The Italian election saw the lowest-ever turnout since the post-war period, as voters were unmoved by the narrative of a ‘fascist’ threat and rather punished political forces they see as responsible for their long-standing economic woes.
ROME - Italy woke up to a new chapter of its political history on Monday, as Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party emerged as the winner of snap elections in the eurozone’s third largest economy beset by multiple ailments.
The results, published on Monday morning, set 45-year-old Meloni on course to become the country’s first female prime minister, at the helm of its most right-wing government since World War II.
“Once again, we can be proud to be Italian,” she said at an event organised by her party once projections pointed to a clear win. “We did not give up, we did not back down, we understood, just like Italians did, that shortcuts are just an illusion,” she said, before citing the 12th-century Italian Catholic Saint Francis, “Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
Her party, which has its roots in the post-fascist movements born out of the ashes of Italy’s wartime dictatorship led by Benito Mussolini, went from a mere four percent vote share in the last election in 2018 to over 26 percent. The result, which is even better than what pollsters had predicted, comes after Meloni positioned her Brothers of Italy as the only major party in the opposition during the rule of prime minister 'Super' Mario Draghi’s national unity government, which only lasted for 17 months.
The centre-right coalition, which includes the anti-migrant League led by Matteo Salvini and four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, has a clear majority to govern in both houses of parliament with more than 44 percent of the vote.
The right-wing coalition, which has projected an image of unity despite differences, was challenged by a left and centrist camp splintered into two coalitions and one party, a re-branded Five Star Movement led by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, running on its own. The Five Star Movement triggered the political crisis that led to early elections when it withdrew support for Draghi’s government in the summer.
A coalition led by the Democratic Party of Enrico Letta, also a former prime minister, is set to become the country’s main opposition force with around 26 percent of the vote.
“You have this fractured progressive camp, which is paying the consequences of its divisions,” Carlo Ruzza, a professor of political sociology at the University of Trento, tells TRT World.
“The Democratic Party has insisted on the ideological aspect of the elections, which for voters is important, but not as important when compared to the quality of life that is deteriorating… young people who are unable to find work,” he adds.
Its economy still sluggish after the 2008 sovereign debt crisis, Italy’s public debt further ballooned during the Covid pandemic to reach over 150 percent of GDP. The main centre-left Democratic Party remained in government as part of coalitions throughout much of that decline.
“The [Democratic Party’s] idealised relationship with Europe did not lead to a higher quality of life,” Ruzza says. “And those people who are unable to get to the end of the month, or who suffered economically through the pandemic, made the choice anyone in a democracy would do: to try the opposition.”
Just under 64 percent of Italians voted, the lowest-ever turnout, compared with 73 percent at the 2018 elections.
“It’s an alarming number for a country that, decades ago, had started out with the highest levels of political participation among advanced democracies,” says Davide Angelucci, a researcher at the Electoral Studies Centre at Luiss University in Rome. The downward trend, he adds, began in the 1980s, and more recently has been the result of successive government crises that have left citizens disengaged and disaffected.
“Since 2008, we have had two technocratic governments, in the last legislature we had three different governments,” Angelucci says. “This great volatility and instability generates in citizens the perception [that] they can no longer control their political decision-maker, they can no longer attribute responsibility for what is happening to them.”
Meloni worked hard during campaigning to disassociate her party from its most extreme elements to project a reassuring image to Italy’s European partners and the international community. On international relations, she has positioned herself firmly on the side of NATO and against Russia -- unlike her two campaign allies whose stance has often been ambivalent.
But on the domestic front, she promotes an agenda that is similar to that of right-wing European parties such as Law and Justice in Poland and Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary.
“Issues like migration and identity are those close to the right, and are issues they are likely to fight for,” says Paolo Cossarini, an Italian political science researcher at the University of Valencia.
“Both in Italy and in Europe, the extreme right is being normalised,” he tells TRT World. In Sweden’s elections earlier in September, the far-right Sweden Democrats won the second-largest share of the vote.
“At the electoral level, they find consensus and legitimation.”