The Italian fascist renaissance -opinion

Italy has long captured the imagination of those in search of la dolce vita and a sepia-tinged version of simpler times.

 Leader of Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni holds a sign at the party's election night headquarters, in Rome, Italy September 26, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE)
Leader of Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni holds a sign at the party's election night headquarters, in Rome, Italy September 26, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE)

Forever idyllic and seemingly adverse to change. Italy has long captured the imagination of those in search of la dolce vita and a sepia-tinged version of simpler times.

The real Italy – that of Italians at least – has always been a far more complex place. Last Monday, Italy woke up to a far less flattering version of itself when news outlets confirmed the victory of Giorgia Meloni’s hard right-wing Fratelli d’Italia in the country’s general election.

That Italians have always been trendsetting and innovative goes without saying. For proof, one need only look back to the creativity of the Renaissance, or the audacious styles of the Pradas and Guccis that scintillate on today’s fashion runways from Milan to New York.

Italian politics

The same goes for politics, where a less dazzling version of Italian ingenuity and pioneering has given rise to right-wing megalomaniacs of the likes of Benito Mussolini, the spiritual godfather of one of history’s darkest ideologies, fascism, and more recently, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian 1990s version of Donald Trump. Long the source of political gridlock and instability, Italy’s recent drift to the far Right has been several decades in the making.

 Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni speaks at the closing electoral campaign rally of the centre-right's coalition in Piazza del Popolo, ahead of the September 25 general election, in Rome, Italy, September 22, 2022. (credit: YARA NARDI / REUTERS) Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni speaks at the closing electoral campaign rally of the centre-right's coalition in Piazza del Popolo, ahead of the September 25 general election, in Rome, Italy, September 22, 2022. (credit: YARA NARDI / REUTERS)

Plagued by a score of blights ranging from the long-standing north-south divide to rampant institutional corruption and sclerotic economic growth, Italian voters abandoned the scandal-ridden traditional Christian Democrat, Socialist and communist parties which dominated politics from the end of the Second World War into the early 1990s and have increasingly voted for unconventional start-ups on the fringes of the political spectrum.

The end result of that shift has been disastrous for Italy’s fragile democracy, and even more so for its economic prospects.

Italy, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s overtook the economies of the United Kingdom and France to become Europe’s second largest, has fallen back and stagnated for over two decades. Youth unemployment hovers below 30%, while underemployment is close to double the European Union average.

In time, the rise of Berlusconi’s Center-Right soft populist-tinged Forza Italia, named after the soccer chant, used to encourage Italy’s national team, gave way to the ascent of the far-right Lega’s immigrant-baiting variety of populism.

Today, after a decade of political stalemate marked by a succession of alternating unelected technocratic premiers, and a brief infatuation with a Eurosceptic protest party founded by a comedian, Italy’s temperamental electorate has now taken to yet another enigmatic party, this time one with deep roots in Mussolini’s fascist movement.

While far-right parties have made significant gains across Europe, none have gone on to take a prize like Italy. One of the ironies of Meloni’s victory was that it came on the eve of a soccer match between Italy and Hungary, another country led by a nationalist firebrand whose divisive ideology-driven politics has steadily eroded the rule of law.

The similarities between Meloni and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are as frightening as they are uncanny. Both are adamantly intent on promoting so-called traditional Christian values, while overtly hostile to immigrants, Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community, to name a few frequent targets. They also conveniently downplay the sins of their countries’ fascist pasts while brandishing the very ultranationalist symbolism and rhetoric characteristic of Mussolini and Miklos Horthy.

Although Meloni has treaded extremely carefully when it comes to antisemitism, her record on Israel is less than stellar, and she is on the record as having referred to defensive operations in Gaza as a “massacre of children” and even praised Iran, Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar Assad.

One of the major takeaways of Italy’s election was that it was marred by record low turnout. It was also held under the backdrop of a perfect storm of societal challenges, namely years of political deadlock, severe economic malaise, demographic decline and mounting xenophobia.

When apathy, disillusionment, fear and anger intersect, the end result is never a good one.

If the past has any lessons, it is that political forces with ill intent have always used such periods to stoke fear and chisel away at civil liberties and ultimately the democratic process. Italy may be the latest victim, but it may also very well be a harbinger of worse things to come; just like it was a century ago.

The writer is a Canadian communications professional with an extensive background in advocacy and combating antisemitism. He formerly served as Israel’s alternate representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and as director of political and public affairs at the Israeli mission in Montreal for more than a decade.