Italy: why Meloni won, by Hugues Le Paige (Le Monde diplomatique

Where is the left? Giorgia Meloni speaks in front of screen image of leftwing PD party leader Enrico Letta on Rai 1 programme Porta a Porta, 6 September 2022

Alberto Pizzoli · AFP · Getty

The psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati, who likes a paradox, wrote, ‘If Italians are voting for Giorgia Meloni, that doesn’t mean they want fascism back, but rather that they regard its return as impossible’ (1). He’s not entirely wrong. The success of the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI, Brothers of Italy) in September’s parliamentary election has given rise to much (legitimate) indignation and moral condemnation, with many commentators worrying about the advent of ‘post-fascism’ in Italy.

Silvio Berlusconi’s government had an association with the far right as long ago as 1994, in the form of Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) and Umberto Bossi’s then regionalist Lega Nord (Northern League). But at that time, the balance of power was tilted in favour of the mainstream right. That balance has now shifted, after two decades of pervasive Berlusconism, which glorified individualism and denigrated the collective (in the name of anti-communism, though Italy’s communists had already disbanded).

The taboo on voting for the far right has clearly gone, but this alone doesn’t explain Meloni’s success. FdI owes its victory mainly to the record low turnout (63.9%), to being the only opponent of Mario Draghi’s outgoing coalition government — apart from two very small parties, Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left) and Verdi Europa (European Greens) — and to the consequent transfer of support to FdI from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega (Lega per Salvini Premier or League, which succeeded the Lega del Nord). The Lega, whose share of the vote dropped from 37% in 2018 to 8.1% in 2022, paid a high price for joining Draghi’s national unity government. Ultimately, the right and the far right did not win a large number of additional votes compared to previous elections, but Meloni’s party claimed a much bigger share of them, winning 7.3 million votes (26%, compared to 4.3% in 2018).

Rightwing voters now feel they can vote for FdI as if it were just another party, but this doesn’t mean they support ‘post-fascism’. Meloni knows this, and during the campaign made efforts to address different messages to different constituencies: she made pledges to her longtime supporters on social issues, which she claims as her ideological roots, and sought to reassure traditional rightwing voters by affirming her support for democracy and Ukraine, and an unwavering attachment to the Atlanticist doctrine.

The PD has been in trouble since it came into being … a party immersed in a neoliberal fog with blind faith in globalisation. When this fell apart, the party remained silent and unable to repoliticise society

Carlo Galli

Meloni’s first actions on coming to power confirm this twin-track strategy, from the appointments she has made to her cabinet to her inaugural speech and visit to Brussels. On the socioeconomic and diplomatic front, all the signs are that she will be resolutely neoliberal and Atlanticist. Meloni seems to be following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Draghi — with whom she has had increased contact, both during the campaign and after her victory — to reassure Brussels and safeguard the €200bn European recovery plan. She has appointed Giancarlo Giorgetti, who is a member of the Lega but also a staunch Europeanist and a former minister under Draghi, as her economy and finance minister.

Making Antonio Tajani foreign minister has also helped reassure Brussels: a former right-hand man of Berlusconi, from whom he has since distanced himself, Tajani is also a committed pro-European Atlanticist. During her first meeting with the EU on 3 November, Meloni also reaffirmed her unconditional support for Ukraine and her wish to respect EU treaties and control budget deficits, all without the slightest hint of sovereignist rhetoric. This alignment with the European Commission and its doctrine of austerity will, however, inevitably create problems with a significant part of Meloni’s base.

‘God, fatherland, family’

When it comes to women’s rights, and the rights of immigrants and the LGBT community — and also her policies on justice, education and security — it’s a different story. On these issues, Meloni fully intends to apply her trinity of ‘God, fatherland, family’ and impose her brand on her partners. With this in mind, she has given ministerial jobs to key far-right figures, such as Galeazzo Bignami, who was once photographed in a black shirt and Nazi armband, and is now secretary of state for infrastructure.

She has also renamed some key departments: the ministry of education has had ‘and merit’ added to its name. Likewise, ‘birthrate’ has been added to the title of the ministry of the family and equal opportunities, now headed by Eugenia Maria Roccella, who once campaigned for the right to abortion, but later changed sides and declared categorically on television (LA7) in August that ‘abortion is not a right’.

Meloni denied Salvini the position of interior minister, only to entrust it to his former chief of staff, Matteo Piantedosi, who is an equally fierce an opponent of immigration. Piantedosi’s first action in office was to prevent several humanitarian ships carrying rescued asylum seekers from docking in Italy, calling their passengers ‘residual cargo’. (‘We want to govern migrations, not suffer them,’ the minister told parliament.) This affair, as well as revealing the cynicism of European migration policies, sparked a crisis with France, which was forced to take in the 234 migrants on board the Ocean Viking on 10 November. In retaliation, France imposed unprecedented measures: in addition to stepping up its border controls, it has decided to suspend its agreement to take in 3,500 refugees currently in Italy, who had been scheduled to arrive in summer 2023.

Authoritarian streak

Nothing better illustrates the Meloni government’s authoritarian streak than its first legislative initiative. On the pretext of needing to crack down on the organisers and promoters of raves, it presented a decree defining a new crime punishable by up to six years in prison: the ‘invasion of land or buildings (private or public) for gatherings dangerous to public order, security or health’. It also announced new surveillance and provisional arrest powers to prevent this ‘crime’, which is defined so broadly that it could equally well apply to a sit-in a factory, school or university. Under a barrage of protest, Meloni backed down, but continued to defend the underlying principle. The idea may therefore not be gone for good.

