Italy’s government collapsed last week, abandoned in a non-confidence vote by three populist parties in Parliament. The country will hold early elections on September 25, and polls show three parties on the far right likely winning enough votes to form the next governing coalition. Italy’s most popular party now is the fiercely nationalist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a direct descendant of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Members of Fratelli have praised the fascist era, while the party calls for loosened ties with the European Union and zero-tolerance of immigration. The other two right-wing populists are Lega (League), which also staunchly opposes immigration and supports closer ties with Russia, and Forza Italia (Forward Italy), the party of the former longtime prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. In the 1990s, Berlusconi—who owned Italy’s most popular television stations and was Italy’s richest man—articulated many defining features of the populism that’s brought leaders to power in recent years in the United States, Hungary, Brazil, and the Philippines. But Berlusconi was forced to resign in 2011 as Italy’s economy fell into recession and public debt climbed to dangerous levels. All this has taken place against the backdrop of Italy’s historical experience of fascism, including the alliance with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis that led the country to ruin in World War II. So why do so many Italians now support these right-wing parties?

Dario Cristiani is a senior fellow working on Italian foreign policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, based in Washington, D.C. For centuries, Cristiani says, many Italians have adhered to conservative views, often from their Catholic faith. In recent years, that conservatism has been increasingly converted by right-wing populists into support for positions against immigration and favoring Italian nationalism—as right-wing parties have effectively combined appeals both to social concerns about Italian identity and economic concerns about jobs. Among them, Fratelli d’Italia has won the advantage, ascending above Lega and Forza Italia, by refusing to join a coalition government—including leftist and centrist parties—that many conservative voters saw as fundamentally at odds with their principles. Meanwhile, many Italians, especially the young, don’t have qualms about supporting the party because they just don’t know its history—or the history of their country’s fascist period—at all. But, Cristiani says, the positions of a government potentially led by the Fratelli d’Italia remain unclear. It seems particularly certain that such a government would clamp down on immigration at home—but particularly uncertain how it would deal with the country’s most important issues abroad, not least in its relations with the European Union or its stance on the war in Ukraine.

Michael Bluhm: Why did populist parties in Italy’s governing coalition sink their own government?

Dario Cristiani: The Five-Star Movement, a left-wing populist party that won the 2018 national elections, also chose not to support its own government in a vote of confidence. Five-Star is desperate to find a way out of its internal crisis. In local elections in early June, it failed to win 2 or 3 percent in some places. This was a wake-up call.

Since then, the party’s leader, Giuseppe Conte, has tried to differentiate himself from Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the government, because Draghi—as the former head of the European Central Bank—was a symbol of the international technocracy that the party wanted to fight when it rose to prominence 10 years ago. Conte was trying to show voters that he was inside the government but different from it: We are the anti-establishment political movement that you voted for 10 years ago, and we understand the discontent in the Italian population.

Lega is another party that lost a lot of its support because they’ve been in a coalition with the center-left Democratic Party in support of Draghi. Lega Leader Matteo Salvini was looking for a way to start from scratch and show that he’s ready again to promote the things that made him popular five years ago.

In the upcoming elections, he can create a bloc with Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia. According to the polls and given the current electoral system, they have no real competitors, especially if the Democratic Party can’t create an alliance with any other groups—especially, in turn, with the Five-Star Movement.

Bluhm: Why is Fratelli d’Italia so popular now?

Cristiani: Fratelli appeals to voters for one simple reason: It was the only major party opposed to Draghi.

Italy’s right-wing parties have undergone an interesting dynamic during the past 10 years. Lega used to be called the Lega Nord, or Northern League. It was based in the north of Italy, as it sounds, and had no connections with the South. They were first in favor of secession by the North, and then they were for an autonomous North within the Italian state.

Salvini managed to transform this party into a national party during this time by getting the votes of right-wing voters who did not have a party to represent them after Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia cannibalized a party called the National Alliance, which had represented the post-fascist groups.

Salvini took Lega from about 5 percent nationally to 17 percent. He did so by transforming the party into a nationalist party like that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He took not only the voters but also some of the politicians in the South who had no party after the collapse of the National Alliance.

When Fratelli d’Italia was born in 2012, it won about 3 or 4 percent of the vote. Fratelli managed to get some new voters, but they are also simply recovering some of the former National Alliance voters who had supported the League.

In many respects, Fratelli is giving the answers a lot of Italians want to hear in the current crisis: more protection of the borders, putting Italians first, fighting against moral decadence and new notions about gender.

Bluhm: You mention that some voters switched to Fratelli d’Italia because they were in the opposition. Globally, voters often move away from parties that have been in power for years. But in Italy, voters could have moved to many other opposition parties that didn’t descend from Mussolini’s Fascists. What is Fratelli offering that voters find attractive?

Cristiani: You’re right that there were other options for those who didn’t support Draghi. But in many cases, these other parties can barely get 3 percent of the vote, so they have no chance of making it into Parliament.

