time in the hands of a political force that has always despised the postwar republic created by antifascist parties.

This will likely take multiple forms: undermining social spending, rewriting the constitution, and using the heights of government to deride those who fought in the World War II resistance. Indeed, it would seem that the more mediocre the outcome of Meloni’s rule, the more necessary it will be for her to lean into identitarian themes, from calls for a “naval blockade” in the Mediterranean to moves against “LGBT lobbies” and “gender ideology.”

Such obsessions have roots in fascism but also belong to a wider nativist agenda, also represented by figures of such diverse traditions as Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump. In this sense, the bearer of the old neofascist flame is not a return to the past but a herald of something rather new.