At the last Italian general election in 2018 the right-wing populist party, Fratelli d’Italia, got just 4 per cent of the vote. Last Sunday, at local elections in around 1,000 cities and towns, it led the coalition of the right to victory in nine out of 13 major cities which were won in the first round of voting, including Palermo and Genoa. A further 13 where no one got more than 50 per cent go to a second ballot on 26 June. Overall, right-wing candidates got 44 per cent of the vote compared to 42 per cent for left-wing candidates.
But the key significance of the results is that they confirm Fratelli d’Italia has replaced the radical right Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, as the leading party of the Italian right. It got many more votes than the Lega even in the Lega’s northern strongholds.
The results reflect what the opinion polls have been indicating for at least the past 12 months: Italy’s next prime minister after the next general election which must be held by 1 June 2023 is most likely to be Fratelli d’Italia's fiery 45-year-old leader Giorgia Meloni who would become the first woman to hold the post.
This would be a nightmare come true for the euro establishment for whom right-wing populism is akin to devil worship: it would mean that for the first time ‘far right nationalists’, as the mainstream media defines them, would control one of the big three countries at the heart of the EU. It will make no difference that although its origins are post-fascist, as indeed are hers, Meloni has transformed Fratelli d'Italia into a populist conservative party for patriotic libertarians modelled on the ideas, not of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, but of the English philosopher Roger Scruton.
Naturally, Meloni and her party will still invariably be defined regardless as ‘hard right’ or ‘far right’, ergo fascists, even though the closest they get to a fascist policy is their aim to stop illegal immigration from North Africa, increase defence spending to at least 2 per cent of GDP as required by Nato rules or oppose gay marriage and unisex public toilets. Meloni is also conspicuously pro-America which is yet another red rag as far as the euro establishment are concerned. And in the past, she wanted Italy to abandon the euro.
But according to the polls the coalition of the right with her as its de facto head is the only one that can get enough votes to form a government. The coalition has existed since the days when media tycoon and four times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia was its dominant force. Its three parties fight general elections and most local election contests together but often agree to disagree and sometimes look dead set on divorce. After the 2018 general election, Salvini abandoned his two allies to form a coalition government with their arch enemy, the alt-left populist 5 Stelle, which had won the most seats. In February 2021, he and Berlusconi – whose Forza Italia is these days polling only about 8 per cent – both joined the emergency government of national unity led by the ex-boss of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi who is not even an elected parliamentarian. But Meloni refused – the only major party leader to do so – on the understandable grounds that the Draghi government had no popular mandate.
The Lega’s demise has been as swift as its rise from just over 3 per cent of the vote in 2013 to become the coalition’s dominant force after the 2018 general election – at which it got 17 per cent and the second largest number of MPs. It reached the peak of its popularity in 2019 with 34 per cent of the vote at the elections to the European Parliament – more than any other party (Fratelli d'Italia got just 6 per cent).
Its decline began when later that year Salvini resigned from the government in which he was interior minister in an act of hubris designed to force a general election which failed. His decision to join the Draghi government, which he frequently criticises but refuses to leave, has seen his popularity dwindle still further.
Things have only got worse for him since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which has caused him immense embarrassment, given his many visits to Moscow and vociferous support for Vladimir Putin, even after the Russian seizure of the Crimea in 2014.
The war has seen Salvini, the man who pledged to deport all illegal immigrants (currently on trial himself for kidnapping migrants in a Sicilian port when interior minister) transform into a champion of refugee rights. And it has seen Salvini, the man who wanted to arm even petrol pump attendants to defend themselves against robbers, come out as a pacifist hell bent on appeasement. Though he originally supported Italy’s decision to send arms to Ukraine, he is is now firmly against because – he says – more arms mean only more bloodshed.
Back in March, Il Capitano – as he's nicknamed – went to Poland to help bring Ukrainian refugees to Italy. At a joint press conference, a Polish mayor near the border with Ukraine – like him a right-wing nationalist but made of different stuff – whipped out a pro-Putin T-shirt for the tv cameras similar to the one Salvini had proudly worn, both in Red Square on one of his visits to Moscow and at the European Parliament in Strasburg. The mayor dared him to wear it when he went to the Ukrainian refugee centre at the frontier. ‘No respect for you,’ he told Salvini standing beside him. Then, last month, Salvini had to cancel at the eleventh hour – as a result of the uproar the news caused – a one-man peace mission to Moscow which he had secretly planned, apparently without even telling Draghi. It has now emerged that the Russian Embassy in Rome had paid for his plane tickets.
Meloni's prospects of becoming prime minister look rosier still given the weak state of the Italian left.
True, the coalition of the left, led by the post-communist Partito Democratico (PD), did pretty well in Sunday's elections, winning four of the 13 major cities decided in the first round, and looks set to win in about half the remaining 13 in the second ballot. It is also true that while in the national polls Fratelli d'Italia consistently leads the field on about 22 per cent, the PD is only just behind on about 21 per cent. But it has little chance of winning a general election because it too needs major coalition partners and there are none left.
Support has collapsed for its only important ally – the alt-left populist 5 Stelle – with whom it governed as junior partner from 2019 to 2021 and now as part of the Draghi government. At the 2018 general election, 5 Stelle won the most seats but has been stricken by internal schisms and broken promises. It is now polling only 12 per cent. Last Sunday saw its local vote virtually wiped out.
There remains, though, an intriguing paradox that might torpedo Meloni's campaign.
On Ukraine, most Italians agree with Salvini, and yet as these local elections and the opinion polls show, they prefer Meloni to Salvini. But more than half of them think that Italy should not send any more arms to Ukraine and even more that it should not send heavy weapons. Only a quarter think America is defending democracy and Europe in Ukraine. Nearly two-thirds think the West must ‘at all costs’ find a way to open peace talks.
Meloni was never such an outspoken supporter of Putin as Salvini, nor ever a frequent visitor to Moscow. But she did compliment him on his election for the fourth time as Russian president in 2018 in which she said it was the result of the ‘unequivocal will’ of the Russian people. And like so many others in Europe, she did see Putin as a very useful defender of traditional values. Her criticism of his invasion of Ukraine has also been conspicuously muted but – unlike Salvini – she does unequivocally support sending arms to Ukraine.
So how come, if a hefty majority of Italians agree with Salvini’s pro-appeasement stance on Ukraine, and disagree with Meloni’s pro-American, pro-arms approach, she did so well at these local elections and Salvini so badly? The answer cannot just be that Italians cast their votes based on local rather than national considerations. Or that turnout, at 54 per cent, was very low.
No doubt it is relevant that support for Salvini was on the wane long before the war but so too must be the repulsion many Italians of whatever political persuasion feel about his new-found pacifism which looks merely like a mask for his Putinism and makes him look like a cynical and incompetent hypocrite.
And yet, the paradox remains.
More than any other European nation, the Italians object to what they see as Anglo-American war-mongering in Ukraine. A knee-jerk hostility to, and cynicism about, America and its side-kick Britain is common, especially but by no means exclusively on the left.
The result – as I have written in the magazine – is an as unholy pact, as yet informal, that encompasses huge chunks of the right and left, whose main protagonists are pro-Putin pacifists on the right such as Salvini and anti-Anglo-American pacifists on the left.
The worse things get within Ukraine, the worse the tension must surely also get within the minds of Italians and within the coalition of the right between Meloni and Salvini.
And this tension may turn out to be the only thing that can stop Meloni becoming the next Italian prime minister. For how can Italy’s coalition of the right even survive, let alone triumph, if one part wants to arm Ukraine and the other does not?