Why did Italy elect the most far-right leader since WW2 and what does this tell us about the future of the country? We talk to three experts.
The right-wing coalition led by the far-right party Brothers of Italy seems set to win Italy’s snap general elections, with leader Giorgia Meloni widely expected to form the new government and become the country's first female prime minister.
But how did the country, emerging from two years of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and struggling with rising inflation and a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, get to this result? And what does this tell us about Italy’s future?
We asked these and more questions to three experts on Italian politics.
How did Brothers of Italy and Giorgia Meloni rise to the top of Italian politics?
According to near-final results, the right-wing coalition led by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and accompanied by Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia won nearly 44 per cent of the vote.
The centre-left was left trailing behind with 26.1 per cent of the vote, followed by the Five Star Movement with 15.3 per cent.
According to Davide Vampa, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, although the right-wing coalition has won with an overwhelming majority compared to the votes gathered by the other parties, the numbers obtained are modest overall.
"The right-wing bloc got more or less the same votes as in 2018," said Vampa. "So it's true that they won and it was a landslide victory, but that was mainly due to the divisions of the left, centre-left and PD and Five Star Movement," he said.
But the rise of Brothers of Italy is an exception, he added.
"It's also true that there has been the impressive growth of Brothers of Italy, and this is probably due to the fact that Brothers of Italy was the only part in opposition, it has been in opposition for the last five years whereas all the other parties had been in government at least once over the last five years," Vampa said.
"So I think that Brothers of Italy was rewarded by its role in opposition."
Why did Italy's left fail to present a united front?
According to Vampa, the left's biggest mistake was failing to present a united front at the 25 September election.
"That was, I think, a big mistake made by Enrico Letta, the leader of the Democratic Party (PD)," Vampa said. "He tried to stick to Draghi's agenda and, for that reason, he refused to form a coalition with the Five Star Movement, which determined the collapse of the Draghi government."
The snap elections were triggered by the Five Star Movement's withdrawal of support for Draghi's government, which led to the outgoing prime minister offering his resignation (twice).
The right-wing coalition, on the other hand, has reunited parties which had been part of the Draghi coalition as well as Brothers of Italy, who had never supported the technocrat's leadership.
"The PD wanted to show consistency, so they refused to create a competitive coalition," Vampa said. "There was also competition from the centre, from the list created by Calenda and Renzi, the former leader of the PD as well. So the PD suffered from competition on the left [...] and from the centre," Vampa said.
"There was high fragmentation, the PD didn't manage to act as a unifier of the left or the centre-left. And they are paying the price for this decision," Vampa added. "If they had run together, today probably the results would be very different. If you add the vote of the Five Star Movement to that of the PD and centre-left coalition, I think that they would be probably ahead.
"Of course, you cannot just add votes like that, the dynamics would have been different, but definitely the centre-left coalition would have been more competitive in the election," Vampa concluded.
Looking forward, "the centre-left will need to rework its image and marketing strategy," said Marianna Griffini, lecturer in the Department of European and International Studies at King's College London.
"They did wage an electoral campaign, but many felt that Letta was not able to put out a strong line of arguments, and wasn't able to talk to the people."
Letta has announced he is stepping down as leader of PD.
The fall of the League and the attempted return of Berlusconi
"The League is one of the big losers of the election," said Vampa, highlighting its dramatic fall in popularity.
"I think Salvini paid the price for various choices that he made over the last three years. First, when he left the government with Giuseppe Conte in 2019. And that was, in the end, a big mistake because it didn't trigger the early elections that he was hoping would result from the crisis.
"Then he decided to join the government led by Draghi. And of course, this constrained the party within the coalition, which was led by a technocratic figure and this is not very good for a party that has a kind of populist profile."
Ultimately, Meloni benefitted from all the mistakes that Salvini made, Vampa said, with voters shifting from the League to the Brothers of Italy.
It's another story for Berlusconi, the former prime minister who "is always a constant in Italian politics", Vampa said.
"Berlusconi actually did better than expected," Griffini stated. "We know that he always tries to resurface in Italian politics, he has already had many resurrections."
"The share of votes for Forza Italia has gradually declined and this election marks a decline in support for Forza Italia, but [Berlusconi] still manages to play a kind of a pivotal fault role in Italian politics," Vampa explained.
"He's very good at positioning himself and his party within the political spectrum. So now it might be that his party will be a kingmaker in determining the composition of the next government."
As Berlusconi remains stubbornly present in Italian politics, the same is expected of Salvini, who despite the failure of his party at the general elections has not offered his resignation as party's leader.
Does the Brothers of Italy's victory represent a shift to the right for the country?
