Giorgia Meloni and Italy’s Ultra-Conservative Surge

Italy elected its far-right prime minister since World War II. What will this mean for the nation and the rest of the West?


Vox España, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

“The only way of being rebels is to preserve what we are,” said Giorgia Meloni, during an impassioned speech at the annual conservative conference CPAC in Orlando, Florida on February 26th, 2022.

Italy held its national elections on September 26th, 2022, and the results were historic. Giorgia Meloni claimed victory as Italy’s first female prime minister. Perhaps more notably, she will be the country’s first far-right leader since the father of fascism, Benito Mussolini.

The future leader thanked her supporters with a broad smile and posed for photos while holding a small banner that read “Grazie Italia.” Behind her stood a backdrop displaying her party’s name, Fratelli d’Italia, in bold letters. She congratulated her party and said, “This is a night of pride for Brothers of Italy.”

The general election results reveal that a group of right-wing parties, led by Meloni’s nationalist Brothers of Italy, had a successful showing. The coalition gained 44% of the country’s votes, while the left struggled to garner 26%. 

Italy’s shift to the far-right may be surprising, looking at contemporary politicians. Its most recent prime minister, Mario Draghi, is a political moderate.  Draghi, an economist, led Italy out of turmoil during the Coronavirus pandemic, retrieving billions in pandemic recovery funding from the European Union and overseeing numerous vaccination campaigns. By the end of 2022, the suffering economy showed signs of a strong comeback, and over 80% of Italians received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

Yet support for Brothers of Italy, which has roots in fascism, increased substantially in the last four years. About one in four Italian votes went to the party, making them the strongest in the country. The win will grant the coalition of far-right parties a majority of Senate seats, allowing them to have the power to rule without strong opposition from the left.

Although this shift seems unanticipated, the increasing political leverage of the hard-right in Italy is nothing new – a considerable number of countries across Europe are following suit. The Swedish Democrats, with self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi roots, received more than 20% of votes during the September elections, enough to give the party some influence in government. In France, the anti-immigration, far-right party leader Marine Le Pen lost to centrist Emmanuel Macron. Yet she managed to get 41% of the overall vote, meaning that her nationalist views are gaining support. In Spain, the far-right maintains a foothold with the growing popularity of the ultra-conservative Vox party. Even in America, former President Trump’s calls to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border draw parallels to Meloni’s anti-immigration rhetoric. The rising popularity of conservative parties highlights the perceived assurance their firm and confident messages bring during periods of instability, such as the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Therefore, for many, the country’s hard-right shift was expected as Italians have found comfort in the firebrand. According to the Italian Treasury, despite aid from the E.U., the nation is currently hit with soaring energy costs, a declining gross domestic product, and record inflation. Based on predictions, the economic crisis will continue until March or May of 2023. Amidst periods of uncertainty and unknowns, people will often unite under a common goal. “My study of history has highlighted this,” Global History teacher Ms. Sazbrina Davis said. “In the wake of great change in society, if something does not work on a governing scale, oftentimes the extreme opposite is given a try before a median compromise is given the time of day.” 

In a political sense, reactions are mixed. Various conservative leaders worldwide hailed the results, suggesting that she “resisted the threats of an anti-democratic and arrogant European Union,” and would allow European nations to “cooperate for the security and prosperity of all.” On the left, Debora Serracchiani of the Italian Democratic Party conceded and called the win, “a sad evening for the country.” 

Some fear the recent turning points in Europe may squander President Biden’s hopes of rejecting authoritarianism on a global scale. In reality, it is unlikely that the results will have a profound effect on relations between Washington and Rome, as the United States government offered a diplomatic stance.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken Tweeted on September 24th, 2022, that the country was “eager” to work with Italy on issues such as defending Ukraine and human rights concerns. Blinken’s comments extend an olive branch, offering comfort in the belief that the two countries will work together on their shared goals and put their clashing ideologies aside. 

As a candidate, the future prime minister expressed support for Ukraine and NATO, despite her coalition partner’s friendships with Putin and his allies. It sparks hope for improved global relations, as former Italian Prime Minister and right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi was one of the Russian president’s closest allies and attempted to shift the blame for the war crimes committed in Ukraine away from Putin. Still, it is unlikely that Italy’s policy towards Ukraine will change, argued Parker Brandenburg ’23 and Vincent Harwood ’23. Meloni may experience pressure to adopt a more moderate stance from Parliament or the more liberal European Union to continue to receive economic support.

So what could this election mean for policymaking within Italy? 

“It does suggest a meaning of unity and power,” said Ms. Davis, “but it also pushes an attitude of forced togetherness under one head.” The conservative, authoritarian approach echoes the leadership of general dictator Benito Mussolini. The word for his leadership style stems from the Latin “fasces,” cylindrical bundles of wooden rods tied together by an ax, explained Ms. Davis. Although the aggressive approach may help the nation, especially in its recovery from a pandemic, it will likely come with consequences.

Meloni shares an aggressive nationalist stance with Mussolini, which could complicate Italian policy. “Meloni has been in favor of blocking rescue vessels and boats from entering Italy,” said Brandenburg. Many asylum seekers from North Africa attempt to arrive in Italy by fleeing on boats that are often flimsy and lack essential equipment. Humanitarian groups across the Mediterranean rush to rescue these migrants and bring them to Europe. The Brothers of Italy, however, support efforts to block desperate migrants from docking in Italy, potentially breaching numerous humanitarian laws, explained Harwood.

Mussolini and Meloni have similar stories. The former rose to power by declaring he was the solution to the economic and political crises tormenting Italy. He used nationalist and anti-communist rhetoric to build massive support for the Fascist movement and unite Italy as a conservative state during a period of global economic and social unrest. But there was a cost to this unification. The right to free speech was attacked, critics were murdered, secret police watched the nation, and the press was left powerless. 

Although Meloni is ultra-conservative, the general belief that history will repeat itself is “oversimplified,” said Ms. Davis. With the establishment of organizations such as the European Union, it would be unlikely for the nation to go down the same path as a century ago. However, she does not dismiss the possibility of Italy becoming an authoritarian nation. “There are trends, and this could be one path that a conservative leader such as Meloni could take.”

Despite this, many have noted that the future prime minister may not pose an immediate threat to the E.U. The increase of the right’s influence in Europe led to an ascent in leaders with conservative beliefs, such as Meloni and Viktor Orban of Hungary. Both share a view of a continent governed by sovereign authoritarianism, which goes against the rights detailed by the European Union. Nevertheless, the organization-critic Meloni will have to uphold a moderate view because she will need financial help to support Italy.

For some, the future prime minister represents a beacon of hope and unification in the face of uncertainty. For others, she is an aggressive radical threatening the normalcy and individual rights they cherish. As for the rest of the globe, all there is to do is wait with bursting excitement, heart-wrenching anxiety, or total indifference. The government took some time to form, and Giorgia Meloni was sworn in to office as Prime Minister on October 22nd, 2022.

For some, the future prime minister represents a beacon of hope and unification in the face of uncertainty. For others, she is an aggressive radical threatening the normalcy and individual rights they cherish. As for the rest of the globe, all there is to do is wait with bursting excitement, heart-wrenching anxiety, or total indifference.