Stefano Braghiroli: What to expect from Giorgia Meloni?

Italian woman reading a newspaper reporting on the front page that Giorgia Meloni won the elections.
Italian woman reading a newspaper reporting on the front page that Giorgia Meloni won the elections. Source: SCANPIX/GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/REUTERS

What can we expect from Italy's elections winner Giorgia Meloni? Will she be an Italian Orban? Or a Morawiecki? Or a Sarkozy? Hard to tell. At this stage, the direction of the government will depend as much on Meloni's leadership as on inter-coalition balances and caprices, Stefano Braghiroli writes.

Italy will have its first female prime minister since its unification in 1861. It will also have its most right-wing government since the end of World War II and the proclamation of the republic.

Yesterday's Italian elections have seen a clear victory of the right-wing conservative coalition. As predicted by many domestic and observers, Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy has gained an incredible electoral success (from 4 percent in 2018 to roughly 25 percent) and is the main factor behind the coalition's success. The same cannot be said when it comes to Meloni's junior partners – both Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Salvini's League managed a single-digit result and saw their votes halved compared to the last elections. Meloni's main opponent – the center-left Democratic Party – maintained a relatively stable support rating and even gained a few decimals in comparison to 2018, but failed almost completely to put together a wide and inclusive anti-Meloni front. The progressives lacked the aggregative capacity of the conservatives and precious votes were dispersed to smaller parties to the right and to the left of the Democratic Party. More importantly, following the collapse of Draghi's government, no agreement could be found between the Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement, with the latter running alone and emerging as the third largest political force (with around 15 percent of the vote). While it is not possible to play math by summing up the votes of the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, it is clear that an electoral coalition between the two parties would have made the match more competitive and the final result of the elections more open.

What is behind Brothers of Italy's electoral success and Meloni's personal victory? The national-conservative party has been around since 2012 and emerged from a right-wing split within the Berlusconi-led movement The People of Freedom (PdL). It is possible to identify three main factors behind the Brothers' appeal. The first reason appears to be Meloni's principled and coherent opposition to Draghi's government. Since the formation of the national unity government led by the former head of the European Central Bank, Brothers of Italy was the only relevant force in the parliament to consistently oppose the Draghi consensus by denouncing its alleged consociational and non-accountable nature. Second, being positioned as the only parliamentary opposition gave the party the possibility to pursue a relatively uncompromised protest agenda which gained popularity as COVID-19, Putin's war against Ukraine and their economic costs (from inflation to unemployment) started to hit Italian society. Thirdly, being against the technocratic government even at the peak of its popularity (unlike Berlusconi or Salvini) made her naturally look more credible and coherent than conservative counterparts. Additionally, her campaign style and her political rhetoric made her look less picturesque and more serious than Berlusconi or Salvini.

With a credible and solid majority in both houses of the parliament (Chamber and Senate), the right-wing conservatives seem to be in a good position to form a government coalition and to deliver a stable cabinet for a relatively long time. Following a speedy conferral of the mandate to form a government to Meloni from the country's president, the institutional timing suggests that we could expect an operational government by the second half of October. This does not mean that Meloni will not face relevant obstacles. In the short term, the most relevant challenge will be to agree on a common governmental program and on the distribution of ministerial portfolios – something that in Italy has often taken the shape of a political stock exchange. In this context, it is worth not underestimating the frustration of Salvini and Berlusconi, now reduced to junior partners, and the implications of such state of mind for inter-party negotiations. Such frustration might well turn in the long- and mid-term into the most acute danger to the coalition and government stability. Italy's electoral history confirms that even the largest and most solid majorities face the risk of internal erosion and collapse over time. The role of the president will also be a key aspect of government formation. The head of state traditionally positions itself as the guarantor of the constitutional order and of Italy's traditional European and Transatlantic course and has a relevant set of safety powers to enforce that. While the constitution is 'safe' since the coalition will not control two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, as in the case of the 2018 conservative-populist government of the League and the Five Star Movement, we could expect a strong hand of the president (and potential vetoes) on key ministerial posts such as the foreign and finance ministries were internationally renowned figures will be preferred over political adventurists.

What can we expect from Meloni? Will she be an Italian Orban? Or a Morawiecki? Or a Sarkozy? Hard to tell. At this stage, the direction of the government will depend as much on Meloni's leadership as on inter-coalition balances and Berlusconi and Salvini's caprices. While the three coalition partners appear relatively united on an anti-immigration, illiberal, Eurosceptic and socially–conservative agenda (from women to LGBT rights), the two biggest incognitos will be economy and the foreign policy, especially in the light of the war in Ukraine. Over the last month of the electoral campaign, Meloni has done her best to combine Eurosceptic and populist tones with messages of reassurance to international partners. Moreover – unlike its junior partners – both Meloni and her party have condemned from its start and without hesitation Putin's invasion of Ukraine and have never questioned Western sanctions against Russia. Adventurist and irresponsible economic policies and a more ambiguous stance towards Putin's aggression (favored by Salvini and Berlusconi) would put Italy's right-wing government on a collision course with Brussels and the international partners, but it might be Meloni's price to pay to keep the coalition united, her electoral base energized and avoid decline in support at the advantage of her partners. A more pragmatic course – not in total discontinuity with Draghi's experience – might be a guarantee of a relatively peaceful coexistence with the EU and would serve to legitimize Meloni as a credible European conservative leader, but – in the mid-term – could well erode the tenure of the coalition and dissatisfy Meloni's core electorate.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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