In a few short weeks, all eyes will be on Italy, as the nation will hold legislative elections that could result in a more stable government than the country has enjoyed in recent years. Currently, polls have the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the surging relative newcomer Brothers of Italy (FdI) in a dead heat atop the field, each polling at 24% of the vote. The nativist League (Lega) is a distant third at 14%, and the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) trails at 10%, followed by the center-right Forward Italy (FI) at 7% and a smattering of smaller parties claiming the remaining votes.
With a likely center-right coalition of the FdI, Lega and FI now just below the 50% threshold, what do we know about how a government led by Giorgia Meloni, the head of FdI, would actually govern? The answer to this question remains an enigma, but there are clues to how her potential agenda might unfold.
The Past Looms Large
For much of Europe—certainly for EU bureaucrats and for the Biden administration—jumping from the known administration of independent Mario Draghi to the unpredictable possibility of an FdI-led coalition is cause for much consternation. Draghi, a technocrat and president of the European Central Bank before he became prime minister in February 2021, led a unity government supported by six parties: PD, Lega, FI, M5S and two smaller parties (the centrist Italia Viva and leftist Article One). Draghi took over after an M5S government collapsed over disagreements relating to the spending of EU coronavirus recovery funds. The Draghi government itself collapsed this past June over disputes regarding a stimulus package intended to tackle cost-of-living increases.
This history sets the stage for an FdI-led center-right coalition to come to power. But not all is smooth sailing. For the Brothers of Italy (co-founded by Meloni in 2012), its biggest issues relate to the past. The party has struggled to distance itself from its origins in the post-WWII parties founded by Italian fascists. Meloni herself has written that she “does not belong to the cult of fascism.” At the age of 15, however, she did join the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed in 1946 by supporters of former Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. MSI was succeeded by the National Alliance, of which Meloni was also an active member. She was first elected to the Chamber of Deputies from the National Alliance in 2006, becoming Minister of Youth in 2008 under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. At 31, she was Italy’s youngest-ever minister.
If it’s indeed committed to separating itself from its past, FdI hasn’t done itself any favors. The party emblem still retains the very same flame utilized by MSI. FdI also fielded a granddaughter of Mussolini’s as one of its candidates in 2018. And at the end of August, a video resurfaced of a young Giorgia Meloni in a French documentary, in which she is quoted as saying, “I think Mussolini was a good politician. Everything that he did, he did for Italy. There has not been another politician like him in the last 50 years.” (She has since offered that Mussolini made some “mistakes.”)
Currently, Meloni seems to be conservative but not radically so. She has proposed measures like free nurseries to aid the Italian birth rate, echoing the state social support programs of places such as Hungary, but she has also railed against progressive social policies. She has frequently described herself as a woman, an Italian and a Christian. The origins of FdI are no doubt concerning, yet the company FdI currently keeps is essentially mainstream conservative. FdI is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the EU Parliament, which includes other conservative political parties such as Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Spain’s Vox parties and formerly the U.K. Conservative Party. These parties are sometimes lazily portrayed in the mainstream media as far right, but this is an unfair caricature. There are certainly radical far-right parties in Europe, but these parties are not among them. Rather, by and large they hold similar policy views to conservative Americans and most of the Republican Party membership.
Convincing voters that FdI has broken from the past is a tall order, but it seems that the party has been largely successful in doing so. Indeed, FdI’s upward trajectory has been incredible: After all, the party won a mere 4.3% and 4.4% of the vote for the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, respectively, in the last general election in 2018. It has since benefited from not joining Draghi’s unity government. The nativist Lega joined the Draghi government, deflating its claims to be an outsider voice. As a result, FdI was able to win over disaffected Lega voters, which has resulted in an associated fall in Lega’s political fortunes. The rise in FdI’s polling corresponds directly with a decrease in support for Lega. In Italy, joining a government often means a party’s political fortunes are sure to wane; an electorate dissatisfied with the political class has favored perceived outsiders.
In addition to polling well, FdI will benefit in the upcoming elections from disarray among opposition parties. In late August, a short-lived electoral alliance between PD and the Action Party—a center-left bloc seeking to jointly contest the election—fell apart. The split of the populist M5S in June over aid to Ukraine helped set the stage for the collapse of the government; today, it further strengthens the chances that the center-right alliance will win a majority. Further, a 2020 referendum supported by 63% of Italians cut the size of parliament by a third, likely making it easier to assemble a new majority.
Polling shows that Italian voters are increasingly pessimistic about the future, concerned in particular about inflation and rising energy costs. Should Meloni win the upcoming elections, this public focus on bread-and-butter issues means she will need to show quick progress to address them.
Indeed, a potential PM Meloni will face immediate challenges—the need to pass a new budget (unprecedented fall elections severely truncate this timeline), curbing inflation and securing new energy supplies (she wants to focus on increasing ties with North African energy producers), all while squaring Italy’s planned defense spending increases with social spending promises from the campaign, which will strain Italy’s precarious financial position. The center-right bloc’s manifesto “promised steep tax cuts, early retirement and amnesties to settle ongoing tax disputes, which look hard to implement in a country whose public debt is targeted at 147% of GDP this year.”
Italy’s underperforming economy was an albatross on any political leader even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Italy especially hard in the early months of its spread and led to an obvious decline in the nation’s vitally important tourism sector (which is expected to recover fully by next year).