"Definitely," answered Vampa. "Brothers of Italy belongs to the fascist tradition in Italy. I wouldn't define it as a fascist party or a neofascist party, but I would say that it's still linked to the post-fascist tradition," he added.
Griffini agrees that there’s been a shift to the right, though she believes it won’t be extreme.
"It's not even the first so-called centre-right coalition government in Italy, as we've had already three centre-right coalition governments headed by Silvio Berlusconi. But what does this tell us about Italy right now? Has there been a shift, a further shift towards the right? And in that case, yes, my answer would be yes, definitely," she said.
"I do not think it will be an extreme right government, I do not think it will be neofascist, because Meloni will need to act within the constraints dictated by the EU, dictated by the transatlantic alliance she really treasures, and dictated also by the coalition partners who may disagree, maybe not really on the content, but maybe embittered by the slump at the polls that they have faced," Griffini said, talking about Salvini and Berlusconi.
Why did Italy see the lowest voter turnout since 2018?
"The voter turnout is very disappointing," said Vampa, commenting on the 64 per cent turnout of voters on Sunday.
"Until the late 1980s in Italy, 90 per cent of the eligible voters went to the polls. Over the last 30 years, we have seen a steady decline in voter participation, and this time we have a big drop compared to the previous election," Vampa said.
According to Vampa, the low turnout is a sign of the many problems that mar Italian politics, including the fact that "for the last ten years, we haven't had a government that was the expression of the election results".
"There were always a lot of coalitions and negotiations after each election, which didn't lead to clear results," Vampa said. All these coalition governments and technocratic governments have likely led Italian voters to feel disavowed from elections.
The timing might have also played into the low turnout.
"The election this year took place in September, the first time in recent Italian history that you have an election in September," said Vampa.
"That meant that the electoral campaign took place during the summer when people went on holiday and didn't really care about politics. So there wasn't a lot of attention to the political developments. So all this might have determined this sharp decline in turnout."
"But let's remember that this is part of a 30-year trend. So it's not something that happens all of a sudden," he added.
"Even if we are willing to – and we shouldn’t – leave aside the lack of voting rights of the many Italians-without-citizenship and the impossibility of voting from outside one's place of formal domicile preventing many (especially from the south of the country) from casting their vote, the growing trend of electoral abstention is worrying but not particularly surprising," Silvia Binenti, a researcher in Human Geography at University College London (UCL), explained.
"In a society where politics explicitly permeates most aspects of everyday life – from the clothes we buy, the movies we watch or the social media accounts we follow – and in a country like Italy where you cannot avoid talking about politics even when you consume your morning espresso at your local 'bar,' we should ask ourselves then why seemingly-ubiquitous politics fail to reach what used to be its most obvious home: the polling station.
"If on the one hand, the ubiquity of politics in everyday pop culture can point to a greater accessibility of political debates and processes, on the other hand, the perceived casualness of political issues and the lack of decorum of today's political representatives may translate into an electorate that is politicised at an informal level but fails to engage politically at a formal level, especially through voting."
Meloni will be the first woman to become prime minister in Italy - what does it mean?
Meloni is expected to become the first woman in Italy's history to hold the office of prime minister.
"In some respects, that's an achievement, something that was long overdue in Italian history and Italian politics," Vampa said. "At the same time, being a woman doesn't mean that the policies that [Meloni] would promote will be supportive of other women."
"The extent to which she will actually represent women as a whole is questionable," said Griffini. "She has presented the image of herself as 'woman, mother, Christian' - but what about women who are not associated with motherhood, women who don't align with this view of a traditional family?"
Though Meloni has pledged not to challenge the right to abortion in Italy, it remains to be seen what she'll do once at the leadership of the country.
What does this result mean for the war in Ukraine?
"With Brothers of Italy, there has been quite a unanimous consensus on the fact that they support Ukraine, as opposed to the League or Berlusconi who were vacillating on their positions," Griffini said.
"So I think that in that regard, the current position toward the war in Ukraine will be maintained, so there will be continuity," she added.
"I don't think that Salvini in his state of disappointment after the elections’ results will be able to put some resistance against continuity in the policy towards Ukraine."
It's hard to understand how Salvini and Berlusconi, once fans of Vladimir Putin, now truly feel about the war in Ukraine.
"[Berlusconi] is full of contradictions," Griffini said.
According to Vampa, the stance on Ukraine will depend on the internal dynamics of the next government.
"It might be that Salvini and Berlusconi will put pressure on Meloni to have a much, much more neutral position in the conflict that might be on the emergence of an alliance with Hungary. [...] So you might see the emergence of transnational alliances that would change the war dynamics. But it's still unclear," Vampa said.