Giorgia Meloni’s radical right party triumphs in Italy’s shattered political landscape

Posted by Becca Parkinson - Tuesday, 27 Sep 2022


Italy has long been a source of electoral surprises. Back in 2013, the country’s political system was shaken by the very rapid rise of the 5 Star Movement (M5S), a new party-movement that managed to win a quarter of the vote within a few years of its foundation. In 2018, the M5S consolidated its result by winning a third of the vote and becoming the largest parliamentary group, while Matteo Salvini’s populist League established its supremacy on the right. The 2022 election is a further shake-up in a long and ongoing transition. This time the role of disruptive force belongs to Brothers of Italy (FdI), the radical right-wing party led by Giorgia Meloni. Founded less than 10 years ago, FdI went from 2% of the vote in 2013 to 26% today, becoming the largest national party. Meloni’s victory led the entire right-wing coalition, which includes Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, to win an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. However, FdI’s growth came at the expense of its right-wing allies, particularly the League, suggesting a shift of votes between similar populist parties. Almost 30 years after its foundation, Berlusconi’s party also appears further weakened, although the tycoon has shown resilience and great strategic skill by positioning himself as a key player in the construction of a possible right-wing government. In short, with only 8% of the vote Berlusconi can still play a role in Italian politics.

On the left, we are witnessing yet another crisis of the mainstream Democratic Party (PD), unable to create a competitive alternative to the right and to form a broad coalition that would include centrist and radical elements. In fact, after the fall of the Draghi government, the party led by Enrico Letta refused to seek an alliance with the M5S. At the same time, Letta failed to finalise an alliance with the centrist party led by former minister (and former PD member) Carlo Calenda and former Prime Minister (also former PD member and leader) Matteo Renzi. Since the M5S eventually managed to achieve good electoral results, especially in the southern regions of the country, an alliance with this party would have at least ensured a more balanced competition with the right. 

Several factors may explain the success of FdI. Certainly the electorate’s discontent after years of crisis and economic stagnation has rewarded the only political group that has consistently been in opposition for the last 10 years (all the other main parties have been in government in various roles during this period). Moreover, Meloni has proved to be an excellent communicator, often underestimated by her opponents, and, while remaining in opposition, she has supported the Draghi government in most of its international policy choices during the Ukraine crisis, thus avoiding the criticism of being too pro-Russian (a criticism aimed at both Salvini and Berlusconi). However, Meloni’s victory was ultimately facilitated by the divisions of her opponents in the centre and on the left.

The appointment of the new Prime Minister is up to the President of the Republic but it is likely that Giorgia Meloni will be given the task of forming a new government in light of the election results. This means that in a few weeks Italy could have its first female Prime Minister, a long-awaited milestone. At the same time, a Meloni government could be one of the most right-wing in Italian Republican history. The effects of this change might be felt not so much in economic policies nor, at least in the short term, in foreign policy – even if the European Union is watching Meloni’s rise with concern (Hungary and Poland could have a new ally). Rather, there could be a strongly conservative reorientation of policies which affect the sphere of personal freedoms and civil rights. It is still too early to assess the implications of this latest populist wave in Italy. What is certain is that Giorgia Meloni inherits the leadership of a shattered political system, in which voters’ distrust seems to prevail. In fact, the latest striking fact of this election is the drop in voter turnout: in a country where until the late 1980s almost 90% of adult citizens went to the polls, this time just over 60% voted, the lowest level ever.

Davide Vampa is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Aston University, UK. You can find him on Twitter: @DavideVampa. He is the co-author (with Daniele Albertazzi) of Populism in Europe: Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (MUP, 2021).

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