Writing by Natasha Stewart. Artwork by Cilla Sullivan
On 22nd of October this year, Giorgia Meloni succeeded in becoming Italy's first female prime minister, in what can only be described as a landmark election. Whilst women across the globe, including Hillary Clinton, have come out to congratulate the new prime minister on her success, Meloni’s election is in fact demonstrative of the creeping ascension of the far-right across Europe, and presents foreboding prospects for European politics.
Fascism has always been an enduring element of the Italian political climate, arriving in Italy earlier than the rest of Europe. Indeed, Benito Mussolini rose to power as prime minister in 1922 following the ‘March on Rome’, eleven years before Hitler was appointed as German Chancellor. Following World War II Italian fascists did not face particularly harsh punitive measures, as communism became the prime focus of the Cold War. Therefore, fascism was given the space to prosper under the guise of the Italian Social Movement. Since the 1990s, Italy has faced intense political challenges. Following revelations of huge debt, embedded government corruption and increasing organised crime, Italians voted in a 1993 referendum to move towards a more majoritarian electoral system, making the traditional Additional Member System redundant. These sweeping constitutional changes lead to media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi - Italy’s equivalent of Rupert Murdoch - rising to the role of Prime Minister and maintaining this position off and on between 1994 and 2011. Balancing himself on the premise of stopping communist causes, Berlusconi’s power reflected a distinct move towards the right and a rejection of the post-war welfare consensus. Now, following Europe’s migrant crisis, and with Italy’s accumulation of debt following the Eurozone crisis, the rise of the right wing is well and truly underway, and is gathering momentum at an alarming pace. The proverbial cherry on top? The Covid-19 pandemic.
With Covid-19 hitting Italy especially brutally, the country suffered a large death toll. Extreme measures were put in place by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and many viewed his restrictions as a suppression of constitutional rights. The 2022 snap election, therefore, could not have come at a better time for the restless far-right. Meloni’s right-wing coalition secured 44% of the vote, with her party ‘Brothers of Italy’ leading the charge and securing 26%. Meloni’s coalition came dangerously close to the 44% threshold required to obtain two-thirds of the seats in both the chambers of deputies and the senate. If this were achieved, the far-right would have secured a supermajority for the first time in the history of the republic and would allow changes to the constitutions to be made without a public referendum.
Yet, the threshold being met does not detract from the weight of Meloni’s incendiary polemic that has roused the Italian public. Notably, unlike her contemporaries, Meloni does not maintain a singular flagship policy - such as Berlsuconi’s pro-wealth flat tax. Nevertheless, she fuels a dangerous rhetoric and her positions on LGBT lobbies, gender identity and mass immigration are particularly inflammatory. Meloni’s remarks account for Italy’s (small-c) conservative values and welfare state, with the importance of the Catholic church and family provision seen as tantamount to maintaining cultural norms and traditions.
Furthermore, Meloni’s victory in Italy is not just a standalone event. Her election demonstrates a remarkable resurgence of the far-right not just in Italy but across Europe. Meloni’s newfound power furnishes other European states with the knowledge that the right wing is growing steadily and is capable of assuming power across Europe. In France we have Marine le Pen of the National Rally, in Germany there is the AfD, and even in the traditionally socially democratic Sweden, parties such as the Sweden Democrats represent a break with the left-wing agenda.
It would be a mistake to see Meloni’s win as a female victory; if anything, she represents a regression of women’s rights and autonomies, under the guise of standing for them. Meloni’s party is built on patriarchal values, and it is patriarchy that allows women such as her to be protected and promoted. It has been noted that women are often the first to support fundamental pillars of male power, and there still exists an unwillingness to break free from internalised ideas of misogyny and male dominance. Meloni’s party slogan - ‘God, Fatherland, Family’ - highlights the apparent power and importance of men, in spite of female leadership. Despite years of feminist scholarship and advocacy, we still maintain a tendency to view female politicians as non-threatening; perhaps more softly spoken or portraying a maternalistic image, but their political power cannot be neglected - need we be reminded of Margaret Thatcher? Genderwashing has allowed women like Giorgia Meloni and France’s Marine le Pen to become the innocent face of dangerous far-right movements, in such a manner that they slip under the radar and subconsciously into the minds of the proletariat.
This new rise of fascism is insidious in its methods and, perhaps, harder to spot than fascism of the 20th century. It is grounded in the rise of conspiracy theories; during the pandemic, thousands across Europe (including in the UK) took to the streets to protest lockdown measures and vaccine mandates, with the most extremist amongst them declaring Covid as a Chinese ‘hoax’ or bioweapon being unleashed against the West. Donald Trump’s 2016 election sparked the QAnon movement, with many far-right supporters believing that satanists and cannibals were conspiring against him. Conspiracies such as these have allowed an anti-establishment element to flourish; those who previously aligned their beliefs with right-wing populism are now transforming into the next generation of fascists. What were once casual prejudices have morphed into sinister, ethnocentric rhetoric.
We must not underestimate the rise of fascism across Europe. Politicians are not stupid, or ignorant: they are capable of playing the public like a fiddle, and knowing when a window of opportunity can be manipulated. Fascism is not what it used to be; like all political ideologies it has evolved and moved with the times. There is no one catastrophic event that suddenly plants a fascist in power. The rise of fascism is surreptitious, stealthy, and happening before our eyes. We should not discount it for its insidious nature; its increasing resurgence, despite its imperceptibility, demonstrates how the ideology is more dangerous than ever.