By Stella Loutsou
With 70 government changes in the last 77 years, Italy is known for its unstable and everchanging political landscape, the unpredictability of which was exacerbated during the decade after the 2008 economic crash. The 2010s proved to be a great challenge for the country’s only constant, the longstanding bipolar competition between the center-left and the center-right: the Italian elections of 2013 and 2018 saw a massive decrease for both leading political actors of the Second Republic: The Partito Democratico on the center-left and Silvio Berlusconi’s parties, Il Popolo della Libertà (2013) and Forza Italia (2018), on the center-right. These electoral losses, among the biggest in size seen in Europe for pre-crisis mainstream parties, profited non-traditional parties seeking to present themselves as alternatives. Such was the way Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) and Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord (later Lega) gained momentum, emerging as anti-establishment forces in a context of a general crisis of authority and collective dissatisfaction with the traditional political scene by Italian citizens. However, M5S and Lega were to end up, themselves, victims of this streak of unpredictability with the recent elections of September 25th, as both were overshadowed by a new public favorite: Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia.
The establishment of Fratelli d’Italia and its path to the 2022 victory
Fratelli d’Italia was founded in 2012, after a split from Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right party Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL). This split was the result of a series of events centering a failed attempt by Berlusconi to merge all center-right forces into one in 2007, as well as his resignation four years later and almost immediate reappearance in the political scene months after.
The first crack in Berlusconi’s attempt to unite the center-right came from the conservative right-wing Alleanza Nazionale (AN) party. AN, then headed by Gianfranco Fini, merged into the PdL in 2009. However, political disagreements mainly regarding the merged party’s leadership resulted in the departure of a group of ex-AN members headed by Fini himself. The dissidents formed a new party, Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI). After Berlusconi resigned in 2011 due to his government’s inability to handle the eurozone crisis, he was replaced by Mario Monti, appointed by then President Napolitano to lead a technocrat government tasked with imposing structural economic reforms. PdL and Fini’s FLI both supported the Monti government. However, a group of ex-AN members within PdL openly voiced their opposition both to Monti’s government and to Berlusconi’s leadership of PdL. When in 2012 Berlusconi announced that he would lead the PdL again after cancelling the scheduled primaries to select the coalition’s leader ahead of the 2013 general elections, Giorgia Meloni, one of the potential candidates, along with a group of other ex-AN members, decided to leave the PdL and form a new party: Fratelli d’Italia-Centrodestra Νazionale (later Fratelli d’Italia, FdI).
FdI, however, being aware of the fact that its participation in a coalition was its only chance to earn parliamentary representation, decided to partner with the PdL along with another then minor party, Lega Nord. After getting 1.96% of the vote, FdI started an internal process with the aim to turn the party into a more structured and organized one. In the next general elections of 2018, with the center-right once again competing in a coalition, FdI rose in comparison to the general elections of 2013 with 4.35% of the vote. As Lega (which received its highest ever share, 17.5% of the vote) joined winning party M5S in forming a coalition government under Giuseppe Conte, FdI remained in opposition along with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI). One year later, in the 2019 European Parliament elections, FdI received 6.44% of the vote, its best result till then. In the EP, FdI joined the group of the European Conservatives and Reformists. Later in the same year, as M5S and Partito Democratico (PD) allied in forming a second government under Conte after Lega’s attempts to trigger a snap election, Meloni’s popularity increased due to her vocal opposition to the second Conte government. Meloni’s opposition continued to rise with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and so did her popularity: by the end of 2020 polls gave the FdI more than 10%, while Lega declined, making it apparent that part of Lega’s electorate had started to shift towards FdI.
Conte resigned in 2021 following disagreements within the governing coalition over his management of the EU’s Recovery Fund and was replaced by Mario Draghi. FdI remained in opposition, while Lega and FI joined the new government. By being the only opposition, FdI was able to maintain its own radical political agenda, which resulted in the further increase of its electoral support while Lega and FI kept declining.
The election of 25 September 2022
The September 25th elections were called following Mario Draghi’s resignation. The fall of Draghi’s national unity government occurred as a consequence of a failed relief bill designed to aid households and industries with soaring energy prices, which a significant number of Draghi’s supporting parties refused to back, starting from the M5S.
Italy has a mixed majority and proportional voting system, in which three-eighths of members are elected in a first-past-the-post vote in single-member constituencies, while the rest are elected by proportional representation according to candidates’ party lists, with some seats reserved for voters abroad. Voters vote for both Parliament houses, the Chamber and the Senate. These elections were the first ones to take place after a constitutional referendum, held in 2020, which reduced the number of MPs in the Chamber from 630 to 400 and in the Senate from 315 to 200.
The main right-wing parties, namely Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, Salvini’s Lega and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia along with centrist alliance Noi Moderati competed in a center-right coalition. The center-right coalition, as was expected, emerged victorious with around 44% of the vote, winning the absolute majority of seats in both Parliament Houses: 235 seats in the Chamber and 115 in the Senate. FdI was the big winner of the election with 26% of the vote, while Lega dropped to 8.8% and FI to 8.2% (Chamber and Senate combined). Noi Moderati didn’t reach the 3% threshold.
The center-left also competed in a coalition, consisting of Enrico Letta’s Partito Democratico, an alliance of two parties Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra, pro-Europeanist Più Europa and centrist alliance Impegno Civico. They received around 26% of the vote overall, with PD receiving 19%, Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra barely passing the 3% threshold and the rest failing to reach it.
