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.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who left Five-Star in late June to create a new party, also helped bring down the government. He 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.

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