COVID-19 has impacted Italy's far right League and Brothers of Italy differently, but the national-populism of both parties is alive and well in Italy — and could find its way into government if elections are held prematurely, writes Giovanna De Maio. This post was originally published by the George Washington University Illiberalism Studies Program.
As the Italian government, led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, received international and domestic support for its efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in spring 2020, some argued that populism and nationalism had receded and that there was now a greater role for experts in politics and an overall sentiment of national cohesion during tough times.
Yet a lot has changed since last spring. The human and economic toll of the coronavirus increases on a daily basis, and fierce opposition to lockdown measures and broad mask mandates have gradually taken over that sense of national unity both between Italian political forces and in public opinion.
After some cooperation in the beginning, the two Italian far-right parties, the League and Brothers of Italy — who had first advocated for an immediate closure of the borders and a suspension of the Schengen freedom of movement protocol — have criticized Conte’s government for its confinement measures, migration policies, and position in the European negotiations on the Recovery Fund.
Almost nine months since COVID-19 hit Europe, the League and Brothers of Italy have experienced different fortunes: The former witnessed a gradual but consistent decrease, whereas polls show that the latter is on the rise. As the September regional elections have shown, in spite of Conte’s widespread (but declining) approval ratings and the overall stability of the current government coalition, the national-populism of both the League and Brothers of Italy is alive and well, and could be represented in the next government should new elections be held prematurely.
The League: Larger and More Divided
The League and Brothers of Italy share the same views — tough migration policies, a fierce opposition to any tax increase, and a distaste for the globalist left — and both strongly focus on the defense of Italian national identity. Both parties gained momentum after the eclipse of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (since Berlusconi was banned from holding office for several years). So far, the League has gained broader traction than Brothers of Italy. In the past few years, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the League abandoned its traditional secessionist stances that advocated for a federal autonomy for the northern regions of Italy, doing so to appeal to the broader public in the south of Italy. In 2018, it became the junior partner of a government coalition with the Five Star Movement which lasted until August 2019. While in power, Salvini passed the toughest regulations on migration and closed Italian harbors for NGO ships rescuing migrants at sea.
Brothers of Italy: Smaller and More Consistent
Brothers of Italy, instead, traces its origins back to the Italian Social Movement — the party founded in 1946 in support of Benito Mussolini — whose logo Brothers of Italy integrated in the party’s symbol. While several years have passed and Brothers of Italy, in its current form, has only existed since 2012 under the leadership of Giorgia Meloni, the party continues to attract support from Italian neo-fascist groups. Contrary to the League, Brothers of Italy was never part of a government coalition given its modest success in the ballots. Despite promoting very similar narratives to Salvini’s party, Brothers of Italy has more vocally opposed abortion and euthanasia rights, as well as same-sex marriage. In its electoral program, the party specifically mentions that it seeks a “safeguard[ing] of national identity against the process of ‘Islamization’ by opposing the removal of Christian symbols from school in addition to advancing other measures to defend Christianity both domestically and internationally.”
The Impact of COVID-19
During the COVID-19 crisis, both the League and Brothers of Italy repeatedly associated illegal immigration with the spread of COVID-19 and accused the government of applying a double standard in favor of immigrants that penalized Italian businesses and freedom of movement. However, the two parties experienced completely different trends in the polls: the League is in constant decline, slowly decreasing from 24% to an unstable 20% support while Brothers of Italy has moved from an unstable 10% to a solid 14%.
The League suffered internal tensions including challengers to Salvini’s leadership from the autonomist front (namely, Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region) and from those who see the League as a party pursuing a national agenda (Giancarlo Giorgetti, the League’s deputy Secretary General). Moreover, the League has more concrete political legacy to defend, since it was part of a government coalition with the Five Star Movement until 2019. The League has also extended its party narrative on a variety of fronts, weakening the clarity of its position in the eyes of the electorate.
Compared to Salvini, Brothers of Italy was able to be more consistent with the themes on migration and radicalization (in particular following the terrorist attacks in France and Austria), criticizing the government on the lockdown measures, but also giving credit to Conte when Meloni thought that things were moving in the right direction. For instance, on the issue of the Recovery Fund negotiated with the EU, Meloni acknowledged that Conte had done a good job, while also saying that more could have been done.
Given the growing discontent with the uncertainties and economic hardships that Italy and Europe are going through, public opinion seems to have privileged Brothers of Italy’s consistency in terms of that party’s actions, narratives, and communication. In fact, in the last regional elections in September 2020, the League and Brothers of Italy (along with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) participated as a united coalition, and there is almost no doubt that they will do so again should new elections be held prematurely before 2023—and that their forces, combined, will attract many votes. However, it is very likely that, given the rise of Brothers of Italy, and the declining trend of support for both the League and Forza Italia, such a coalition would advance more radically conservative positions on civil liberties and immigration.
Salvini and Meloni have cultivated relationships with international leaders who share their views on migration, conservativism, and skepticism toward globalization and international organizations.
Compared to Brothers of Italy, the League has built more established ties with Russia, both ideological (e.g., its focus on national interests and admiration for Vladimir Putin) and financial (which the Italian courts are currently investigating). Meloni’s party, instead, was always more pragmatic, limiting its position to advocating against the sanctions on Russia that have caused significant damage to Italian companies. Both parties share quite a hawkish position on China and on protecting the Italian economy from Chinese economic influence in strategic sectors.
Both Salvini and Meloni developed relations with Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and senior advisor to President Trump, who highly praised them in return, especially the League, for leading the way for “sovereignism” in Europe in the face of liberal and globalist trends. Yet between the two, Meloni was the one who heavily invested in the relationship with international conservatives in the United States. Last year, she represented the Italian right at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. More recently, Salvini and Meloni both hesitated in recognizing the electoral victory of Joe Biden, as they seem to support President Trump’s claims about potential fraud in the electoral process.
On the European stage, compared to Meloni, Salvini did not show the same dedication to the cause of nationalism and anti-immigration. When he served in the European Parliament, he rarely showed up at its sessions; similarly, when he was Minister of Interior, he spent most of his time outside the Italian Parliament, campaigning and traveling, substantially stepping away from parliamentary debate. Meloni was clearer on what she stood for and more respectful of institutions. She loudly intervened in both the Italian Parliament and public squares while pushing forward the same Eurosceptic and anti-immigration narratives. These efforts allowed her to be recognized as a point of reference for international conservatives.
While Salvini failed to form a common front in Europe with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Meloni received the Hungarian prime minister’s praise for having been nominated leader of the European Conservative and Reformist party in the European Parliament; Orbán expressed his hope for future collaboration to “defend Italians against migration flows and protect traditional family and Christian culture.”
Looking at how Brothers of Italy has performed so far, it is likely that Meloni will continue playing an important role in both Italian and European far-right circles and therefore push for radically conservative, anti-immigration, and anti-globalist agendas both in Italy and in Europe more broadly — this time gathering wider popular support.