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No, Italy’s democracy isn’t doomed

AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Giorgia Meloni, leader of Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia party, shows a placard reading “Thank you Italy” at her party’s electoral headquarters in Rome on Sept. 26, 2022. Italians voted in a national election that might yield the nation’s first conservative government in decades.

Judging from news reports on the conservative election victory in Italy, one might come away thinking that the country is returning to its fascist history. In fact, the new governing coalition under Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party marks a turn away from populist upheaval that has gripped the country over the past several years and back toward the mainstream conservatism of the past few decades.

Center-right governments are hardly a novelty in Italian democracy. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Lega Nord and Fratelli d’Italia (known then as Alleanza Nazionale) governed the country as a conservative coalition for parts of the 1990s and much of the 2000s. The newest incarnation under Meloni is no more extreme than the Berlusconi governments, which — though plagued by other problems — did not inspire the wails of dismay over the collapse of democracy that we’re hearing today.

The Fratelli d’Italia is neither neo-fascist nor post-fascist; it is simply conservative. This new alliance is in keeping with the classic European right, with mainstream economic policies, a law-and-order program, a more conservative Catholic outlook on social issues (although Meloni has said she will not touch legislation on abortion), and a clear Atlanticist outlook imposed by Meloni on her partners.

In fact, with these elections, Italy has rejected the dreaded threat of “populism.” In 2018, Italian voters turned to two parties that were obviously populist in outlook, style and policies: The M5S party, then headed by the firebrand Beppe Grillo, got 32 percent of the vote, while Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord, then in full pro-Moscow mode, came in second at 17.5 percent. The resulting populist government pursued a series of reckless policies, including signing up to China’s predatory Belt and Road Initiative, from which Meloni has wisely pledged to withdraw. In contrast, Meloni’s agenda is a far more centrist government and is deeply rooted in the establishment, with leaders such as Adolfo Urso, Giulio Terzi and Guido Crossetto destined to play key roles in the government.

Despite reporting to the contrary, radical “right-wing” change is not on the agenda. The government likely will be announced in November, but it is expected that the minister of economics will not be sacked in an effort to keep financial markets stable at a time of turbulence and as a sign of continuity. On foreign policy, Meloni has made it clear that her objective is to strengthen the Transatlantic relationship. Adolfo Urso and Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata — the likely candidates for minister of foreign affairs or defense — are strong Atlanticists and would likely double down on supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, the fact that the two pro-Russian elements in the coalition are the much weaker parties bodes well for Meloni’s ability to steer the ship toward a centrist, pro-Atlanticist destination.

Poor analysis almost always yields poor policy, so commentators would do well to take a step back and look at facts before launching into even more epithets. Yes, the Meloni government will be more conservative on social issues than many in Northern Europe would like, and probably more Eurosceptic as well — but claims that this would go beyond the pale are simply not supported by the evidence. What’s more, even if Meloni had a plan to concentrate power in her hands, she would be met by the full power and inertia of the Italian system. Indeed, the structures of today were created in 1945 to ensure that the rise of another Mussolini would be practically impossible, with a great deal of territorial and institutional decentralization and much power given to parliament.

A better strategy for those in the U.S. would be to look for opportunities to build bridges with Italy’s new government on such crucial issues as support for Ukraine and countering China’s malign activities. While only time can tell whether Meloni is up to the job of prime minister, the rhetoric framing her as the new incarnation of Mussolini is neither accurate nor helpful for anyone with a genuine interest in protecting Italy’s democracy.

Jan Surotchak is the senior director of transatlantic strategy at the International Republican Institute. Follow him on Twitter @jansurotchak.

Tags Beppe Grillo Conservative Giorgia Meloni Silvio Berlusconi

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