The biggest party in the 2018 elections, Movimento 5 Stelle (with over 30%), competed on its own, but dropped to 15.5%. The last party which reached the 3% threshold is Azione-Italia Viva with below 8%.
The turnout, at 63.69%, was the lowest ever in Italian general elections and almost 10% lower than the 2018 elections, continuing a very stable tradition of consistently decreasing electoral turnouts over the years.
The ideology of Fratelli d’Italia
Since its creation, FdI has maintained an ambiguous stance regarding its neofascist background and characteristics, with Meloni failing continuously to distance her party from such elements. In any case, FdI’s gradual radicalization is best examined under its classification among the radical right party group, a fairly new group of right-wing parties in Western Europe differentiated from the mainstream right wing and studied by scholars since the 1990s. The main characteristics of this radical right group are the following:
• a xenophobic type of ethnic nationalism (nativism) along with anti-immigration positions which often results in ‘welfare chauvinism’, i.e., social policy agendas excluding immigrants and ethnic minorities based on them not belonging to the national community the party appeals to
• various forms and degrees of Euroscepticism, ranging from opposing specific EU policies to rejecting the very existence of the EU and/or its integration process altogether, framed as another way of defending the national state and identity
• authoritarian positions
• populist characteristics, namely the division between the virtuous people and the delegitimized elites
• an intense commitment to traditional values, namely the defense of the heterosexual family and traditional gender roles, as well as an opposition to LGBT+ rights
• opposition to certain elements of the democratic system but not necessarily to the system per se, which is the main factor differentiating them from the extreme/far-right due to the latter’s clear anti-system and anti-democratic stances
Fratelli d’Italia, over the years, has emphasized the above characteristics to different degrees depending on the period, following a stable path to radicalization. In 2013, right after its creation, FdI focused its agenda on the necessity to reform both the Italian and EU political systems. More specifically, FdI emphasized its opposition to Monti’s technocratic government calling it undemocratic and proposed constitutional reforms in regard to the Italian political system, such as the direct election of the President of the Republic. Regarding the EU, FdI proposed a reform of the ECB introducing a cleavage between a ‘Europe of the people’ and a ‘Europe of finance and oligarchy’. Therefore, the party included democratic characteristics into its proposals, while pushing for reform in the EU without opposing it per se. At that point, FdI hadn’t yet developed a full-fledged nativism or authoritarianism.
In 2014, FdI started to incorporate more radical, nationalistic points into its platform, such as an emphasis on national sovereignty and the need to defend the Italian economy and national identity. Some more signs of Euroscepticism started to emerge, especially regarding the euro, which the party considered an obstacle to the country’s recovery. However, the party had not yet reached its peak Euroscepticism. Its populist and anti-establishment tendencies also started to rise.
Between 2017-2018 the character of FdI as a radical right party became undeniable. The party’s ideological platform, at that point, included open Eurosceptic and anti-immigration positions such as accusing the EU to organize a plan of ‘ethnic replacement’ with immigrants and refugees in the name of globalism, and the need to revisit the euro and the European Fiscal Compact. FdI also demanded a reform of the EU treaties which would increase state sovereignty in the context of European integration. Furthermore, it emphasized giving priority to Italian citizens when it comes to social benefits, jobs and housing (‘welfare chauvinism’), as well as more severe authoritarian measures, such as the demand to strengthen the police and military forces significantly. Another important point is its emphasis on traditional values, such as the strengthening of the traditional family against the so-called gender ideology and against same sex couples’ parenting rights.
However, in the lead-up to the 2022 elections and the prospect of winning the elections, FdI attempted to distance itself from its radical 2017-2018 platformand present a more toned-down agenda. Therefore, the party removed most mentions to ‘national preference’ when it comes to welfare and returned to its earlier stances on immigration, with a strict approach to irregular immigration but an ambiguous plan to promote the ‘social and working inclusion of foreigners’. FdI’s platform also presents some ambiguity in its stances on the EU which are, however, also softer than the ones of 2017. Nonetheless, several of the party’s positions still perpetuate its strong radical right rhetoric, especially considering its stances on social and cultural issues (gender equality, LGBT rights, religious values etc.). Finally, regarding the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Meloni has surprisingly made her support for Ukraine clear, a stance which differentiates FdI from both Lega and FI.
Conclusion: is there a momentum for the European Right?
The results of the Italian elections were neither a surprise nor an isolated phenomenon, but rather one more manifestation of the ever-growing presence of right-wing populism in Europe. The rise of Fratelli d’Italia and the right-wing coalition’s victory took place just two weeks after the Swedish conservative bloc achieved a two-seat lead over the left-wing bloc in Sweden’s elections. Similarly to Fratelli d’Italia, the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist right-wing and populist party, made significant gains and managed to emerge as the second biggest party in parliament with 20% of the vote. Meanwhile, in Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán followed up his 2018 victory with an even bigger one earlier this year and Poland’s governing right-wing party PiS is still in the lead in polls. Furthermore, a significant number of other European countries are already showing signs of a possible increase in their (far-)right-wing’s electoral force, such as Belgium, Spain and Finland. These developments indicate a second populist right-wing wave in Europe after the one of 2015-2020, which was briefly paused during the pandemic but is now seeing its revival, making way for uncertainty regarding the degrees of extremism it could reach.
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