Italians react to the triumph of Giorgia Meloni

In the luxuriantly carpeted corridors of the Hotel Parco dei Principi in the north of Rome, hundreds of journalists, Italian and foreign alike, had arrived ahead of time to capture the final count of a bitterly contested election. The hotel had been selected as the venue for the presumed winner, the Brothers of Italy, and the reporters were gathered in the hope of witnessing the party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, exalt in her triumph.

It wasn’t lost on the press that the Parco dei Principi had once played host to a conspiracy, brokered by rightist agitators and intelligence services, to mount a fascist coup, way back in 1965. Brothers of Italy traces its own roots to the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a party founded in 1946 by postwar Mussolini loyalists, and the summer campaign, spurred by the collapse of the coalition led by technocrat Mario Draghi, had been dominated by questions over these ugly origins. Nevertheless, by way of a coalition with a fallen far-right rival, the League, alongside Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Meloni landed a projected 42.7 percent vote share—enough to form a coalition government.

For hours, then, the assembled hacks waited for confirmation, muttering among themselves, chain-smoking in the cramped courtyard, sampling the endless pastries and delicacies that had been laid out for them—but Meloni didn’t show. “It’s typical of the Brothers of Italy,” one reporter muttered. “Inviting all of the journalists here—then not turning up, leaving us only other journalists to interview.”

It was, indeed, typical of a party that has long sought to withdraw from the attention of the supposedly left-controlled mainstream press, and which prides itself in speaking directly to “the people.” When Meloni did eventually turn up, celebrating the victory, she was at pains to stress the enormity of her mandate. “Italy has chosen us,” she thundered, “and we will not betray them as we have never betrayed them before!”

Giorgia Meloni is expected to be elected prime minister of Italy.

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But her mandate is maybe not quite so clear-cut. Among the vast majority of Italians who didn’t vote for Meloni, there is a perception that this new, powerful right-wing coalition government is more a quirk of a deeply flawed electoral system than a sign of any genuine dark fascist turn in the country. Brothers of Italy itself only won around 26 percent of a vote with a historically low turnout of 64 percent, and neither of its coalition partners scraped ten percent.

Much of this blame must also fall on Italy’s centre-left, whose envoys failed to form a viable counter-coalition and ran confusing, disordered campaigns. The ideologically mercurial Five Star Movement did well in the poor south but was barred from a potentially winning coalition with the establishment Democratic Party. That faction, meanwhile, spent its precious campaigning hours trashing both Five Star and the right, before ultimately seeing a devastating collapse in its voter base—partly as a result of having drawn electoral laws while in office that disenfranchised its own MPs.

It’s not hard to see why some Italians simply abstained from the process entirely. “What makes one marvel at this election is that half of Italians didn’t vote,” said Piera Giani, a business owner who lives near Lago Albano, a large volcanic lake south of Rome. “We’re tired of this political class—there’s a distrust of everybody.”

It’s a distrust with roots that go back to at least the 1990s, when Italy’s entire political class was felled in a scandal known as “Bribesville.” Since then, Italian politics has meandered back and forth between two states: intoxicating populist surges and technocratic morning-after pills, the latter featuring bankers installed by the Italian state to clear up the mess made by the previous, political government. The last technocrat was former Bank of Italy and ECB governor Mario Draghi, who was tasked with sorting out the country’s massive debt and bewildering bureaucracy. He failed, was ousted, and will now be replaced by Meloni—the only party leader not to have joined Draghi’s grand coalition.

For many, however, Meloni’s victory produces a feeling of profound disgust, if not exactly surprise. Marialuisa Vola, a Roman artist in her early twenties who abstained from voting, views Meloni as a monster. The new premier, she believes, is a full-blown fascist and homophobe. “Stiamo nella merda,” she said—we’re in deep sh*t.

But what exactly are Meloni’s policies? Is she, truly, a fascist?

It’s complicated. To the Brothers of Italy voters whose businesses were blown up by Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, there was no great desire for Il Duce 2.0. Neither did Meloni advocate for cult-leader worship or re-invading Ethiopia.

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She instead offered tangible, if not necessarily workable, solutions to voters’ problems. Her campaign included proposals for a flat tax, vaguely defined pledges to minimise inflation, and a promise to abolish a “citizens’ income” that helped the most desperate but was apparently burdensome for business owners. Most importantly, she was not tarred by association with the Draghi government.

Then again, Meloni’s campaign did make use of fascist tropes. She invoked former greatness and the perfidious Other. She played on fears over migrants, the left, LGBTQ rights, and the Italian equivalent of “wokeness.” Her party’s tricolore flame symbol is a holdover from its openly fascist ancestor.

But the “fascist” designation still fails to capture the project’s essence, said David Broder, the author of ‘Mussolini’s Grandchildren’, a forthcoming book on the descendants of wartime fascism. He told me that Meloni’s complicated ideology is better understood as an expression of “post-fascism,” a successor to Mussolini’s fascism that nevertheless tried to forge a new, distinct identity for itself in the post-war years.

Though he hardly predicts a return to totalitarianism, or marches by militants in the streets of Rome, Broder does believe Italy is in for an unpleasant new era. “Having a defender of racist conspiracy theories in government clearly will create a much more hostile climate for minorities, as will her promise to mount a ‘naval blockade’ to violently repress migration,” he said. Meloni’s victory, he added, will likely embolden her counterparts on the continent, among them France’s Marine le Pen.

That all said, the mood in Rome the morning after the Sunday election count did not feel much different to that of any other drizzly September morning. Commuters stood angled at bars sipping bitter black espressos. Rain-soaked mopeds wheezed around traffic. There were no signs of any widespread, Trump-era style protests against the vote; no chants of “not our premier,” or violence in the capital’s streets.

It’s not hard to see why. The result had been foretold months before and left-leaning Italians had already absorbed its significance. Some even felt relief, believing this an opportunity for an eventual centre-left resurgence. “The leftists are very sick,” a young law graduate from central Italy, who also didn’t vote, told me. “I hope after this earthquake it will start a new era for real ‘progressive’ parties in Italy.”

In the meantime, Italy will soon learn just how competent Meloni is at governing—and that you don’t necessarily need to be a jackbooted “fascist” to run an ailing nation still deeper into the ground.

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