As the far right rises, the Italian left is missing

Over the past hundred years, Italy has often offered a glimpse of our political future: Mussolini before Hitler, Berlusconi before Trump, and populism before it was fashionable. One can only hope that this election turns out to be less prophetic.

The sunday results are grim: a landslide victory for the far right, a plummeting turnout and the continued absence of a leftist alternative. The post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (FDL) won 26% of the vote, winning support far beyond traditional right-wing strongholds in the North. With the juniors of the right-wing coalition (Lega of Matteo Salvini at 9% and Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi at 8%), they will win a strong majority on the right in the House and the Senate.

What Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first female prime minister, will do with this majority is harder to say. Her party, the FDL, is an indirect descendant of 1940s fascism. And while she clearly has no interest in organizing squads of paramilitary thugs, she has resurrected the old slogan “God, country and familyand continues to promote conspiracy theories on the “replacement” of the “white race”.

A better model for understanding Meloni’s politics is probably found in Eastern Europe, with the Polish government of law and justice or Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary. The combinations of social chauvinism, authoritarian governance and social conservatism of these parties inspired Meloni, just as they american right and French Marine Le Pen. This is seen in the coalition manifestowhich calls for a flat rate of income tax, free kindergartens and increases in family allowances, as well as a vigorous defense of the heterosexual nuclear family.

For Meloni, these seem to be the issues that matter most to him. She spent most of the campaign railing against the “LGBT Lobby”, promising to guarantee the right of women not to have an abortion, ban episodes of Peppa Pig which show a family of polar bears with lesbian parents, and argue for a naval blockade of Libya to prevent further migration to Italy. In a Trumpian moment late Sunday night, she used her victory speech vow to make people ‘proud to be Italian again’.

With a large parliamentary majority, Meloni might be able to pursue much of this Catholic-conservative social agenda. Indeed, the greatest risk to his leadership will likely come from the other members of his coalition. Salvini and Berlusconi – two men not known for their modesty – have been forced to play second fiddle in this election and they are likely to push back as soon as they feel like it.

But Meloni’s leeway on economic issues will be much narrower. Over the past two years, Italy has become heavily dependent on EU relief funds – funds tied to a particular program of neoliberal economic reforms. This means that after spending the last two years fighting a lonely battle against Mario Draghi technocratic governmentMeloni will now have to adopt many of her policies if she is to retain access to EU resources.

For Italy’s centre-left, Sunday’s results were a disaster. At the start of the race, the Partito Democratico (PD) was neck and neck with the FDL. But as the campaign progressed, his support plummeted, leaving him with 19% of the vote, barely more than in 2018. Enrico Letta, the party secretary, has already announced his resignationand a winter of bitter infighting is set to ensue as the PD prepares for its congress in early 2023.

Like Il Manifesto – the only communist daily remaining in Italy – Put the, this defeat calls into question “the very survival of a political project which has never wanted to choose between the center and the left”. This contradiction was manifest in Letta’s electoral strategy. On the one hand, his desire to bring in smaller leftist groups and environmentalists alienated the larger centrist parties, which left his coalition and alone won 8% of the vote. On the other hand, he refused to work with the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) and campaigned on a promise to continue Draghi’s neoliberal reform agenda, giving Italians the simple message that I had to “choose” between the sensitive center left and the dangerous far right.

Letta will have to take responsibility for his utter failure to reconcile this tension, and it will likely spell the end of his political career (although he has already returned after being ousted by his own party in 2014, so never say never). But the PD faces serious structural problems. One of them is the familiar story growing reliance on graduates and professionals as workers turn to the right. But the other is more particular: the rise in power of the M5S.

The M5S is an ambiguous political formation. Its roots are in constitutional reform and anti-elitism, but it later ruled in alliance with the anti-migrant Lega, backed Draghi’s technocratic government and now positions itself as the defender of the welfare state. In its latest version, it won 15% of the vote and ensured its role as representative of the unemployed and of the south.

The M5S now seems to be a fairly stable feature of Italian politics. Unless the PD knows how to react, Italy is likely to continue to be this sad thing: a country without left.

Matteo Tiratelli teaches sociology at University College London.

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