Inside Story

Making sense of Meloni

Labelling Italy’s new prime minister a fascist misses the longer-term significance of her rise to power — and some shrewd decisions since she got the job

James Panichi 2 November 2022 2888 words

Capital-C conservative? Prime minister Giorgia Meloni (centre) ahead of a confidence vote for the new government in the Italian Senate on 26 October. Riccardo Antimiani/EPA

When it comes to mischief-making, you can’t beat the Italians who’ve been prodding foreign observers to describe Giorgia Meloni as a fascist. Italy’s first female prime minister may be the embodiment of cultural values somewhat outside the mainstream of European conservative thinking, but her commitment to the country’s democratic institutions should be beyond question.

You might even argue that Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is the most democratically inclined and sanest of the three parties of the right and centre right that form the new government. If the world has survived governments that included the xenophobic populists of the League (formerly the Northern League) and Silvio Berlusconi’s increasingly pro-Russian Forza Italia, there’s nothing to suggest that Meloni will be the one to bring on a Hungarian-like descent into authoritarianism.

Yet the real trickery of the Brothers-as-fascists yarn is that it ignores the impact of the upheaval in Italian politics following the corruption scandals and violence of the early 1990s. The unpalatable extremes of Italy’s postwar firmament — from the fascist-in-all-but-name Italian Social Movement, or MSI, to the Italian Communist Party — embraced moderation and chose to come in from the cold, leaving corrupt, once-powerful Christian Democrats and Socialists to seek exile in Tunisia or scurry towards whichever party offered them the best chance of rehabilitation.

That’s not to say that some cynicism isn’t in order. With the ideological battlefield no longer delineated by the Berlin Wall, the parties’ 1990s reinvention was also about self-preservation. But their leaders’ decision to jettison the illiberal components of their postwar worldview wasn’t totally devoid of sincerity.

When Massimo D’Alema was appointed as prime minister in 1998, the common perception was that his road from firebrand leader of Italy’s communist youth organisation to pro-Western social democrat had been a little too slick. Then, in what was arguably his only significant foreign-policy decision, he supported NATO’s military operation in Kosovo — to the surprise of his anti-communist detractors and the horror of his former comrades, who had assumed his pro-Western conversion had been merely for show.

Whatever the optics, the swerve away from extremism among both fascists and communists, and the dissolution of the ostentatiously corrupt Christian Democrats have served Italy reasonably well. Often at significant personal cost, leaders moved their fringe-dwelling parties into the sphere of democratic traditions. They mostly embraced the European Union, which had long been reviled by both the far right and the far left, and they became atlantisti, supportive of NATO and significantly less hostile to the United States.

The political adjustment to the collapse of communism certainly required some fancy ideological footwork, but it avoided purges, violence and recriminations, and it marked the finish of a devastating campaign of domestic terrorism. That the end of the First Republic didn’t also mark the end of Italian democracy should be cause for celebration.

Given its fifty-year history of embracing the cultural heritage of Mussolini’s reign, the post-fascist MSI’s decision to move towards respectability was just as dramatic. When the party Meloni frequented as a teenager in Rome disbanded in 1995, its more moderate members eventually congregated into a new party, the National Alliance, with leader Gianfranco Fini doing everything that needed to be done to reassure the electorate and build bridges with homeless conservatives and liberals. It was a brutal if not always frank reckoning with the MSI’s past, and it culminated in Fini’s 2003 state visit to Israel and subsequent appearances at Rome’s synagogue.

One of the reasons local commentators have been urging us to ignore that transformation and frame Meloni as a fascist is that it’s less intellectually demanding than trying to make sense of her as a homegrown conservative.

Postwar Italian politics didn’t develop a credible model of conservatism that the Brothers of Italy could claim as its own when it eventually emerged as a conservative political force in 2012. Italy never had an equivalent of Britain’s Conservative Party; there has been no Italian Benjamin Disraeli and no Italian Margaret Thatcher. In fact, since the 1990s, Italian right-wing or centre-right political parties have been quirky and idiosyncratic, dominated by strong personalities rather than ideology.

Any plans that Berlusconi, for example, may have had to bring about the liberal reforms Italy’s economy so desperately needed were quickly swept away by political scandals; the rest of his time in office became an exercise in survival rather than a chance to establish a political legacy. For its part, the Northern League embraced the most populist elements of far-right politics, but its secessionist attitude towards “thieving Rome” was never going to lay the foundation for a palatable national political force.

But Meloni hasn’t inherited a completely blank slate. One of the matrixes on offer comes from the most right-wing factions of the Christian Democrats, the party that collapsed in 1992 under the weight of the kickback scandals known as Tangentopoli. The factions, which produced leaders such as former prime minister Giulio Andreotti and former president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, were socially conservative, reactively Roman Catholic and usually strong proponents of a managed economy under the supervision (and often direct ownership) of a large state apparatus.

