Italy’s election saw the return of the most far right government since Benito Mussolini was deposed in 1943. So who is Italy’s new leader Giorgia Meloni? How did her party Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) come to power? And what can we expect from this new far-right bloc Meloni has forged with Forza Italia chief Silvio Berlusconi and Lega Nord (Northern League) leader Matteo Salvini?
I was recently in Rome for the 99th anniversary of the fall of fascism and was stunned by some of the suggestions from locals that fascism could be making a comeback.
July 25 marks the anniversary of the day dictator Benito Mussolini was voted out of power and arrested as he left a meeting with the King of Italy in 1943. To celebrate, La Pastasciutta Antifascista (the Pasta Against Fascism) is hosted each year by the Alcide Cervi Institute in the suburbs of Rome. Alcide Cervi and his seven sons were renowned anti-fascist resistance fighters during Mussolini’s regime. To celebrate Mussolini's downfall, “Papa” Cervi offered the town of Trullo free pasta to celebrate what he called the “most beautiful funeral of fascism”.
The overwhelming feeling this year was that Italian fascism may be rising from the dead. At Rome’s Termini station, I saw men walking around with black t-shirts bearing nationalist slogans, one man even sporting a full arm tattoo of Adolf Hitler’s face. Locals passing by seemed indifferent to this public display of admiration for the German dictator, who ordered the mass murder of millions of Jews across Europe less than a century ago.
On a tour of Rome the previous day, a local Italian guide in his 60s talked with some nostalgia about a time when Mussolini used public funds to preserve the proud Roman heritage and architecture. He noted with some indifference that the Colosseum was built with the stolen wealth and gold of Jewish people.
Standing before the Arch of Titus our guide explained how the Arch of Titus was built-in 82 AD by the emperor Domitian, it commemorated the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD by Domitian’s recently deceased brother Titus. He pointed to one woman on the tour and said abruptly, “Are you Jewish?” The young woman nodded. Our guide continued “Yes, I thought so. Maybe you can ask for free entry to the Colosseum today as your people’s gold was used to build this place.”
At the conclusion of the tour our guide finished by bringing everyone in closely, gesturing towards some construction workers standing near the Colosseum and whispered “Too many unions these days, too many lazy Italians, it now takes years to get any construction done, not like back then.”
It seems these ideas have become common in Italy and polling suggests that right wing and even far right political ideas are on the rise in Italy. Polls in July clearly showed Meloni’s Brothers of Italy would lead Italy in the near future alongside its allies, the League and Forza Italia.
Berlusconi is a long time friend of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, while Salvini praised the Russian president in 2019 as “the best statesman currently on earth”.
Mario Draghi resigned as Prime Minister in July, following the collapse of his national unity government. The rightist bloc made up of Brothers of Italy, Forza Italia and the League pulled their support for Dragi, who is a vocal supporter of Ukraine.
So who is Meloni and how did she rise to power? The 45-year-old entered politics aged 15 as an activist in the Youth Front of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a group formed by ex-fascists after World War II. While it was seen as the presentable arm of the movement, the MSI maintained links to extremists.
Meloni later left Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom party in opposition to its proposed support for technocrat Mario Monti in the 2013 elections, and founded the Brothers of Italy. The Brothers of Italy retain the MSI’s flame symbol in their logo and even fielded Mussolini’s granddaughter, Rachele Mussolini, as a candidate in municipal elections in Rome in 2021.
Last year, a Brothers of Italy Member of the European Parliament was suspended after an undercover documentary showed him discussing illegal funding at meetings with extremists who performed fascist salutes and made racist jokes. In the final week of the election, the Brothers of Italy suspended a candidate after it emerged he had praised Adolf Hitler as “a great statesman” and described Meloni as a “modern fascist”.
This public support or indifference to fascist leaders throughout the country has been blamed by some as the precursor to more violence towards African migrants.
A 39-year-old street vendor, Alika Ogorchukwa, was strangled to death in broad daylight in late July, while selling handkerchiefs in the central street of Civitanova Marche.
Responding to the murder, the Nigerian embassy in Rome said: “The incident occurred on a busy street and infront of shocked onlookers, some of whom made videos of the attack, with little or no attempt to prevent it.”
Civitanova Marche's mayor, Fabrizio Ciarapica, met with members of the Nigerian community after hundreds of people demonstrated.
"My condemnation is not only for the (crime) but it is also for the indifference,″ Ciarapica told reporters. "This has shocked citizens."
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who heads his own small party, Italia Viva, called out political leaders for "instrumentalising" the attack.
These kinds of attacks are not new in the region around Civitanova Marche. A 28-year old neo-Nazi sympathiser in the city of Macerata (just 30 kilometres from Civitanova Marche) went on a shooting rampage, in 2018, targeting African migrants, injuring six people. The perpetrator, Luca Traini, was pictured giving a fascist salute while draped in an Italian flag before surrendering.
After the 2018 attack, far-right politicians blamed rising migration numbers. Meloni blamed immigration for breeding social tension: “We have to return to a time when Italians believed in a state that guarantees security, order and legality.” Salvini argued that “out of control” immigration brought “chaos, rage and social clashes”. Berlusconi, who has tried to cast himself as a moderate force within the coalition, followed suit, labelling migration a “social bomb”. Extreme right party Forza Nuova even offered Traini legal assistance. A banner appeared near their offices in Rome honouring his name.
So what can we expect from this new far-right bloc following the elections? Meloni has attempted to play down suggestions she is pro-fascist by positing herself as a “post-fascist, concerned Christian mother”. She concluded her campaign with a Trumpian tone, by blaming the left for the country’s “drug dealers, thieves, rapists and mafia”.
Meloni has assured Italians she will not support Putin’s Russia and has pledged to send arms to Ukraine. Like Viktor Orban, the anti-immigration leader of Hungary, Meloni’s ambitions are centred on protecting “family values and Christian faith” at home while strengthening “law and order”, especially in matters of immigration.
In one of her final interviews before the election Meloni said, “We want to defend Italy's national interest without ruptures but with the same determination with which the Germans and French defend theirs.”