Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party wins election and my adopted country descends into the far right

Giorgia Meloni, 45, celebrates her party’s victory Sunday night. photo

My cell phone started beeping shortly after I went to bed here in Rome Sunday night. Messages poured in from American friends.

“I see Italy got a female version of Trump as prime minister,” read one.

“So now you guys have a batshit far right wacko,” read another.

And my favorite: “So you’re gonna have a Mussolini with tits as PM?”

When I woke up in Rome Monday morning, it was confirmed. Italy, my beloved adopted country, had its first far right government since Benito Mussolini was jackbooting across Piazza Venezia in 1943. 

As expected, Giorgi Meloni’s surging party, Brothers of Italy, which has neo-fascist roots, had won Sunday’s landslide election. She is expected to be named Italy’s first female prime minister which is just a footnote under the mountain of concern about her party’s ties to fascism, however distant.

This is a massive story. It puts Italy in its biggest international spotlight since we were the first country that Covid poleaxed back in 2020. More than 400 reporters filled Rome’s Hotel Parco dei Principi Sunday. CNN and networks from Japan and China also chronicled the historical event.

My liberal American friends, with first-hand knowledge of living under a fascist government, are concerned. So are many people, especially some of the 15,660 American expats in Italy. A couple of them hinted online they’re leaving the country, echoing many Americans in the U.S. in 2016.

My reaction

I am not. However, I understand the sentiment. The word “fascism” triggers a knee-jerk reaction in Italians who remember Mussolini hauling 1,259 Jews from Rome’s Jewish Ghetto and sending them off to concentration camps in 1943. They remember when Mussolini made the “savvy” career move of siding with Adolf Hitler, tumbling Italy into a crippling economic crisis after World War II ended. 

I knew an elderly hotel manager in Rome who could no longer eat tomatoes out of sheer overload. That was all she had to eat as a little girl. I also remember 1978 when fascists blew up the railroad track just ahead of my train, forcing me onto another train in the middle of the night during a trip from Rome to Milan.

But as I wrote in July after Mario Draghi’s promising centrist government collapsed, I am not researching expat environments in other countries. Meloni – at least, I hope – won’t be as bad as people say.

Meloni served in the Chamber of Deputies since 2006. Wikipedia photo

The results

First, the ugly numbers:

Her Brothers in Italy (FdI) party took 26.3 percent of the vote, far out-distancing the 19.2 percent of the center-left Democratic Party (Pd). Keep in mind, only four years ago the FdI polled at only 4.4 percent. Also keep in mind a record-low 64 percent of those eligible voted. A lot of Italians were not happy with the choices despite the wide range.

Because of Italy’s multi-party system, it’s necessary for parties to combine into coalitions to get a high enough percentage to win. The FdI, along with the far right League at 9 percent and ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI)  at 8.3 percent, totalled 44 percent of the vote. The center-left, with Pd the only substantial party, stumbled home at 26 percent.

“FdI benefited from the unpopularity of the Draghi government, which was saddled with the war in Ukraine, energy prices, inflation, etc,” wrote Rome-based freelance journalist Eric J. Lyman (@ericjlyman) in an email. “The Lega and FI were part of the Draghi government. They agreed to the early elections thinking they’d show some autonomy and allow them to make their case before the winter.

“But it wasn’t enough.”

Italy’s Constitution was written in 1947 to combat fascism. Italy’s multi-party system was established to keep one party from taking too much power. (See: Asshole dictators in fezes 1922-43). But it’s also a reason Meloni represents Italy’s 15th prime minister and 20th government in the last 30 years.

Giorgia Meloni resume

Meloni’s resume checks a lot of far-right boxes: anti-immigration, anti-gay, anti-European Union, pro-family. She attended the CPAC convention in Orlando in February. She has made numerous reference to Europe’s  “Judeo-Christian” roots. (i.e. Let’s make Europe white again.) In August, in an attempt to show she would be tough on sexual violence, she went to Twitter and posted a video of a Ukrainian woman in Piacenza being raped by a migrant from Guinea. Twitter had it removed.

She has a firebrand personality with a volcanic temper, the kind of persona many frustrated, conservative Italians have fallen in lockstep behind.

