Quarterly Concerns

Sep 29, 2022

Meloni’s Complicated Victory

Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy have won big–but not big enough to easily change Italy’s democratic path. Nonetheless, her new government may well be tempted to seek close relations with Poland and Hungary and join their struggle with Brussels.

Gladiators fight.
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Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy have won big–but not big enough to easily change Italy’s democratic path. Nonetheless, her new government may well be tempted to seek close relations with Poland and Hungary and join their struggle with Brussels.

In her first public appearance on election night, September 25, Giorgia Meloni claimed that Italians “have sent a clear message in favor of a right-wing government led by Brothers of Italy.” Formally, that’s true. Meloni’s post-fascists have conquered 26 percent of the vote and are the only party that crossed the 20-percent threshold. Seven million Italians opted for the Brothers of Italy, and the support has not only come from working-class voters defecting from her right-wing alliance partners, the once-mighty Lega and Forza Italia. Middle class voters, too, turned their backs on the leftist and centrist parties and voted for Brothers of Italy, according to the Trieste-based SWG Institute. 

Her coalition partners, Matteo Salvini, the populist leader of the right-wing Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi, the imperishable 86-year-old former prime minister and founder of Forza Italia, both got less than one third of Meloni’s vote, 8.9 percent and 8.3 percent respectively. And while Meloni is undoubtedly the big winner of the election, Salvini is the big loser: Lega’s share of the vote plunged to under 10 percent, back to where they were in 2008, and this could cost Salvini the leadership of the party. 

Due to the most recent electoral law, the right-wing coalition has gained the majority in the parliament, even if only 44 percent of those Italians who turned out on election day voted for the three parties. But the coalition is far from a two-thirds majority; this would have given Meloni the opportunity to change the constitution without a referendum. She has repeatedly announced that she wants to turn Italy into a presidential republic, but with this result she will have to negotiate any constitutional reform with the opposition.

Furthermore, Meloni won a vote in which more than one third of the voters chose to stay at home—a historic record. And the likely future first female Italian prime minister seems perfectly aware that her triumph is partly a Fata Morgana. In her victory speech she stressed that she wants to “unite the country.”

It is also worth remembering that in their tendency to fall in love every couple of years with a charismatic political leader, the Italians gave Meloni a smaller mandate than they gave others in the recent past. Matteo Renzi, the former leader of the Social Democratic Partito democratico won 41 percent in the European elections in 2014, and Salvini got 34 percent in the European elections as recently as 2019. Italian voters’ choices have never been as volatile as in the past decade. Meloni seems perfectly aware of this: the honeymoon, if there is one, could be over soon.

The Difficult Task of Building a Government

The first challenge for the 45-year-old Roman who has a long track record of activism in nostalgic and post-fascist movements (she decided to keep the flame—reminiscent of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini—as a party symbol of the Brothers of Italy) will be to assemble her government.

For the key ministries, first and foremost the economy ministry, she has been looking in recent weeks for competent figures who could reassure the markets (according to rumors she even tried to convince Fabio Panetta, current member of the ECB board). More questionable candidates are likely to be blocked by President Sergio Mattarella. In 2018 Mattarella dismissed an attempt by the first government of Giuseppe Conte, formed by the Lega and the populist Five Stars Movement, to make the outspoken anti-euro economist Paolo Savona economy minister. Instead, Conte had to nominate a professor of economics, Giovanni Tria, a technocrat.

Meloni has often repeated that she won’t take on new debt (Italy’s public debt already stands at 134 percent of GDP); her fiscal policy will be a “responsible” one. But she also said that she wants to partly reopen the reforms and the priorities negotiated with the European Commission by the previous prime ministers, Mario Draghi and Giuseppe Conte, who were blessed with receiving the lion’s share of the EU’s post-pandemic Recovery Fund, nearly €200 billion.

Given the financial pressure and a huge energy crisis that is building up in Italy as elsewhere in Europe, many fear that Meloni could stress her nationalist, homophobic, and xenophobic agenda, curtailing the rights of the LGBTQI community or immigrants; tightening abortion laws might be another option. Also, the explicit hint in her autobiography of the “aversion” she feels toward Germany could steer her future government away from Berlin and Paris and the Italian-French-German partnership that has seen a big revival under Draghi’s leadership. 


Meloni has made no secret of her sympathy for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where civil rights, the freedom of press, and any dissent have been heavily hit in recent years. In the European Parliament, she heads the ECR group, which includes the Polish PiS, the governing party of Prime Minister Mateus Morawiecki, who has banned abortion, persecuted LGBTQI people and undermined the independence of the judiciary—a challenge that has led to an open institutional conflict with the European Commission. Last autumn Poland’s constitutional court even ruled that national laws stand above European laws, which goes against the European Treaties that Poland signed when it joined the EU.

Until now, in their open conflict with the EU, Poland and Hungary have become more and more isolated. Neither country has yet received their share of their Recovery Fund due to the  rule-of-law situation in both. And Hungary could even have its payments from the European cohesion funds cut, if it fails to convince Brussels that it is serious about efforts to curtail corruption.

Now, one of the most dangerous scenarios regarding the next government is that Italy might go down the Polish and Hungarian road. A few weeks before the Italian elections, the European Parliament approved a report that stated that Hungary could no longer be considered a democracy. It was approved by a large majority of 433 votes. Among the 123 who voted against, were two of the three parties who will now form the next Italian government: Brothers of Italy and Lega. This could well be an “antipasto” of the future alliances in Europe.

Tonia Mastrobuoni is Berlin correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica.