The prospect that a far-right party with fascist roots may soon lead Italy has understandably spooked international observers. “Giorgia Meloni May Lead Italy, and Europe Is Worried,” read a recent New York Times headline. “Is Italy on the Verge of Returning to Fascism?” a Foreign Policy podcast asked. But things aren’t always what they seem in Italy. Although there are strong grounds for dismay at the prospect of Prime Minister Meloni, the actual likelihood that Italy will return to the darkest hours of its history is low.
Part of the reason is that Meloni has, to an extent, distanced herself from her party’s past. She has declared that “fascism is history” and suspended members who persisted in praising fascist leaders. Meloni has also sought to demonstrate that she would prove a reliable partner for Italy’s European and North American allies. She has, for example, moderated the party’s criticism of the European Union, emphasizing that she wants the country to stay in the eurozone. And unlike many other far-right leaders in Europe, Meloni has been a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin and a staunch supporter of Ukraine.
But the chief reason to doubt how much Meloni will change Italy is simply that she is neither as popular nor as powerful as her electoral victory may suggest. Her star is burning brightly now, but it may dim just as quickly.
In the country’s previous national elections, in March 2018, the Five Star Movement stunned international observers by winning nearly a third of the vote; Meloni’s Brothers of Italy took just 4 percent. Over the next three years, two consecutive governments collapsed amid chaos and acrimony, making it impossible for any political parties to form a cohesive governing majority. Out of options, all of the major factions in the Italian Parliament agreed in February 2021 to form a technocratic government of national unity under the leadership of Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy alone stayed in opposition. As many observers predicted at the time, that holdout position practically guaranteed her ascent. Given the economic stagnation and pandemic pain the country has experienced lately, Brothers of Italy’s rapid rise in popularity was hardly surprising.
This suggests that Meloni’s victory on Sunday has less to do with nostalgia for Italy’s fascist past than with anger at the country’s parlous present. But by the same token, Meloni’s popularity may soon wane after she takes on the responsibility of governing. The fate of the last newcomer hyped as the future of Italian politics is instructive: Since its surprise success in 2018, the Five Star Movement has lost more than half of its vote share and now languishes on the sidelines. [Continue reading…]