A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
On Sunday, Italy will hold snap elections that were called in late July of this year. The country’s latest political crisis was triggered by the resignation of prime minister Mario Draghi, who headed a government that included almost all Italian parties from the left through to the centre and the populist right. This broad and fragile coalition was created to fix yet another governmental crisis in January 2021, but collapsed once the populist 5 Stars Movement pulled their support.
Now, according to every poll going, Italy’s rightwing coalition is poised to win the elections by a large margin. The bloc is composed of four parties: a small, centrist party called Noi Moderati, currently polling at around 1.1 percent of the vote; the centre-right Forza Italia, led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, coming in at about 7 percent of the vote share; the far-right Lega party, headed by Matteo Salvini, which recently lost a lot of support and is now at about 13 percent; and the far-right Brothers of Italy, with Giorgia Meloni as its leader, polling at about 25 percent.
The coalition is projected to receive between 43 and 46 percent of the vote. If they manage this, they would be able to change the country’s constitution without needing to consult voters in a referendum.
The feeling of victory was palpable at the coalition’s last rally, held at People’s Square in Rome on Thursday.
Rome is Meloni’s hometown and stronghold. In her youth, she rose through the ranks of local far-right student movements, including the youth branch of the now-defunct neo-fascist Italian Social Movement. In 2012, she co-founded Brothers of Italy and became president in 2014. Under her leadership, the party has become much more mainstream, growing sixfold in support since the last elections. She is now on her way to become the first female leader in the history of the country.
Brothers of Italy’s ties to fascism have been hotly debated during her campaign. In her student activist years, Meloni openly praised Italy’s former fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Even the symbol of Brothers of Italy, a flame in the colours of the Italian flag, is a well-known fascist icon that was also used by Italian Social Movement. In the past couple of weeks, Meloni has distanced herself from some of her previous positions and asserted that, to her, “fascism belongs to history”.
At the rally, most people came out in support of Brothers of Italy, with flags and symbols of the other two parties in a clear minority. Although the right-wing front has been much more united than the left and centre during their campaign, some of the cracks are now starting to show.
The parties are divided on Italy’s position on the war in Ukraine. Despite previously expressing admiration for Putin, Meloni has said she is in favour of arming Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia. However, her partner Salvini – whom multiple investigations have linked to the Kremlin – said recently that he doesn’t believe sanctions are working and that they must be re-discussed.
Silvio Berlusconi, a seemingly eternal figure in Italian politics – and one who has been friendly with Putin for decades – also recently declared that he believes that Putin was “forced” to invade Ukraine to “replace Zelenskyy’s government with good people”.
At the rally, Meloni was the last leader to speak, appearing on stage as the crowd chanted “Giorgia! Giorgia! Giorgia!” and her former student movement lit up smoke bombs in the colours of the national flag. “We are ready,” Meloni said in her speech. “It’s time to stop holding our breath and to breathe in filling our lungs, because the air we’re inhaling here is air of freedom.”
The event marked a symbolic transition in the Italian right: the irreversible decline of Berlusconi’s old centre-right and Salvini’s populism – and the rise of Meloni’s far-right vision.
Her almost inevitable victory will have implications that go far beyond Italy’s national borders. Years after experts started ringing the alarm bells, Italy is now set to become the first major European country to actually elect a far-right government in this century.
The country’s new leadership would not only have an ambiguous relationship to fascism of its past, but would be openly inspired by the model of illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe, particularly long-time Meloni ally Viktor Orban’s Hungary. And though Meloni has distanced herself from her coalition partners, this government would also be the first European government to be led by such strong apologists for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In response to these developments, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that her approach is to work with every democratic government willing to collaborate. “If things go in a difficult direction,” she added, “we have tools."
Scroll down to see more photos from the rally.