Italy confronts its fascist past as the right prepares for power – POLITICO


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ROME – There are crimes that come to define a moment in history. The brutal murder of a Nigerian street vendor in Italy may be one.

Public discourse over the murder of Alika Ogorchukwu, who was beaten to death in front of passers-by in the coastal town of Civitanova Marche, has laid bare divisions in society as Italians prepare to vote in a snap election next month .

For some, the murder is the fault of years of hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric from right-wing politicians, with disturbing echoes of fascism. Others accuse the left of trying to profit politically from a tragedy.

The bitter dispute matters because, according to current polls, the right-wing anti-immigration parties in Italian politics are expected to win the most support in the election and form the next government.

At their head is Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Italian Brotherhood, who is set to become the country’s next prime minister after the September 25 vote. It would mark a sea change in Italian politics, posing potential risks to the country’s economy after a period of stability under the constant influence of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi. There are also fears that a right-wing coalition could weaken European unity at a sensitive time.

Meloni’s critics say the world should realize how extreme his views are, warning of a return to the dark days of 1930s fascism. Media coverage highlighting that the new Italian government should be sworn in around the time of the 100e anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome reinforced this point.

For senior Democrat Laura Boldrini, a critic and political rival of the Brotherhood, Meloni “represents the extreme right in Italy which has ignored its past”.

Boldrini said: “Brothers of Italy is infiltrated by overt fascist elements.” The party “clearly wants a closed society that looks to the past while Italy must look to the future. The medieval era is over.

Are Meloni and his tribe really the heirs of Mussolini’s fascists? And what will they do if they take power this fall?

Meloni, 45, entered politics at the age of 15 as an activist with the Youth Front of the Italian Social Movement (MSI). This is a group that was formed by ex-fascists after World War II. While considered the presentable arm of the movement, the MSI had ties to extremists.

Meloni left Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom party in opposition to his proposed support for technocrat Mario Monti in the 2013 election, and founded the Brothers of Italy. The Brotherhood retains the MSI flame symbol in its logo and has presented Mussolini’s descendants as candidates – even though they claim talking about fascism is outdated.

The party argues that its origins in opposing an undemocratically elected leader show that it is in fact an advocate of democracy – the opposite of fascist authoritarianism. The Italian Brotherhood is also the only party to refuse to back successive unelected governments in the last legislature – culminating in its opposition to Draghi’s grand coalition.

Giorgia Meloni quit Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom party in opposition to his proposed support for technocrat Mario Monti in the 2013 election, and founded the Brothers of Italy | Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

Meloni said in an interview last year that there was “no place for those nostalgic for fascism” in his party.

Raffaele Fitto, MEP for the Brothers of Italy, said his colleagues remained in opposition under the Draghi government “because for us the principle is democracy, which the people choose. So when they accuse us of fascism, of extremism, we can only respond with a laugh because our actions and our choices are exactly the opposite.

But there have been controversies. Last year, a Brotherhood MEP was suspended after an undercover documentary showed him discussing illegal funding at meetings with extremists who gave fascist salutes and made racist jokes.

And with the pandemic receding, immigration – the mainstay of right-wing political movements around the world – has once again become a key issue in Italian politics.

Naval blockades

Proposals released after a Brotherhood party conference in May called for the detention of immigrants in designated areas until they prove their asylum claims, a naval blockade and fines for rescue ships from NGO.

Meloni’s ally and likely coalition partner is Matteo Salvini, the radical anti-immigration leader of the League party. While serving as interior minister in a previous coalition, Salvini led a campaign against NGO migrant rescue ships. He was tried for detaining migrants on boats and many of his efforts to challenge NGO operations were struck down by the courts.

But during this election campaign, Salvini has already jumped on the issue of illegal migrants invading a reception center on the island of Lampedusa to make his point to voters.

Even so, there’s reason to think that if they end up leading the next government, the Brotherhood’s wildest plans may never come to fruition. The party’s immigration proposals are likely to conflict with international, maritime and EU law.

In addition, Italy’s democratic institutions and international obligations may help prevent it from pursuing dramatic deviations.

“The narrative that we are fascists is a fairy tale,” Fitto said. “And it’s bad for Italy and its reputation abroad.”

Some academics agree. If Meloni’s right-wing alliance gains power, it would be “the most right-wing government in the history of the Italian republic”, said Giovanni Orsina, professor of political history at Luiss University in Rome. But calling the Brothers in Italy fascists or neo-fascists is a “misrepresentation”, he added. “You might not like Meloni and his proposals. But fascism is the wrong label.

Italy’s international obligations – especially within the EU – leave little room for radicalism, Orsina said. “That’s one of the reasons why a right-wing government is not a disaster, there is little room for manoeuvre.”

ELECTION TO THE NATIONAL PARLIAMENT OF ITALY POLL OF POLLS

For more survey data from across Europe, visit POLITICS Survey of surveys.

Others think the rise of the Brethren could herald an era of right-wing authoritarianism over time. For Mauro Magatti, professor of sociology at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, it will not be because Meloni leads a “fascist” movement, but because she will not be able to keep her promises to the public.

The Brethren in Italy are garnering support from poorly educated voters who are struggling economically, while offering solutions that are unlikely to be feasible, he said. Instead of turning to the center, voters may look for even harder right-wing options in the future.

“If a right-wing government comes to power, Brother of Italy will have to manage the discontent,” Magatti said. “The fact that their policies are very weak [means] this insufficiency could trigger unpredictable results.

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