As for Fratelli d’Italia, do not underestimate the bandwagon mentality in Italy. Over the last two years, there’s been a narrative that Fratelli was the party on the rise. I don’t want to say that lots of non-fascist people are now turning to neofascism because of the party’s popularity, but they see this party as the winner of the next Italian elections, so they get interested.

Also, when a party is in the opposition, it can take positions and say things without having to back them up. In many respects, Fratelli is giving the answers a lot of Italians want to hear in the current crisis: more protection of the borders, putting Italians first, fighting against moral decadence and new notions about gender. Much of the Italian electorate is conservative and Catholic, so these catchphrases and key words are readily popular.

Fratelli’s poll numbers are now 20 to 22 percent. Historically, a significant portion of the Italian population has always supported right-wing parties. Five years ago, they favored Lega. But Lega made an alliance with the Five-Star Movement, which wasn’t what Lega’s voters wanted. The League then entered an alliance with the Democratic Party and Draghi, which also wasn’t something they wanted Lega and Salvini to do—so these people are now looking at Fratelli and their leader, Giorgia Meloni.

Bluhm: In other European countries, concerns about identity seem to drive a lot of support for populist parties—as did the wave of Muslim and African immigration in 2015. But after the Great Recession, economic worries started to account for more of that support—at least among some populist parties, such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. In Italy, how do identity and material concerns respectively play into the support for populism?

Cristiani: The Five-Star Movement initially was a little like Spain’s Podemos. They captured the discontent from the Great Recession and the eurozone crisis of 2010, when some European countries couldn’t repay or refinance their public debts.

Right-wing populism in Italy is based on an old-fashioned idea: We protect Italian identity. We protect Italian wealth. By closing borders, we don’t allow people to enter. We want to support jobs for Italians. It’s the same mentality behind support for Brexit or Donald Trump’s idea of bringing back jobs to the United States.

Fratelli D’Italia—like Lega before them—have been able to establish themselves as the most popular parties in industrial areas and in the suburbs of big cities like Milan and Rome, where many migrants live. There are frictions between migrants and the Italian population in these areas. Some Italians are afraid that migrants will take away jobs because they accept lower pay, so these Italians vote for parties that promise them this won’t happen.

Right-wing populism in Italy is based on an old-fashioned idea: We protect Italian identity. We protect Italian wealth. By closing borders, we don’t allow people to enter. We want to support jobs for Italians. It’s the same mentality behind support for Brexit or Donald Trump’s idea of bringing back jobs to the United States.

Bluhm: In 2018, the Five-Star Movement received the most votes in the elections. Yet today, their popularity has declined steeply, as you mention. Why have voters moved away from them?

Cristiani: Five-Star became exactly what their voters didn’t want them to become. They first made it into Parliament in 2013, and they were the main opposition to the various government coalitions led by the Democratic Party until 2018. Five-Star kept growing through support from disfranchised Italians, people who saw the Democratic Party as the party of power—and a party that would fight until the bitter end just to stay in power.

In 2018, Five-Star ran on the platform that they’d never enter an alliance with any other party, because Five-Star was different. Since 2018, they have entered alliances with Lega, the Democratic Party, and other groups representing leftist parties in the Parliament. When they joined the Draghi government, they entered an alliance with Forza Italia.

They failed to respect every promise they made. I could spend hours giving examples of all the positions they’ve changed—basically on everything. The perception among their former voters is that they did so to preserve their privileges, their positions, and their salaries.

Bluhm: In his new book The Revenge of Power, The Signal contributor Moises Naim writes that the forerunner of the global wave of populists was former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose party Forza Italia is still popular today. How similar are the appeals of today’s Italian populists to Berlusconi’s in the 1990s?

Cristiani: Berlusconi really is the father of today’s populism. Over the past few years, there has been an attempt to re-evaluate him as a “moderate” politician. But he was the first to create the conditions for a mainstream alliance with Italy’s post-fascist parties—and for the hyper-personalized politics of a permanent campaign. In 2011, the country was on the brink of economic collapse because of Berlusconi’s government; there’s always a reality check for politicians who live on impossible promises.

Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini are somewhat different from Berlusconi. Berlusconi was selling an idea of Italy that he created, partly through his TV channels. He also popularized the image of the successful, self-made man in Italy; he was selling the idea that, because he was a successful businessman, his reforms would make the Italian economy successful. But the promises he’s making now, in the electoral campaign they just started, are exactly the same promises he was making 30 years ago.

Meloni doesn’t focus primarily on the economy. She has more of a multi-dimensional approach that says, I want to protect your well-being, your identity, and the order of society. You need a party like mine that believes in Catholic values and tradition.

Because of Italy’s geographic position, Italians have always had connections with the people of Europe and the Mediterranean. But since the global economic crisis, there’s been a rise in the demand for protection—and there’s also been a rise in racism. The countryside of the North has historically been hostile to migrants, but now I hear people in Naples or Sicily speaking out against migrants.

Some Italians are afraid that migrants will take away jobs because they accept lower pay, so these Italians vote for parties that promise them this won’t happen.

When someone from Sicily or Naples is against migrants coming from the Middle East or North Africa, it goes against their own history. Sicily is a perfect example of a Mediterranean culture made up of European, Arabic, and African elements.

