Italy after the election: Meloni’s balancing act

By Andrea De Petris

Giorgia Meloni won the parliamentary elections in Italy. Her Fratelli d’Italia party is clearly the strongest party in the center-right coalition. Not least remarkable is the low voter turnout. Less than 64 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, compared with 73 percent in 2018: a sign that a substantial part of the electorate is dissatisfied with the political offer.

At this point, however, it is clear that it will be up to Meloni to form the next government, the first government led by a woman in the history of the Italian Republic. The Fratelli d’Italia result is seen not only as a victory for sovereigntists and Euroskeptics but also as a success for post-fascist circles, and many fear for the resilience of the EU after the change of government.

But perhaps this judgment needs to be supplemented with further information. Having remained in opposition for the entire legislative period since 2018, Giorgia Meloni was able to present herself to voters as a real political alternative, unlike her coalition partners Salvini and Berlusconi. Many of those who were dissatisfied with the handling of the pandemic or concerned about rising energy costs saw her as a “new face” who should be given the chance to lead the country.

EU funds tied to reform course

The fact that Meloni has been in politics for more than twenty years and has also been a minister obviously had little influence on this election. So it was mainly dissatisfaction and fear, rather than a genuine yearning for fascism, which is certainly present in the right-wing electorate, that gave the Fratelli d’Italia so many votes.

In any case, the Italian economy remains weak and highly dependent on economic aid from the Recovery Fund. However, to continue receiving the funds, Italy must continue on the reform path agreed with Brussels by the Draghi government. Meloni will, therefore, not be able to deviate significantly from this path once she has replaced Draghi, unless the disbursement of EU funds is jeopardized.

Meloni has repeatedly stated that she does not want to increase the national debt, which shows that, at least in the area of the economy, she has no intention of messing with Brussels and Frankfurt. If, on the other hand, the head of the Fratelli d’Italia decides to follow in the footsteps of Hungary and Poland, she would risk being treated by the EU institutions in the same way as Budapest and Warsaw, and she cannot afford that if she wants to establish herself as a credible prime minister in the rest of Europe as well.

Room for Salvini and Berlusconi

Meloni’s overwhelming victory in her coalition, therefore, forces her to perform a double balancing act for the foreseeable future: externally vis-à-vis Europe, to avoid conflicts, and within her coalition, where Salvini’s Lega, in particular, received far fewer votes than expected. Here, Meloni will have to take care to make her party’s signature recognizable in the government, while at the same time giving Salvini and Berlusconi enough room to make contributions to government activities that will also be appreciated by their voters.

Italy has long been accustomed to massive shifts of votes from one party to another and to the formation of unstable governments due to changing parliamentary majorities during the legislative period. The next government will be able to rely on a clear majority in both houses, but that was also the case with previous governments. We will see whether Meloni can distinguish herself in this respect and keep her cabinet in office for the duration of the legislative period until 2027.

Andrea De Petris is scientific director of the Centro Politiche Europee (CEP) in Rome.

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