September 27, 2022

IntelBrief: Historic Far-right Victory in Italy Reflects Broader Movements in European Politics

AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, is set to make history as Italy’s first female prime minister and as the leader of the most far-right government since the fascist era.
  • Against the backdrop of a surge in refugees and migrants arriving in Italy by sea, immigration policy has galvanized both the Brothers of Italy party and its electoral base.
  • Prior linkages between the leaders of the other far-right coalition parties, as well as recent comments in support of Vladimir Putin, have caused concern over the potential impacts on aiding Ukraine.
  • The success of Meloni’s party in Italy reflects a broader trend throughout Europe, where far-right parties once considered fringe have gained mainstream influence and could serve to bolster the movement across the continent.

After a general election held over the weekend, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, or FdI) party, has claimed electoral victory and is set to make history as Italy’s first female prime minister.An alliance of far-right parties, including the Brothers of Italy, the League, and Forza Italia, were on target in the preliminary election results to win at least 44% of the vote – forming the most far-right government since the fascist era of Benito Mussolini. Its success could have far-reaching implications not only for the country, but European politics at large, as its policy positions and external political alliances, represent the culmination of a resurgent far-right years in the making.

Despite its relatively recent formation in 2012, FdI traces its origins to the end of World War II and the neofascist Italian Social Movement, which later distanced itself from fascism and merged with more mainstream right-wing politics. Despite refusals to remove a symbol of fascism from the party’s flag, Meloni has fervently endeavored to distance FdI from its roots and convince both Italians and Europeans that the party is not fascist, even as many party members have demonstrated an affinity for those ideas.

Espousing many platforms similar to other far-right parties in Europe, FdI’s identity centers around Euroscepticism, pro-natalism, and anti-immigrant sentiment, with the latter issue galvanizing the party and its base. Against the backdrop of a surge in refugees and migrants arriving in Italy by sea – a 42% increase over the first seven months of 2022 compared to the previous year, the party has placed immigration at the top of its political agenda, advocating for policies that would enforce stricter border controls and severely impede the arrival of asylum seekers to the country. With many seeking to use Italy – and other European countries – as transit points to destinations like the U.K., even the British policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda has left many people smugglers, refugees, and migrants undeterred. In the past, Meloni has warned that a continued influx of migrants will risk transforming Italy into “the refugee camp of Europe,” a dystopian reference intended to scare voters. Recently, she repeatedly posted videos and communications calling for a naval blockade to patrol the Mediterranean and for the creation of offshore “hotspots” to process asylum applications outside the EU. Despite assurances to the contrary, comments by Meloni in the past, where she called abortion a “tragedy,” have raised concerns that the government may potentially seek to constrain women’s access to healthcare and bodily autonomy and outlaw the procedure, dealing a blow to women’s rights more generally.

It remains unclear whether the FdI, relatively new to governing, will retain the kind of influence Mario Draghi, a respected technocrat, was able to exert in multilateral fora like the EU or NATO. There has also been widespread concern that Meloni’s far-right positions will hinder Italian – and more widely, European – support for Ukraine. However, in a departure from coalition partners and other far-right parties in Europe, Meloni has supported Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February and has insisted that the current policies on Russia, such as sanctions, will not change. However, long-time linkages between the leaders of the other far-right coalition parties, as well as recent comments in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, have caused concern over the potential impact on providing assistance to Ukraine. One opponent claimed, “If the right wins, the first person to be happy will be Vladimir Putin.”

Reflecting a similar trend of far-right successes throughout Europe, the Brothers of Italy have been catapulted from relative political obscurity to national prominence in a short period of time, winning just 4.5% of the vote in 2018 to at least 26% in Sunday’s general election. Its success not only reflects Italy’s longstanding rejection of mainstream politics, but a broader movement and mobilization of the far-right throughout Europe. In mid-September, Swedish voters delivered a narrow victory to a loose coalition of right-wing parties, including the right-wing populist party Sweden Democrats. With roots in ultranationalist extremism and neo-Nazism, the party has rapidly moved from the fringes of Swedish politics into the mainstream. Once considered both a pariah and extremist, the Sweden Democrats first entered Parliament in 2010 with 5.7% of the vote. That support grew in the 2018 parliamentary elections to 17.5% and again in the most recent election to 20.6%. Although the political stigma around the party may prevent their formal inclusion in the governing coalition, their success in the most recent election – and being the second most popular party – has deemed them kingmakers in Swedish politics. Recent electoral successes of other right-wing populist parties in Europe, such as Vox in Spain and Chega in Portugal, reflect a broader trend of formally fringe far-right parties gaining mainstream influence and power in Europe. Such successes will not only impact how countries address challenges stemming from immigration, falling birthrates, climate change, and rising poverty, but also could serve to bolster the movement across the continent. The European far-right – such as France’s Marine Le Pen – has welcomed the victory of the Sweden Democrats and Brothers of Italy, yet whether the right-wing populist momentum continues translates into electoral success, much less effective governance, remains to be seen.