That economic outlook, which remains highly influential in Italy today, didn’t come out of nowhere — its cultural roots can be found in the twenty-year fascist dictatorship that preceded Italy’s cold war political ferment. Almost no contemporary Italian political leader would be willing to campaign on the need for market liberalisation. Liz Truss’s ill-fated decision to stake her leadership on unfunded tax cuts would have been unthinkable for Meloni.

A cautious approach to the economy and a respectful view of Italy’s bureaucracy is where parties on both the right and the left see themselves. The local word for it is statalismo — the inclination to favour the state’s involvement in every aspect of the country. Italian left-wing activists love to whinge about neoliberalism, but they’re putting the cart before a dead horse. Classical liberalism has never been tried in Italy; all Italians are statalisti, albeit to differing degrees.

That said, elements of Meloni’s political outlook do appear to harken back to a period when trains ran on time — or at least when people were told that trains ran on time. It’s true, for example, that the patriotism underpinning Brothers of Italy rallies may not be seen as extreme in other countries — you’d find more nationalistic fervour during a cricket match at the MCG. But since the collapse of Italian fascism’s final incarnation in 1945, most political parties have tried to keep a lid on over-the-top expressions of nationalism.

Some Italians may be happy to wave flags at soccer games; others tend to get narky when they sense that foreigners are treating the country with disdain (as happened with the Economist’s recent Truss-inspired “Welcome to Britaly” front cover). But overt expressions of italianità have usually been seen as the domain of right-wing subversives, avoided by those craving political respectability.

Meloni has brought nationalism to the table, though, along with a willingness to bristle at any perceived slight by a foreign government. The party’s name, Fratelli d’Italia, is a reference to the first verse of a particularly problematic Italian national anthem (the words could arguably be translated as “brothers and sisters of Italy”). The controversial symbol of the party, a flame in the colours of the Italian national flag, was inherited from the MSI and remains just one example of the connection between patriotism and the far-right worldview of Brothers of Italy.

There have been some other, slightly unexpected throwbacks to Mussolini’s twenty-year rule. Towards the end of the campaign, Brothers of Italy started advocating for young Italians to adopt healthy lifestyles and avoid the devianze — roughly translated as “deviances” — of modern life. Sport was held up as the antidote for the attractions of drugs, alcohol and violence (an earlier version of the party’s Facebook post promoting healthy lifestyles had included obesity and anorexia). In any other society, the promotion of healthy lifestyles may be uncontroversial; in Italy, where at least some people still remember the fascist cult of masculinity, it was big news.

The same could be said for the election of Ignazio La Russa to the key institutional role of Senate president. La Russa, a blokey Sicilian who co-founded Brothers of Italy, collects busts of Mussolini and is happy to concede that he retains a very strong emotional link to his youthful MSI militancy.

The reason none of this makes the Meloni government subversive or antidemocratic is that the cultural legacy of fascism is so pervasive in Italian society it can transcend both party politics and fascism itself. Just one example is the baffling reincarnation of corporazioni, the pre-fascist and fascist-era professional guilds and syndicates that regulated the means of production. To be a journalist in Italy, you have to be a member of a legally enshrined guild; if you want to learn how to ski, your teacher will be a member of the legally protected College of Ski Instructors (not to be mistaken for the College of Alpine Guides).

Outside medicine and the law, no equivalent of this network of professional restrictions exists in most Western countries, yet the guilds are backed by all sides of Italian politics, often to the detriment of fairness in employment and competition.

It’s against this backdrop that the Meloni government appears set to become capital-C conservative. Think of the pre-Trump Republican Party, minus the drive for small government, or the far right of Britain’s Conservative Party, minus the libertarian Thatcherites. Traditional families are now set to loom large in Italy, tempered only by the often-complicated marital arrangements of right-wing Italian politicians; the country will also remain deeply hostile to homosexuality and gay rights.

And where a modern, pro-business right wing would have used immigration policy to harness the economic benefits of desperately needed workers and help migrant communities integrate, the new government is set to treat immigrants as a burden and a threat. Meloni is, after all, the politician who in August reposted a security video of a woman being raped in the city of Piacenza by an African asylum seeker and only took it down following the desperate plea of the victim.

This may all sound horrible, but the election result could have been a lot worse. First, there’s the fact that Meloni’s strong level of support has left her ascendant over her right-wing and centre-right coalition partners, the League and Forza Italia. While Brothers of Italy claimed 26 per cent of the vote, the other two parties polled around 8 per cent each, allowing Meloni to drive a hard bargain with Berlusconi in particular — as the recent public sniping between the two leaders has demonstrated — and leave her mark on the ministerial team.

Berlusconi didn’t get everything he wanted but was able to claim the foreign ministry. Italy’s new top diplomat is the multilingual and eminently presentable Antonio Tajani, a former president of the European Parliament and a former EU commissioner, who has already vowed to increase his department’s presence in Brussels. The League received three ministries peripheral enough to keep the new ministers out of trouble, although party leader Matteo Salvini has already started to speak across portfolios and is likely to continue doing so with impunity.

