Italians Didn’t Exactly Vote for Fascism

The electoral victory of Giorgia Meloni is nothing to be complacent about, but Italians are cynical about how long any government will last. Let’s hope they’re right.

Italian politician Giorgia Meloni smiling and waving
Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty

A few years ago, I stopped to fill up the tank of my mother’s Fiat 500 at a gas station close to our family home in southern Tuscany. When I went into the store to pay, I noticed that it had started to sell lighters bearing the face of Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader who ruled Italy as a dictator from 1925 to 1943.

This came as a shock. Tuscany has historically been a left-wing region. The Monte Amiata, a densely wooded mountain on whose slopes my village perches, served as a base for partisans who fought the Nazis during World War II. Why would our local gas station be selling fascist memorabilia?

I put the question to the attendant. He squirmed. “I don’t like it either. Headquarters sent us those a few days ago,” he told me. Then he perked up, happy to think of something that would, he assumed, be sure to mollify me. “Don’t worry: Next week, we’re getting in some lighters with the face of Che Guevara!”

The Italian constitution, which came into force in 1948, is resolutely anti-fascist, yet the country’s political culture has never made a clean break with its extremist past. For a German gas station to sell items that commemorated Adolf Hitler would be truly shocking (and probably illegal); in Italy, the sight of Mussolini memorabilia for sale in stores is not that unusual. Similarly, mainstream German political parties shun far-right extremists such as the Alternative for Germany; in Italy, parties with roots in fascism have long been an accepted part of the political scene.

Even so, Sunday’s electoral success for Giorgia Meloni and her party, Brothers of Italy, is unprecedented. It marks the first time in Italy’s postwar history that a party with fascist roots has won the most votes in a national election. Meloni, who received just over a quarter of votes cast, is now very likely to become prime minister at the head of a far-right coalition with the League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia, headed by Silvio Berlusconi.

How will the new government change Italy? And how much damage could it inflict on the country’s democratic institutions?

Italian history gives reason to worry about what lies ahead.

Brothers of Italy is descended from the Italian Social Movement, or MSI, which was founded in the aftermath of World War II by fascist politicians who had played a significant role in the Republic of Salò, the pro-Nazi puppet regime that governed the northern half of Italy after the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943. Meloni’s party has as its symbol a green, white, and red flame, which many regard as intended, in its original design, to express enduring loyalty to Mussolini.

Meloni herself, who has led Brothers of Italy since 2014, grew up in Garbatella, a working-class neighborhood of Rome, and cut her teeth in the youth wing of the MSI. Today, she regularly inveighs against immigrants and the gay-rights movement, and has made common cause internationally with far-right parties and illiberal leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. In June, she spoke at a campaign event for Vox, a rightist party in Spain. “Five hundred thirty years ago, the capitulation of Granada put an end to the Reconquista, Andalucia turned Spanish, and Europe became Christian,” she said. “Today, the secularism of the left and radical Islam threaten our roots.” Compromise with such opponents is unthinkable: Parties of the right such as Vox and Brothers of Italy, she said, needed to say a clear no to the “LGBT lobby,” to “gender ideology,” and to “mass immigration.”

The prospect that a far-right party with fascist roots may soon lead Italy has understandably spooked international observers. “Giorgia Meloni May Lead Italy, and Europe Is Worried,” read a recent New York Times headline. “Is Italy on the Verge of Returning to Fascism?” a Foreign Policy podcast asked. But things aren’t always what they seem in Italy. Although there are strong grounds for dismay at the prospect of Prime Minister Meloni, the actual likelihood that Italy will return to the darkest hours of its history is low.

Part of the reason is that Meloni has, to an extent, distanced herself from her party’s past. She has declared that “fascism is history” and suspended members who persisted in praising fascist leaders. Meloni has also sought to demonstrate that she would prove a reliable partner for Italy’s European and North American allies. She has, for example, moderated the party’s criticism of the European Union, emphasizing that she wants the country to stay in the eurozone. And unlike many other far-right leaders in Europe, Meloni has been a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin and a staunch supporter of Ukraine.

But the chief reason to doubt how much Meloni will change Italy is simply that she is neither as popular nor as powerful as her electoral victory may suggest. Her star is burning brightly now, but it may dim just as quickly.

In the country’s previous national elections, in March 2018, the Five Star Movement stunned international observers by winning nearly a third of the vote; Meloni’s Brothers of Italy took just 4 percent. Over the next three years, two consecutive governments collapsed amid chaos and acrimony, making it impossible for any political parties to form a cohesive governing majority. Out of options, all of the major factions in the Italian Parliament agreed in February 2021 to form a technocratic government of national unity under the leadership of Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy alone stayed in opposition. As many observers predicted at the time, that holdout position practically guaranteed her ascent. Given the economic stagnation and pandemic pain the country has experienced lately, Brothers of Italy’s rapid rise in popularity was hardly surprising.

This suggests that Meloni’s victory on Sunday has less to do with nostalgia for Italy’s fascist past than with anger at the country’s parlous present. But by the same token, Meloni’s popularity may soon wane after she takes on the responsibility of governing. The fate of the last newcomer hyped as the future of Italian politics is instructive: Since its surprise success in 2018, the Five Star Movement has lost more than half of its vote share and now languishes on the sidelines.

Even how long Meloni will be able to stay in office is unclear. Although she now heads the biggest faction in the Italian Parliament, she will need to maintain the support of both cantankerous coalition partners: Salvini will do what he can to take the limelight and is likely to clash with Meloni on foreign policy (he is, for instance, much less willing to help Ukraine), and Berlusconi, ever the opportunist after three terms as prime minister himself, will have little compunction about selling out a political partner if it suits him. Given how volatile these personalities are—and how unstable coalition governments in Italy have proved in the past—a collapse of Meloni’s government within a year or two would not be shocking.

The most immediate concern about Italy’s new government is not any threat to the country’s democratic institutions, still less a return to fascism. Rather, it is what the electoral dominance of the far right will do to the hard-won progress that immigrants and sexual minorities in Italy have made over recent decades.

Italians of the postwar era lived and breathed politics to an unusual degree. The country’s major parties had millions of members. Campaign events in the run-up to national elections drew huge crowds. More than 90 percent of eligible voters typically turned out to the polls. The political stakes seemed existential.

Today, despite appearances, those times appear to be over—at least for now. In the towns and villages I visited over the past week, public space reserved for campaign posters remained half empty. In one Tuscan hilltop town, a campaigner for a right-wing party spoke passionately and at length, but drew only a handful of spectators. In another town, an elderly left-wing candidate attracted a few onlookers when he played a hit by Fabrizio De André, a singer-songwriter of the 1960s and ’70s, from the van he had repurposed for his campaign, but quickly lost their interest when he started telling them about his campaign promises. Voter turnout in this election fell below 70 percent, a record low.

Most of the Italians I have spoken with in recent days await the new government with weary equanimity. One neighbor, an outspoken woman in her 70s who, like most people in her village, has voted for the left all her life, told me of her intense dislike for Giorgia Meloni. But when I asked her whether she was worried about what the leader of Brothers of Italy would do to the country, she gave a nonchalant shrug. “In the end, the new government won’t be that different from all the others,” she said. “It’ll fail to get much of anything done. And then it’ll collapse.”

I hope she’s right.