Giorgia Meloni and her party aren’t responsible for this mentality. They’re a symptom of its emergence. The increase in their support from 4 percent to 20 percent is the result of this mentality and this culture, which previously fueled the rise of Lega.

Bluhm: If a right-wing government of Fratelli d’Italia, Lega, and Forza Italia comes to power after the September 25 elections, what would you anticipate as being the more consequential policies of the resulting government?

Cristiani: To answer this question, we’ll need to see the division of votes among these parties. We won’t be able to understand the features of a potential right-wing government without understanding the internal balances of power inside the coalition.

To start, they’ll need to strike a balance between showing voters that they’re serious and consistent about their electoral promises—but without doing too many things that trigger concerns among international partners. Meloni understands this. The Italian role in the trans-Atlantic community and the issue area of foreign policy generally are crucial elements here.

Bluhm: Italy has been one of the strongest supporters of Ukraine since Russia invaded in late February. But right-wing parties in Italy haven’t been so vocal in backing Kyiv. How might a potential right-wing government change Italy’s position on the war or toward Putin?

Cristiani: There are a few contradictions here. Meloni was very clear that Fratelli d’Italia was supportive of Ukraine. Their votes in Parliament show it.

The problem is that a significant number of Fratelli d’Italia voters see the war differently. Putin has historically been one of the global leaders most popular among right-wing voters. In general, Italian public opinion is more sympathetic to Russia than it is in other European countries, so this isn’t limited to Fratelli d’Italia voters.

So, Meloni was very vocal in supporting Ukraine, but Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi are a little different. At the end of May, Berlusconi was still saying that Ukraine should give up part of its territory and should give in to Russian demands. Salvini has always had some sympathies for Russia, but there’s a significant bloc of tans-Atlantic supporters within Lega that’s managed to counterbalance him.

A future right-wing government could possibly shift the country’s position toward Russia. If Meloni is the prime minister or a major minister, she’d be extremely careful about shifting the course of Italian foreign policy.

We also need to see whether the war in Ukraine and its impact on energy prices and security are crucial issues that determine voter preferences.

A right-wing government would try not to change course too openly, but they might try to reduce military support for Ukraine, work with Russia on Libya or Syria, or be a bit softer on sanctions. It wouldn’t be like Hungary’s open support for Russia, but still would be a different course from Draghi’s extremely Euro-Atlanticist, pro-Ukrainian approach.

Meloni doesn’t focus primarily on the economy. She has more of a multi-dimensional approach that says, I want to protect your well-being, your identity, and the order of society. You need a party like mine that believes in Catholic values and tradition.

Bluhm: What would a far-right government mean for the Italian economy and state finances?

Cristiani: The economic approach of the next government will depend on the internal balance of power among the parties. Some observers in Italy have suggested that a right-wing government might have technocrats running the most important ministries.

Markets perceive Draghi as a guarantee of stability and responsibility. They knew that he’d have met all the deadlines of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan—the EU pandemic-recovery program offering hundreds of billions of euros in grants and loans for green energy, sustainable growth, and other EU priorities. Markets also knew that Draghi would work to change some of the most troubled parts of the Italian economy.

Instead, the fact that the Italian Parliament managed to kill his government was a signal to the markets that Italy is impossible to reform, even for someone like Draghi. This is why the markets have gotten a little nervous.

If a person like Draghi falls as prime minister because of shallow political games—because a couple of parties sacrificed Italian national interests for narrow electoral needs—it’s clear that global markets will not respond positively.

That said, there are people in the right-wing coalition who understand how crucial it is for Italy not to waste the opportunity created by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and other EU funds. It goes beyond Italy; that plan was the response of the European Union to the pandemic. It recognizes how connected Europe’s economies are. If one of the links in the chain collapses, then the entire European economy will collapse. The formula to finance this plan reflects the structural, systemic needs the European Union has. I don’t think these people are so irresponsible as to waste the opportunity.

Bluhm: Why is fascism popular in Italy, after the country’s experiences with Mussolini?

Cristiani: You might be surprised at how some old people in Italy describe the Mussolini period today. Some live with myths about those years as the best time in their lives. And you might be surprised at how there’s been a shift in Italians’ understanding of their history—an emergence of narratives saying, Back then, at least things were in order; and we were respected.

Lots of Italians, especially in their 20s, have a very poor knowledge of this history. Many of them are not supportive of the ideology or the period; they simply don’t know about it. They see this new party run by a younger politician, and they think, She will give us more jobs. She will give us more protection.

There’s a more general cultural problem, which is the same one that was behind the rise of the Five-Star Movement and Berlusconi earlier. Many Italian voters believe fake news or things that are just not true; they were overly influenced by television when Berlusconi was leading Italy and owned its biggest TV stations.

This general problem is linked to the quality of primary education. When you go on TV and explain complicated things, people say, You shouldn’t talk like this. Try to keep it simple. Many Italians, especially those in their 20s or 30s, can’t make the connection between Fratelli D’Italia and the past. They have no real perception of what the Mussolini period was, and they don’t really understand the historical implications.