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FABIO FRUSTACI (EFE)

Playing Both Sides at Once: Giorgia Meloni in Government

Davide Vampa, Daniele Albertazzi

7 mins - 15 de Febrero de 2024, 07:00

Italy’s last general election, leading to the inauguration of Giorgia Meloni as the country’s Prime Minister, sparked comments about neofascism gaining access to power in Europe. It is undisputed that Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy (FdI), originated from the neo-fascist right represented after WW2 by the Italian Social Movement. 

Despite certain aspects of her rhetoric, however, Meloni’s actions and policies since assuming the role of Prime Minister have not indicated a consistent shift to the radical right. Consequently, commentators are now beginning to speculate whether Meloni is, in fact, moving towards the centre, actively appealing to moderate voters, and skilfully crafting her image as that of a traditional conservative leader. This shift may also be influenced by dynamics within the Italian party system that are beyond Meloni’s complete control. Instead of being part of a deliberate plan, Meloni’s lack of initiative on various fronts may be interpreted as her inability to overcome traditional resistance to change within the Italian state apparatus and interest groups. When combined with the limitations imposed by the European Union, it becomes evident that Meloni may be striving to present her relatively moderate stances as a strategic choice, when they are in fact an indication of powerlessness in the face of domestic and international constraints.

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While these arguments may appear persuasive, they also carry the risk of drawing too hasty conclusions. Research on democratic backsliding highlights the fact that, once in power, populist radical right leaders can bring about systemic shifts gradually and incrementally, almost imperceptibly. It took more than a decade of uninterrupted power for Viktor Orbán to implement his radical and authoritarian agenda. Hence, while it may be true that there has been no backsliding in Italy so far, it is also the case that Meloni has been in post for less than two years.  The government’s plan to reform the Constitution and introduce the direct election of the prime minister – a provision that does not exist anywhere else in the world – is a case in point. The governing majority is pushing through this reform amidst criticism that it would endanger the checks and balances existing in the country. More specifically, it would weaken the role of the President, a crucial guarantor in Italy that the Constitution is constantly upheld.

Moreover, beneath the surface of what seems to be a shift to the centre, some tensions can be identified between Meloni and her party, and also between domestic and international positions. While Meloni now presents herself as a figure of continuity with past governments by relinquishing most of her past radical demands, notable members of her party have continued to openly embrace less moderate positions. From Minister Francesco Lollobrigida’s statements suggesting that immigration may result in ‘ethnic replacement’ to Senate Speaker Ignazio la Russa's reluctance to denounce the fascist legacy, Meloni's fellow party members, even in senior roles, have often conveyed messages to the core post-fascist community their party does not want to break with, while Meloni could appeal to a broader electorate. This division of labour between leader and party has worked so far due to the absence of a unified and coherent opposition capable of highlighting the contradictions within the ruling coalition. However, it shows that Meloni does not feel forced to choose between radicalism and moderation – at least for now.



On the policy front, the economic agenda pursued by the Meloni government is almost completely indistinguishable from that of previous governments led by one Silvio Berlusconi. Its allegedly pro-market, welfare slashing agenda is focused on pleasing Italy’s middle classes, which the PM sees as key to her electoral success. At the same time, FdI representatives have frequently advocated more radical and restrictive policies on culture-related issues, which do not impact the public purse or influential economic interests. For instance, the new government soon began to crack down on the listing of same-sex parents on birth certificates, prompting significant concerns in the LGBTQ+ community. This aligns with the tendency of populist radical right parties to engage in ‘culture wars’, often used to divert attention from their weaknesses and ambiguities on the economic front.

Meloni has also succeeded in redirecting attention from domestic disputes by portraying herself as a moderate and responsible leader on the international stage. Despite differences with her allies over Russia, the PM has shown consistent support for Ukraine and NATO since the start of the conflict, and has established a fruitful working relationship with the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The latter has travelled to Italy several times, publicly praising Meloni’s work to engage with African countries, both in order to stem the flow of migrants travelling to Europe from Africa, and to establish a new economic partnership with them. The Commission has also continued to disburse instalments of the EU’s covid-19 recovery fund that had originally been allocated to Italy under a previous government.

For now, Meloni appears to have found a winning formula, based on moderation and ‘responsibility’ in her dealings with the USA and EU and radicalism on identity-related issues.  Confronted by more assertive and effective competitors from the centre-left, Meloni could struggle to maintain her ambiguous position. If she opted to emphasise her moderate credentials, she could risk losing support from the right. Matteo Salvini’s League stands ready to capitalise on perceptions of betrayal among more radical voters. On the other hand, if she decided to harden her right-wing stance, she could alienate moderate voters, potentially losing them to the party of the late Silvio Berlusconi: Forza Italia. While the latter is now but the shadow of what it once was, and is unlikely to ever fully recover after the death of its founder, it is still a functioning organisation able to exercise influence in some specific regions of Italy. 

At the moment, due to the weakness of both her opponents and allies, it looks like Meloni may be able to perform her balancing act a little longer. After all, rather than switching between parties, an increasing portion of the Italian electorate seems to be silently disengaging from the democratic process altogether. In the 2022 election, only 63% of voters went to the polls, nearly 10% less than in 2018 and 20 percent less than in 2006. This indicates a steeper decline in participation compared to most Western European countries. While this can be bad news for Meloni herself, if her voters start deserting the polls, it is also worrying news for those who are not fully persuaded by the government new-found ‘moderatism’. In the context of democratic demobilization, the risks of backsliding for Italy’s democracy could not entirely be ruled out. 

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