By the turbulent standards of Italian politics, it has been a relatively stable spring. The country’s new technocrat prime minister, Mario Draghi, was appointed in February to steady the ship after the previous centre-left coalition imploded. He has made a reasonably solid start. A Covid economic recovery plan is in place and Italy is cautiously welcoming tourists back to its shores. Mr Draghi’s unity government, ranging from the centre-left Democratic party to Matteo Salvini’s League on the hard right, is still intact, although Mr Salvini reserves the right to heckle from within on matters such as the pace of unlocking the hospitality industry.
Outside this fragile circle of consensus, however, a new and abrasive political force has come of age. Last week, polls confirmed that Brothers of Italy, a formerly minor party with its roots in the post-fascist right, is the fastest-growing political force in the country, second only in popularity to Mr Salvini’s League. In the 2018 elections, Brothers of Italy, whose name is derived from the first words of the Italian national anthem, scored 4% of the vote. Their current ratings stand at over 19%, just behind the League, and supporters have been noisily celebrating the overtaking of the centre-left Democratic party.
Part of the explanation of this success lies in party leader Giorgia Meloni’s decision to stay out of Mr Draghi’s emergency government. This has allowed her to monopolise the airwaves as the sole voice of opposition, and bolstered her uncompromising reputation. Mr Salvini, having opted in, has cut a more ambivalent figure. But at a deeper level the rise of the fiery Ms Meloni, who has a best-selling autobiography out, points to a further radicalisation of Italy’s right. Culture wars and confrontation are the 44-year-old Ms Meloni’s stock-in-trade. Somewhat in the manner of Poland’s Law and Justice party, Brothers of Italy espouses a xenophobic cultural Christianity, railing against abortion rights, gay marriage and the dangers of “Islamisation”. The party combines calls to boost the plummeting Italian birthrate with a rhetoric of “God, homeland and family”. A recent spike in undocumented migration on Italy’s southern shores has allowed Ms Meloni to renew calls for a naval blockade. Mr Draghi’s government, she has claimed, is happy to shut Italians in their homes because of Covid, while opening up for “clandestines”. This adroit exploitation of identity politics and pandemic anxieties means that Ms Meloni, who cut her political teeth in post-fascist youth movements, has more or less won equal billing and status to Mr Salvini as a champion of “national conservatism”.
Mr Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank, is thus governing a country in which the two most popular parties belong to the illiberal, Eurosceptic hard right. Elections are not due until 2023, but there have been persistent rumours that Mr Draghi may stand down next year in order to replace the outgoing president, Sergio Mattarella. Whatever the timing proves to be, Italian progressives must trust in the success of Mr Draghi’s Covid recovery package, which will be boosted by a phased-in cash injection of more than €200bn (£172bn) from Brussels. Most Italian voters say their number one priority emerging from the worst of the pandemic is jobs. Around 1m were lost over the past year, hitting women and the young in particular. Tangible progress on such issues will be needed, or the alarming rise of Ms Meloni is likely to continue.