Don’t be fooled — ‘mellow’ Meloni could still Orban-ise Italy

The adoption of populism by other parties casts doubts on Italy’s capacity to keep Giorgia Meloni’s agenda in check.

Far-Right party Brothers of Italy's leader Giorgia Meloni shows a placard reading in Italian "Thank you Italy" at her party's electoral headquarters in Rome, early Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Italians voted in a national election that might yield the nation's first government led by the far right since the end of World War II. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Far-right party Brothers of Italy's leader Giorgia Meloni shows a placard thanking Italian voters after emerging the biggest winner — and likely next prime minister — in last Sunday's election [Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo]

Far-right strongwoman Giorgia Meloni has emerged as the undisputed winner of Italy’s general election held last Sunday. She is likely to become the next prime minister, and her government will probably get the confidence of parliament.

Given her credentials and her party’s links to neofascist movements, two questions are particularly pressing. Has Meloni been moderating her positions, as many Italian and international media accounts seem to suggest? Or is there a serious risk that Italy under her government could follow in the footsteps of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, with serious attacks on civil rights and an increase of hate and violence against migrants, refugees, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people?

The idea that Meloni is a respectable option for Italy and internationally tends to focus on the fact that she has firmly sided with NATO on the Russia-Ukraine war, and has given repeated reassurances that she does not want to break European Union budget rules. Of course, she has asked for adjustments to former Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s plan for EU recovery funds.

It is true that Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party have gone through some mainstreaming in TV appearances, whether it’s the almost mandatory suit-and-tie look for the – Meloni aside – male-dominated party leadership or a generally conciliatory tone on strategic matters.

Yet when it comes to how Meloni communicates with her supporters, there is little evidence of a significant shift. A distinctive high-decibel pitch style has been a hallmark of her campaign rallies. Her speeches have been filled with far-right and populist tropes.

Her main target has been what she calls “the left”, by which she really means the centre-left Democratic Party. “They” allegedly have so much power that if you are “one of them” or their friend, it is much easier to get ahead in life and find a job. The few policy points that have made her palatable to moderate actors – for instance, the adherence to EU budget rules – are mentioned in passing to the crowds, only to be quickly drowned in emotive language.

The most disturbing parts are reserved for migrants and refugees – whom she often derogatorily refers to as clandestini (“illegals”). For her, it is a “fact” that undocumented migrants in Italy end up as drug dealers or sex workers. Building on years of anti-immigration propaganda, she has proposed a naval blockade of the Mediterranean.

The attacks on LGBTQ+ communities are more veiled but no less obvious, as one of the priorities of her campaign has been to support the “traditional family” and Italians who want to have children. With an inversion of leftist tropes, she has used the language of equality and rights to emphasise women’s “right not to abort”.

Referring to the country’s demographic decline, she has made the dramatic claim that Italy could soon “disappear”. The implication is that Meloni’s economic nationalism, where Italian-owned companies and Italian workers will be protected at the expense of everybody else, can reverse that trend. Showing parallels with Trumpian thinking, Meloni mixes extreme protectionism with a free-market discourse favouring tax cuts and an economy allegedly run on merit, unlike the “corrupt” system of the left.

Meloni’s speeches provide Italians with a range of scapegoats for the country’s ills. This could lead to an explosive situation if, in the next few months, people’s frustrations and social tensions increase, as economic circumstances worsen because of the intensifying energy crisis. Intimidation and violence against migrants, refugees, people of colour and sexual minorities could rise, in an already deteriorating environment marred by the culture wars of populist propaganda that brought the post-ideological Five Star Movement and the far-right League into power in 2018.

Are we also likely to witness a more systematic attack on democratic institutions and constitutional rights? Meloni’s victory needs to be understood within a broader systemic transformation that has been going on for more than a decade: Most parties across the political spectrum, from left to right, have adopted populist rhetoric and tactics.

In this context, many on the progressive front are willing to downplay or simply be quiet about the dangers of rampant anti-migrant nationalism and increasing bigotry against LGBTQ+ rights, to appease the “people’s will”.

The Five Star Movement managed to stanch the dramatic fall in its popularity in recent months by returning to its populist origins, withdrawing support for Draghi’s government, and reneging on its previous alliance with the Democrats. It is now trying to reposition itself as a viable populist progressive force that could effectively replace the Democrats as the standard bearers of the left. Indeed, many leftist intellectuals and politicians have welcomed this move and endorsed it.

The centrist, liberal formation Action betrayed its previous electoral deal with the Democrats, joined forces with former Democrat Matteo Renzi’s Italy Alive, and campaigned on the populist message that left and right are political categories of the past.

On the right, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia has been branding itself as the “centre” that can keep in check the trademark populism of Meloni and the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini. However, the differences between the three of them are increasingly getting thinner – not to mention that Berlusconi is considered by many to have been among Italy’s first populist leaders.

Meloni ran her campaign facing little opposition, except for the Democratic Party and its allies on the centre left. The other parties on the left and the centre have been more concerned with marking their distance from the Democrats than standing against the right-wing coalition that she leads, which includes Berlusconi and Salvini.

Nor has there been any mass mobilisation on the streets against her imminent rule. The few protesters who have stood up against Meloni have been heavily criticised by her.

Whether you want to label Meloni a fascist or not, there is a real danger that her government might make things significantly worse for some of Italy’s most vulnerable communities as well as for progressive activists and politicians who are unwilling to compromise on their values for electoral gain.

Sadly, many of the same media organisations and institutions that have expressed concerns about the implications of her win for market stability and Italy’s relationship with the EU, seem to be less preoccupied with what should matter more: these existential threats to democracy and human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.