Meloni’s electoral victory represents an unprecedented ideological marriage of neoliberalism and the far right within a single party. But it can also be compared to that of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega in 2018: both were the result of a protest vote and attest to the rejection of traditional parties, remote from the working class and incapable of restoring meaning to political representation. Although it’s hard to quantify, this electoral nomadism, combined with a huge (and rising) abstention rate, is a sign of Italians’ disillusionment with politics. FdI’s success needs to be seen in tandem with the defeat of the centre-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD), which was unable to make any headway as an alternative to Meloni.

From a purely numerical perspective, the PD’s rout was contained: its support fell from 22.8% of votes cast in 2018 to 19.1% in 2022. But on a symbolic and political level, their defeat was stinging. In the south, they did not win any of the seats under the first-past-the-post system (Italian electoral law allocates one third of seats in the Assembly under this system and the remaining two thirds under a proportional one). In central Italy (Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia Romagna), once the impregnable stronghold of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the FdI outperformed the PD, whose support held up only in the big cities. (It has earned itself the nickname ‘the ZTL party’ because of its promotion of Limited Traffic Zones (ZTLs) in some city centres, which appeal to affluent local residents.)

In the north, Isabella Rauti won for the FdI in the Milanese suburb of Sesto Giovanni, once known as the ‘Italian Stalingrad’, where the communists once reigned supreme. Rauti once belonged to the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI, a neo-fascist party which was founded postwar by former Mussolini supporters and wound up in 1995). She has been appointed under-secretary of state for defence.

PD, the guardian of institutions

PD secretary Enrico Letta is paying for refusing to go into an alliance with the Five Star Movement, which he blamed for the fall of the Draghi government. By ruling out the only coalition that could have resisted — or at least stood a better chance of resisting — the far right, Letta gave the M5S the opportunity to occupy the ground to his left with a bolder social programme (citizen’s income, minimum wage, wage parity) that saw it make an unexpected electoral recovery (taking 15.4% of the vote, though this is still 18 points down on 2018). But the crisis of the centre-left dates back further and runs far deeper.

The PD, which has governed for the last 11 years (except for the two years of the Conte-Salvini government), has become a sort of guardian of Italy’s institutions. It’s the party that has been relied upon to support national unity coalitions and so-called ‘technocratic’ governments (governi tecnici), implementing drastic austerity policies, such as that of Mario Monti’s government in 2011, which introduced a plan for €20bn worth of public spending cuts. These measures are always presented as unavoidable, no-alternative and apolitical. However, as political scientist Arthur Borriello has pointed out, ‘subtracting the politics is in itself always a political act’ (2). From Romano Prodi, who imposed austerity in 1996 to bring Italy into line with the Maastricht criteria, to Draghi’s coalition, and Matteo Renzi’s ‘Jobs Act’, which deregulated checks on hiring and firing workers, the identity of the PD, like most European socialist parties, has melted into the mould of social liberalism.

The PD has been more interested in the social problems that are core concerns of the wealthy urban classes than in the issues of redistribution, employment and solidarity, and has gradually lost contact with the mass of Italian workers (whether precarious or not) and the unemployed, even though inequality in the country is growing. According to the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), in 2021 there were 2.9 million households in relative poverty (with an income of less than half the average income of the region), and a further 1.9 million households in absolute poverty — with no, or difficult, access to healthy food, decent housing, electricity, education or drinking water.

After the election, many PD activists, intellectuals and leaders began an exercise in self-criticism in newspaper columns and other forums, questioning their party’s purely institutional function. The PD ‘has turned into a sleeping doorman who controls and preserves the Palazzo from the guardhouse’, wrote novelist Stefano Massini (3), a reference to Pier Paolo Pasolini, who used the metaphor of the palace to distinguish the sites of power from the working-class world. Following the election, Letta himself said, ‘We can no longer be the civil protection of Italian politics.’ Belated realisations of this sort give some sense of the length of the road ahead and the many painful reappraisals that will have to be made along the way. These are not problems that will be solved at the party’s convention in January. That is more likely to erupt in a war of succession.

What’s left of the left?

While the PD remains divided on the question of alliances (with the M5S or with Matteo Renzi’s and Carlo Calenda’s liberal and centrist parties) as well as its stance on the peace movement, which has been campaigning for an end to the war in Ukraine and brought 100,000 people onto the streets of Rome on 5 November, no alternative is taking shape on the left. In September’s election, Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left, associated with the Verdi Europa) and the Unione Popolare (Popular Union) list, which assembled a collection of much smaller parties — and received the support of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Jeremy Corbyn — had to be content with the role of token candidates (with 3.6% and 1.2% respectively). Moreover, the climate question was entirely absent from the election campaign. And yet outside the realm of party politics, collectives, associations and social centres are busy working on social and climate issues.

The Italian left has never recovered from the PCI’s decision to disband in 1991 (4). Its subsequent incarnations have proven incapable of rebuilding a fighting movement. The PD, founded in 2007 in the hope of uniting former communists and former Christian Democrats, soon saw the latter overtake the former, who had long since abandoned their political heritage. ‘The PD has been in trouble since it came into being, a few months before the subprime crisis that upset the liberal world order,’ writes historian of political thought Carlo Galli (Il Manifesto, 30 October 2022). ‘The European Union responded to this crisis with austerity, which was supported by the PD … a party immersed in a neoliberal fog with blind faith in globalisation. When this fell apart, the party remained silent and unable to enter the movement to repoliticise society.’

Anti-fascism has been a social glue holding Italian society together. Meloni’s victory has now brought that era to an end, and in so doing, has shone a harsh light on the state of the Italian left, which is desperately seeking a new identity. Italy: why Meloni won, by Hugues Le Paige (Le Monde diplomatique

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