Italy’s new flirtation with fascism bodes ill for the future

Italy’s new flirtation with fascism bodes ill for the future

Italy’s new flirtation with fascism bodes ill for the future
Giorgia Meloni could become Italy’s first female prime minister — a big deal in a country renowned for its machismo. (AFP)
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A curious old bylaw stipulates that everyone has to smile all the time in Milan. As lovely a city as Italy’s second-largest undoubtedly is, the smiles do occasionally dry up, just as the River Po is doing right now. The cost-of-living crisis is testing the happiness of all but the most optimistic and this may prove even harder for many should the extreme right take power following the elections on Sept. 25.

As it stands, the neo-fascist leader of the Brothers of Italy looks on course to succeed Mario Draghi. The 10-year-old party only got 4.3 percent of votes in the last elections in 2018, but is currently polling at about 25 percent, meaning it will likely become the largest party in parliament. Giorgia Meloni would become the country’s first female prime minister — a big deal in a country renowned for its machismo. That said, many leading female Italians are far from impressed with her record on women’s rights.

Meloni and her “Brothers” look set to lead a far-right coalition that could include Matteo Salvini’s Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Yet Meloni stands out. She has already been the youngest Cabinet minister in Italy’s history. She is blunt and outspoken, capable for the moment of reaching out to Italy’s disaffected. Perhaps one of her biggest advantages is that most of her rivals have been tested and found wanting. She is the one who has yet to have a chance in office.

Moreover, the political center and the left are in crisis. Once again, they rely too heavily on the fear factor, warning voters of the dangers of Meloni and Salvini but without offering a coherent agenda of their own. This has been a feature of recent European politics, notably in France.

But Meloni is unashamedly far-right and will be divisive. In the past, as a teenager, she praised Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator. “Mussolini was a good politician, everything he did, he did it for Italy and there have been no other politicians like him in the last 50 years,” she said. Her party has retained a neo-fascist tricolored flame symbol in its official logo. The Brothers of Italy grew out of the Italian Social Movement, a creation of former fascists after the Second World War. Meloni has tried to distance the party from this fascist past but is yet to renounce it.

Much unites the potential far-right coalition partners. They all have harsh anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim stances. It is foreigners who get blamed for taking Italian jobs and for the rising crime rates. Meloni supports using the navy to turn back migrants. Remember that Salvini, when interior minister, delighted in closing down Europe’s largest migrant center in Sicily. We should therefore brace ourselves for further appalling scenes of Italy forcibly turning back asylum seekers from North Africa. Perhaps one of the most outrageous moments of this campaign — and there is considerable competition — was when Meloni shared a video of a Ukrainian woman being raped by a migrant from Guinea. She was unrepentant.

Bashing Brussels is another unifying factor. Nothing will please their euroskeptic bases more than tearing into interference from the EU. It is unlikely but conceivable that a Meloni-led coalition could garner sufficient seats to change the constitution and give supremacy to Italian law over EU legislation. As the bloc’s third-largest economy, the shockwaves would be massive. The only leader who might be thrilled is Viktor Orban of Hungary, the right-wing firebrand who will benefit from having close allies to work with.

While Salvini has pledged his support for moving the Italian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Meloni claims she has no plans to do so.

However, one issue divides this extreme-right ensemble: Russia. Meloni has taken a strong line against Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. She has reassured EU and NATO leaders she will not alter Italy’s position on sanctions on Russia and will even increase military aid to Ukraine.

Both Salvini and Berlusconi have a long track record of close relations with Putin. Salvini has made it clear that he wants to end all oil and gas sanctions against Russia. Enrico Letta, the former prime minister and current leader of the center-left Democratic Party, which is likely to come second, retorted: “I don’t think Putin could have said it better.”

A victory for Meloni risks becoming a free-for-fall for all the worst xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic tendences in Italy

Chris Doyle

Berlusconi, amazingly, is still going strong at 85 and has even ventured into the teenage realm of TikTok. The billionaire businessman once gave Putin a birthday present of a duvet bearing a life-size image of the two leaders shaking hands. Putin had given him a double bed. He has stayed at Putin’s dacha. Salvini, meanwhile, once wore a Putin T-shirt in Moscow’s Red Square.

But will Meloni hold her line? Many Italians are critical of the Russian sanctions. Italy imports about three-quarters of its energy needs, with energy costs set to double this year. The issue of energy prices come the winter is a high priority for voters. Places like Naples have already seen protests and the burning of electricity bills. The mood feels grim.

The Italian economy has yet to recover from COVID-19. This is a country whose economy is hugely reliant on tourist receipts, which all but dried up at the height of the pandemic. One hotel owner told me it would take them many years of prime business to recover.

All of this has the hallmarks of when French President Emmanuel Macron accused his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen of depending on Putin after having received a loan from a Kremlin-linked bank.

Meloni will face limitations should she win. Italy is heavily indebted. She will have to convince international institutions that the Italian economy will flourish under her stewardship, or else the country will be hit hard with increased costs of borrowing. She and her coalition partners may have to dampen their vitriolic euroskepticism and be more accommodating to Brussels.

Further afield, responsible leaders should take stock. The land where fascism was founded and flourished, the country of Mussolini, is heavily flirting with fascism once more. A victory for Meloni risks becoming a free-for-fall for all the worst xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic tendences in Italy, while also inspiring others elsewhere.

This divisive, hate-fueled politics bodes ill for Italy’s future and also elsewhere. Democracy is under serious threat. For many in Milan, not least those from immigrant backgrounds, for non-white Italians, for anyone of a non-right-wing tendency, it may be hard to keep smiling. La dolce vita may be getting a little bitter.

• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view