Andrea Pisauro on how post-fascist Meloni ended Berlusconi’s reign and foiled the left
For the first time in its history, Italy is going to be led by a woman. Last Saturday, Giorgia Meloni took her oath of office in front of President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella wearing a black shirt. The colour echoed the shirts of the fascist mob that marched towards Rome to install the government of Benito Mussolini almost 100 years ago. She didn’t mind the coincidence. As the leader of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a party whose roots trace back to the post-fascist tradition, many Italians minded it very much indeed.
In fact, an absolute majority of Italians who turned up to vote on the 25th September didn’t want Meloni to be Prime Minister. Unfortunately, they split their support in three major blocks: 26% of them supporting the centre-left coalition led by former PM Enrico Letta, 15.5% supporting the Five Star Movement led by former PM Giuseppe Conte, and 8% supporting a centrist list led by former PM Matteo Renzi. The bad blood among these former leaders was sufficient to split the progressive electorate enough to propel the right-wing coalition to victory.
This is because Italians have a very complicated electoral law, whereby a third of the Parliament is elected through first-past-the-post constituencies, 80% of which were won by right-wing parties, who fielded unitary candidates and had an easy ride against the multiple progressive candidates. Meanwhile, in the two thirds of Parliament elected proportionally, the combined vote of the right-wing parties was just 44% – in fact, down 6% (a few hundred thousand votes) from the European elections in 2019. The victory of the right is thus largely down to a self-inflicted defeat of the left.
The divisions on the progressive front were not just down to personalities. Class and geography were the major predictors of the vote, with young, poor and working people in the South voting in huge numbers for the Five Star Movement, whilst the predominantly old middle class in the North and centre of Italy mostly voting Partito Democratico, the largest party in the centre-left coalition. Centrist support was highest among the well-off in city centres. An ecosocialist list allied to the PD obtained 3.5%, mostly from young precarious workers, electing a small contingent of working class MPs, including migrant trade unionist Aboubakar Soumayoro.
Policy differences in the progressive camp were hardly insurmountable. With all parties being broadly favourable to extending migrant rights, supporting Ukraine and the EU, the major differences related to the socio-economic agenda. Renzi’s centrist list wanted to scrap an unemployment benefit which, according to him, was “immoral”. The Five Star Movement, which introduced it when they entered a populist alliance with Salvini’s League in 2018, campaigned vigorously to defend it.
The big novelties of these elections were two. It was the first election in 15 years to deliver a clear majority and a clear mandate to govern, as both the general elections of 2013 and 2018 resulted in hung parliaments and were characterised by profound political instability, with six different governments in just nine years. Second, Giorgia Meloni won the leadership of the Italian right (and with it, that of the country), ending the 30 years domination of Silvio Berlusconi. Her party won 26% against Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at 8%, more than tripling his share.
Notoriously sexist and misogynist, Berlusconi didn’t take this lightly. He was caught on camera writing a note where he described Meloni as “opinionated, bossy, arrogant and offensive” as she refused to appoint as minister a controversial woman who aided Berlusconi’s past sex trafficking. Yet more than half of his MPs favoured continuing the coalition, and Berlusconi had to abide. Whilst Forza Italia is crucial for the new government’s majority, it is unlikely that Berlusconi will have the force to pull its support. The new foreign minister and vice-premier Antonio Tajani (a former European Commissioner and president of the European Parliament) is the de facto leader of the parliamentary party, and Berlusconi is 86 years old. An audio recording of him justifying Putin’s war in Ukraine, which was passed to newspapers last week, is likely to marginalise him even further.
If Meloni manages to keep in line her other vice-premier Salvini, whose League also polled at 8% (halving its share compared to 2018), her government can last. Contrary to Renzi, she is unlikely to wage war against the poor, but she will firmly stand for the interest of big business. Similarly with Orban in Hungary and Duda in Poland, her far-right national conservatism has explicitly reactionary views about the family and the place of women in society as well as an inflammatory xenophobic narrative. Culture wars and hostility towards migrant and LGBTQ people will be the key narratives she will push whilst trying to reduce taxes for the self employed and business owners, the key demographics in her electoral base.
In the short term, the Italian left is unlikely to prove a challenge to the government. The divisions between the populist Five Star Movement and the moderate Partito Democratico are deep, and no unifying figure is likely to emerge any time soon. Yet a civic, cultural and social backslash to Meloni’s reactionary agenda is bound to develop in Italian squares. Italian progressives must seize that moment.