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King’s Votes: Why Meloni’s Italian Election Victory is Not the End of the World

Staff writer Matteo Cardarelli on the implications of Giorgia Meloni’s victory in the recent Italian general election, and why this should not be perceived as detrimental.

Last week, a divisive campaign season drew to a close, as Italians headed to the polls to determine who would be next to succeed the ill-fated Mario Draghi government. As experts had long predicted, it was Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) who came out on top, taking 26% of the vote. Though it was a surprise to no one that Meloni’s right wing bloc– featuring Matteo Salvini’s Lega (9%) and Silvio Berlusconi (no environmentalist, but certainly proving the efficacy of recycled goods, having served as Italian Prime Minister on numerous occasions) with his Forza Italia (8%)– won an absolute majority in both of Italy’s legislative chambers, her victory was greeted with apocalyptic headlines and grim prognostications from pundits everywhere. Her victory is bad, but not as bad as it seems.

Evidently, Meloni’s victory is by no means encouraging. Her rambling rants and inveterate hatred of the LGBTQ+ community, combined with a dash of xenophobia (she has proposed a naval blockade of incoming migrant ships), render her an unpleasant political phenomenon. She has promoted the ‘right to not abort’, which would empower Italy’s gynaecologists (70% of whom are already conscientious objectors) to dissuade women from aborting. All this is without even addressing the pandora’s box that is her membership of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) at the tender age of fifteen. Somehow, the repetitive monotony of the media cycle has made it almost trite to discuss the future Prime Minister’s fascist past. Yet the links remain, and not even her emphasis that FdI is not a far-right organization does much to assuage the uneasiness which clips like this one, produce. 

But politics in Italy is not straightforward. While she may have won the election, she now has to rule. In an environment particularly inhospitable to stable government (a cliché, but alas, true), this is easier said than done. In seeking to change Italy for better or worse (probably the latter), Meloni has the odds stacked against her.

Meloni’s is not the first populist government swept into office on a wave of dissatisfaction. In 2019, the last time Italians went to the polls, the Five Star Movement (M5S) scored a resounding success, forming a coalition with a right-wing group, Lega, headed by Matteo Salvini. But they encountered only limited success in pushing their agenda. Part of this was due to their unworldliness with navigating Italy’s byzantine bureaucracy. The minister of education under the first M5S government threw in the towel after just four months in the job, complaining that the ‘little hand’ of the bureaucracy had circumscribed his range of action and warped his ideas. Italy’s bureaucracy is a stolid corpus of conservatism that opposes radical change. They have culled radical programs before, and the inexperience of FdI, which collected a mere 4% in the 2018 election, promises bloodshed.

Her woes do not end there. Though she won the largest vote share out of her bloc of allies, which guaranteed her the role of Prime Minister, this does not mean her authority is incontrovertible. For all its success, her campaign was dogged by rumours of discord amongst Meloni and her fellow right-wing triumvirs. Salvini, who was in government as Minister of the Interior until 2019, is unlikely to kowtow to Meloni’s whims, and Berlusconi has a new lease on life on the wave of a better-than-expected electoral showing and his return to the Senate. Already, fissures are emerging, as the three hotly debate the composition of the upcoming cabinet. Meloni has also positioned herself as a pro-Ukraine Atlanticist, in contrast to her colleagues’ filo-Russian tendencies (very much passé in the Autumn 2022 season). Unity in the election was a necessity. The desire for victory kept the bloc together. With the existential need for common cause gone, keeping the alliance (and the partners’ fragile egos) intact will not be easy. 

Meloni’s government does not even come into office with the broad popular mandate it desires. If any further proof of the erosion of the nation’s political culture is needed, turnout on the 25th was a meager 63%, a record low in the Republic’s history. It does not come off the wave of a dynamic right-wing revolution. Younger age groups flocked to smaller parties, such as Carlo Calenda’s centrist Azione! It was mostly the middle aged, those between 45 and 64, the same cohort that forms the backbone of the right’s base, that secured FdI’s victory. Whereas in previous elections, Italy’s right-wing electorate would have splintered between several factions, the name recognition as the face of anti-establishment politics allowed Meloni to centralise right-wing voting power under her aegis. Her victory was essentially guaranteed from the day she opted to become the face of the opposition to the previous government. 

Now, she is the government. 26% of the vote may be enough to win an election, but it is not enough to rule. Her position is much less secure than what a cursory analysis may reveal. Between conniving partners, political inexperience and the contrarianism of the bureaucracy, she already has an arduous task ahead of her. 

And she faces several pressing dilemmas- the energy crisis, skyrocketing costs of living, stagnant wages. Even ignoring Italy’s profound structural issues, such as the massive public debt, inefficient public sector, and growing regional wealth gap, she has a mountain to climb. Any hiccups along the way will cause an avalanche, one that will sweep her off the mountain before she has even started her ascent. 

FdI’s victory was predictable and will likely be a painful experience for many of Italy’s most at-risk groups. But, in all probability, the system will work as it has in the past – dysfunctionally – and bring her down before she can wreak generational damage. Contemporary Italian politics is one wave of populism after the other, each tearing down their forebears’ achievements before inevitably succumbing to the protean boredom of Italy’s masses. There is no reason why Meloni’s tenure will be any different. 

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