Her party scares the garlic out of me. One party leader was caught giving a fascist salute, The New York Times reported. Another was suspended for a favorable comparison between Meloni and Hitler. The party is known to have a celebratory dinner every Oct. 28, the anniversary of the March on Rome which swept Mussolini into power in 1922.

However, Giorgia Meloni is not Mussolini. She is not even Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League and who is further right than Darth Vader. 

Meloni is definitely not Trump. She’s 45 and looks 35. She’s an intelligent, fit, savvy, career politician who has been a member of the Chamber of Deputies since 2006 before becoming a worldwide public figure. She’s street smart and a little hip. She was a bartender at the hottest club in Rome, The Piper. 

She never grabbed men’s groins and bragged about it. 

Matteo Salvino, leader of the League, still supports Vladimir Putin and the invasion. Wikipedia photo

Regardless of whether I agree with her policies, she cares more about her country than her power. She fiercely defends democracy and the integrity of elections. She filled her campaign with policies, not whining.

And, unlike Trump, she’s a good dancer. She danced a lot Sunday.

Her stand on Fascism

Journalists know how to light her fuse: Bring up fascism and her party. She continually distances herself from the concept of fascism and says the left uses it merely as a political tool to bash the right. She recently told The Times, “The Italian right has handed fascism over to history for decades now.”

She has steadfastly backed Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Although she has said Trump inspired her, she never embraced him during her campaign and also mostly distanced herself from Hungary’s anti-immigration PM, Viktor Orban, another man she once backed.

In the right-wing coalition, she is the least of the worst. While she agrees with Salvini on a naval blockade to stop refugee immigration, Salvini and Berlusconi still support Vladimir Putin and want to lessen Italy’s commitment to Ukraine. 

Four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, head of Forza Italia, has charged with bribing witnesses. Wikipedia photo

Berlusconi would’ve been a five-time PM. It would also put Italy in the embarrassing international light of having its prime minister facing charges of bribing witnesses to silence them over accusations that he paid for sex with young women.

I’m not worried about my life in Italy. Although I also consider myself an immigrant, no different than the 5 million other legal immigrants from West Africa, Syria and Albania among other countries, I’m also an American. If Meloni throws a wide net to snatch all the immigrants she feels are unworthy of Italian residence, I doubt I’ll be caught in the sting.

Effects on Parliament

What I’m concerned with is the far right’s power in Parliament, a confusing blackberry bush of countless political parties all assailing their opponents when they’re not backstabbing each other. If the far right coalition gets support for half of either the 400 seats in the house or half the 200 seats in the Senate, it will have a simple majority.

However, if it gets 67 percent, it would have a super majority or what Italians call a maggioranza speciale. That would give them enough power to change the political system – even the Constitution – without bringing it up to a vote of the people. Abortion and gay rights could be in jeopardy.

During a speech Thursday, Meloni said, “If the Italians give us the numbers to do it, we will.”

As of Sunday night, they didn’t have those numbers but living under a government that could unopposed change the laws of my country is disturbing. Of our last two prime ministers, Giuseppe Conte successfully led us through the terrifying Covid epidemic while the world watched. Mario Draghi then came in with the impressive credentials of heading the European Central Bank and helped us land €200 million in Covid relief from the EU.

Neither lasted two years. The political support crumbled underneath them and they bolted. I will miss them.

What concerns me is the BdI’s power will lure Italian racists out from their swamp, similar to how American rednecks stormed the streets for four years under Trump. Already a Moroccan-Italian female journalist named Karima Moual who has lived in Italy for 30 years and has been critical of BdI said she received death threats during Meloni’s campaign.

In 8 1/2 years in Italy, I have yet to meet a racist. I fear that streak will soon end.

The FdI’s victory is another wave in the right-wing surge washing across Europe. Just two weeks ago, Sweden elected a far right government. In France, the right-wing henchwoman, Marine Le Pen, just made the final round of the presidency for the second time.

With Trump hanging dangerously on the periphery of the 2024 election, my left-wing senses are on edge. 

Meloni, if she wins a vote of confidence from the Parliament as expected, will take office in late October or early November. Considering Italy’s political history, no one knows how long it will last. In the meantime, I’m buckling down for a wild ride in my fifth-floor flat in the chic neighborhood of Monteverde.

The neighborhood Mussolini built.