But it’s on the issue of justice that Meloni made her best appointment. Carlo Nordio is a former magistrate who ran for parliament with Brothers of Italy but is widely seen as standing outside the political fray. He was part of the “Clean Hands” investigations of the 1990s that marked the end of the First Republic and was a key figure in the corruption probe linked to the construction of flood barriers around Venice.

Unlike most magistrates, Nordio has expressed concerns about the politicisation of the judicial system and has identified the dysfunctional operation of both the courts and Italy’s massively overcrowded prisons as a human rights issue. With fifty-nine people having committed suicide in custody since the beginning of the year, he has vowed to make prison conditions a top priority of his term as justice minister.

Nordio’s views may not be enough to tame or override the Brothers’ strong law-and-order tendencies — in fact, at the time of writing he appeared to be losing a battle over the application of life sentences without benefits, a particularly inhumane penalty known as ergastolo ostativo. Yet his presence as minister of justice will be a moderating force on the government.

That Meloni was able to establish a relatively pro-European and centrist cabinet and keep the more unsavoury instincts of her coalition allies at bay is a big deal. It will allow her to forge ahead with a pro-European foreign policy — the slow-burn catastrophe known as Brexit being enough to dampen, if not extinguish, her earlier Eurosceptic carry-on about the need to wrest national sovereignty back from Brussels bureaucrats.

This, in turn, will clear the way for €220 billion (A$340 billion) worth of EU Covid recovery funds to slide into the national coffers at a time when Italy needs to reassure the markets about its debt levels. Meloni used her first speech to parliament as prime minister to say she wouldn’t stand in the way of future EU integration and vowed to work pragmatically with other EU members to protect “freedom and democracy.”

Even more significantly, Meloni’s success in imposing her will on her coalition partners will allow her to keep a lid on the pro-Putin instincts of Berlusconi and the League. Berlusconi’s controversial public and private utterances about the war in Ukraine during the election campaign would have startled other EU member states, which have remained resolute in their opposition to Russia’s invasion and now face a bleak winter of high energy prices. Yet the Forza Italia leader repeatedly riffed off Putin’s talking points, claiming that the invasion was justified because of Moscow’s need to defend Russian minorities.

The pro-Russian thread that runs through Italy’s political firmament is probably the biggest untold story of the elections. The Five Star Movement, a left-wing populist party, secured more than 15 per cent of the vote in both the House of Deputies and the Senate despite its openly pro-Russian, anti-Western stance. Five Star’s strong support for Russia’s foreign policy has been rebranded as pacificism, and the party is now arguing that any support for Ukraine is likely to extend the war, and the EU needs to give peace a chance.

If we were to tally the 8 per cent that the League and Forza Italia each won in the election and Five Star’s 15 per cent, that’s around 31 per cent of Italy’s political representation working to undermine the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Had Brothers of Italy, whose members have themselves expressed pro-Russian views, added its 26 per cent to the pro-Russian camp, the European Union’s successful attempt to present a united front on the issue of Ukraine would have been undermined.

This is why Meloni’s first speech as prime minister was significant. Her vow that Italy wouldn’t give in to Russian blackmail — a reference to Moscow’s threat to turn off the gas pipeline — was a message both to the world and to her Italian allies and adversaries. The takeaway of the speech was that she wouldn’t be providing oxygen to Italy’s cross-party, pro-Russian political faction. In fact, Meloni has hitched her government’s fate to the success of the European Union, in a move that appears largely in line with the priorities of the technocratic government that preceded hers, which was led by former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi.

Nor should we overlook the significance of a woman being appointed as chair of the Council of Ministers, as the role of prime minister is known locally. For a country in which women have long been politically sidelined — with no major party led by a woman, no prominent female newspaper columnist and very few female editors — this amounts to a major breakthrough. Meloni’s election eclipses the only precedent: the Berlusconi government’s appointment of liberal politician Emma Bonino as a European commissioner in 1995.

That Meloni can also claim to come from a working-class or lower-middle-class background is also noteworthy given that Italian politics has traditionally been dominated by the upper-class establishment and its networks of support. Meloni’s preparedness to work as a waitress to support herself during the early days of her political career is at odds with the sheltered political trajectory of most Italian politicians.

None of this is to say that Meloni’s government will be a good one. But she is set to remain bound by her institutional responsibilities and committed to Italy’s role in both Europe and the world. If she loses power in Italy’s volatile parliamentary system, or if she’s booted out by the electorate, there will be no March on Rome, no demands to overturn the results and no Roman salutes. Giorgia Meloni’s election may prove to be Italy’s first real experiment with a truly conservative yet democratic government. It may be bleak, but it’s not revolutionary. •