A further key economic challenge for the incoming administration is hewing close enough to the reform and investment targets agreed by the Draghi government and the EU to obtain €750 billion of the EU’s COVID recovery and resilience fund (Italy will receive the largest amount of any nation from this fund). No easy feat, to put it mildly. Meloni has already indicated she would seek at least some changes to the agreed program, which she believes does not address the “needs and social and economic priorities that surfaced after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.” While she may win some changes at the margins, the reality is that Brussels retains nearly all the cards, no matter who is elected, because Italy desperately needs the EU’s cash.
A probable Meloni-led government obviously has implications far beyond Italy’s borders. One of the biggest question marks on the international stage is Italy’s support for Ukraine. Italy under Prime Minister Draghi has been a robust supporter of Ukraine, but many worry that support will recede under a new government. Polling has shown that support in Italy for Ukraine and increased domestic defense spending is lower than in other European nations, a reality that will surely place pressure on a new government. A softer Italian policy, combined with the indecisiveness shown by Chancellor Scholz in Germany and the willingness of some smaller European nations such as Hungary to compartmentalize business and energy dealings with Russia, could seriously strain Europe’s united front to oppose Russia’s war and support Ukraine’s self-defense.
The Italian vote also comes at a crucial time for Europe, as the continent enters the end phase of summer and looks toward the onset of colder temperatures. The potential for energy shortages and ensuing economic and political pressures means that Europe’s ability to sustain support for Ukraine is anything but certain.
But is a softening of support for Ukraine a given? Hardly. In fact, a Meloni-led government might take positions that stand up to both China and Russia. She recently stated that Italy under her leadership would not be the “weak link” in the transatlantic alliance and that “Ukraine . . . is the tip of the iceberg of a conflict whose objective is the revision of the world order. Russia is louder at present and China is quieter, but its penetration is reaching everywhere.” The first point listed in the center-right coalition’s framework agreement announces support for “Italy, fully part of Europe, of the Atlantic Alliance and of the West.” Meloni herself has voiced strong support for NATO—and for a robust transatlantic alliance with close ties with the United States. She supported the recent Italian vote to ratify Finnish and Swedish accession protocols to join the alliance.
A transatlanticist approach from the Italian right would be welcomed in Washington, but for Meloni, it will be difficult to get her coalition partners to agree to such an arrangement long term. Lega’s financial and political ties to Russia have been widely reported. Lega head Matteo Salvini has long stated his admiration for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, even wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Putin’s visage on multiple occasions, including during a plenary session of the European Parliament. FI’s Berlusconi was a long-time personal friend of Putin’s and sought a closer relationship with Russia. He has, however, sought to distance himself from Putin since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
For her own party, Meloni has described the ongoing war against Ukraine as an “unacceptable large scale act of war by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine,” but as recently as 2018, she puzzlingly described Russia’s fraudulent elections as “the unequivocal will of the Russian people.” Whether Meloni will be able to maintain government support for a strong NATO and continued aid to Ukraine remains to be seen, but she has made clear in recent statements that she and not any other party leader would be deciding policy and appointments in a potential new government—a move intended no doubt to send a message to Salvini.
Regarding China, a Prime Minister Meloni would have the chance to align Italy further with the U.S. In 2019, an M5S government with Lega as a junior partner made Italy the first G-7 country to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, much to the consternation of the U.S. The inclusion of PD in a successor M5S-led cabinet didn’t significantly change Italy’s cozy relations with China. That new government, one analyst wrote, took “a very European approach in its dealings with China. Italy quietly maintained a rather positive relationship with China, while joining with the other EU countries in occasional critiques of China.” The subsequent Draghi government hardened the nation’s approach toward China and became more comfortable with using its so-called golden powers to block takeover bids, including blocking the bid of a Chinese firm in a deal involving a robot maker last year. A Meloni-led government seems likely to press a more strident policy vis-à-vis China; she has been critical of Beijing in the past, and FdI has at times virtually hosted Chinese dissidents and protestors, resulting in loud complaints from Beijing.
Immigration remains a significant electoral issue in Italian politics, as well as a thread uniting the parties of the center right. But it’s also an issue that has caused some controversy for the would-be prime minister. In late August, Meloni shared a video of an alleged rape of a Ukrainian woman in Italy by a migrant from Guinea. The tweet drew condemnation from her opponents and was taken down by Twitter. However, migrant crime in Italy is a serious issue, and many Italians are concerned that overwhelming numbers of migrants arriving year after year will lead to further crime issues, as well as a loss of Italian culture. The center-right bloc’s proposals for stronger border controls, more policing and targeting of human traffickers will enjoy widespread support inside the country, especially when contrasted with the open borders approach espoused by many on the left. And support for stronger borders is an area in which Meloni would find common cause with other conservatives in both Europe and the U.S.
Reading the tea leaves of a potential FdI-led government leads one to conclude Italy could, in the best-case scenario for the U.S., find itself with an administration that takes a robust stance against China and Russia in the framework of an overall transatlanticist approach. The company FdI keeps in EU Parliament as a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group certainly indicates the party could very well govern more conservative than populist. However, the reality is that FdI is still relatively new and has not yet led a government, so nothing is certain. Populist policies are interspersed with more conservative ones in the election manifesto, which makes it difficult to parse intentions. In addition, the approach of a potential center-right coalition will change depending on the strength of each contributing party.
What is certain is that Meloni seems likely to become Italy’s next prime minister. The need to make difficult choices right out of the starting gate will be an immediate test of the effectiveness of a likely Meloni-led government and will provide clear signs regarding what its policy priorities will be.