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Italian politics has been in trouble for decades. Now it’s heading for a new low

Giorgia Meloni at an election campaign rally in Genoa, Italy, 14 September 2022.
Giorgia Meloni at an election campaign rally in Genoa, Italy, 14 September 2022. Photograph: Luca Zennaro/EPA

Earlier this month, Alessio Di Giulio, a Florentine councillor with rightwing populist party the League, posted a 17-second video that, to my mind, marks the nadir of what has been one of the most grotesque Italian election campaigns in recent memory. In the clip, Di Giulio strolls through the historic centre of the Tuscan capital when he comes across a woman who appears to be of Roma origin. Stopping in his tracks, the candidate leans into the camera and implores his audience to “vote the League to never see her again”, a phrase he repeats three times for rhetorical effect.

Most Italians were appalled, and the video went viral. Which was, of course, Di Giulio’s hope all along. You can see it from the smile on his face. He was surely aware, when he uploaded his clip, that there was no chance of voters in his left-leaning constituency shifting their support. His gesture was purely performative, a tacit reminder to political sympathisers across the nation that if Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy wins this week’s election, as expected, people like him will soon have an opportunity to shape the policy agenda.

Meloni is adept at both courting and distancing herself from such extremists whenever it suits her. Earlier this summer, during a visit to Spain, she delivered a speech to supporters of the far-right Vox party in which she celebrated “patriots” and “the natural family” while attacking “the LGBT lobby” and “enemies of civilisation”. In Italy, by contrast, she has recently been posting cat videos and heavily airbrushed selfies to cultivate a bland, vacuous image designed to win over moderates. It’s striking, too, that unlike allies such as Matteo Salvini, who is synonymous with his draconian security bill, or Silvio Berlusconi, who has been pushing for a pro-wealth flat tax for years, Meloni has no flagship policy. Her party’s most dramatic intervention in the campaign so far has been a proposed boycott of the children’s cartoon Peppa Pig, on the basis that a new episode which features same-sex parents constitutes “gender indoctrination”.

But Peppa Pig doesn’t fill piazzas. Indeed, the most unsettling thing by far about this election is the near-total invisibility of Meloni’s supporters. A few days ago, I paid a visit to a Brothers of Italy rally in an anonymous concrete arena in the suburbs of Florence. A few volunteers were handing out leaflets, but none of them seemed to know what the party stood for beyond its conservative, family values. When I asked them to name a single policy, a young man thrust a “puzzle book’” into my hands, a small pamphlet of crosswords and maze games challenging the reader to spell out the names of various pro-EU “Traitors of Italy”.

Depressingly, that puzzle book is the closest thing to participatory democracy I’ve seen this election. Thirty-five per cent of voters are expected to abstain – and worse still, the parties, without exception, seem to have acquiesced. The liberals, the Action party and Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva, have given up trying to reach non-voters and are instead leaching support from the flailing centre-left Democratic party. The Five Star Movement, which as recently as 2011 was capable of mobilising tens of thousands to the streets, is blighted by factionalism and has lost its appeal among the disfranchised. The left and Greens have failed to break out of their respective echo chambers to tap into the inclusive anti-fascist energy that animated the Sardines movement just two years ago. While Brothers of Italy has little grassroots presence, the party’s strategic manipulation of a broad range of conservative voters looks set to propel it to power.

The implications are worrying. Some commentators have interpreted Meloni’s new, softer image as evidence she will be a moderate prime minister. Her party’s record in local government suggests otherwise. In the Marche region, which Brothers of Italy has controlled since 2020, the administration has restricted termination of pregnancies to the first seven weeks. While Meloni claims she has no plans to make the procedure illegal, she has close links to anti-abortion lobby groups such as ProVita & Famiglia, and in a country where an estimated 64% of gynaecologists are already conscientious objectors, she will face few obstacles to further squeezing women’s reproductive rights.

Then there is the threat to civil society. If Meloni’s coalition wins more than 44% of the vote, it could obtain two-thirds of the seats in both the chamber of deputies and the senate. Not only would this give the far right a supermajority for the first time in the history of the republic, it could, as a result, make changes to the constitution without the need for confirmation by public referendum. This is particularly concerning, given her party’s close relationship with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán; indeed, human rights groups have long been warning that she is hoping to impose a similar authoritarian regime in Italy.

Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight. Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi disagree profoundly on pressing issues such as the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and how to tackle inflation, and there’s a good chance their coalition would break down even sooner than the average 13-month Italian government. Still, this is hardly comforting. However short-lived, the economic and social consequences of a Meloni administration would probably be terrible. And while centre and leftwing politicians may console themselves with the hope that spring 2023 may cleanse the political system of populist rabble-rousers, this is too little, too late. Yes, Italian democracy has been hollowing out for decades, but the imminent ascension of a far-right administration marks a new low.

  • Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Florence

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