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Dyer: Italy’s hard right is getting closer to power, but it’s not Mussolini

There are elections in Italy on Sunday, almost exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s “blackshirts” marched on Rome and brought the first fascist dictator to power.

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There are elections in Italy on Sunday, almost exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s “blackshirts” marched on Rome and brought the first fascist dictator to power.

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Giorgia Meloni, the far-right populist politician likely to win this election, rejects any comparison to that horrific past. The party she leads, Brothers of Italy, has some nostalgic neo-fascists, but she likens it to the post-Brexit British Conservative Party or Donald Trump’s rebranded American Republican Party.

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She shares her hostility to the European Union with British Conservatives, her hatred of immigrants, gays and Muslims with American Republicans, and her earthy nationalism with both. She is a Christian militant and indulges in the paranoia of the “Great Replacement”. And like them, she is waging a non-stop culture war.

“There is no middle ground possible,” Meloni said at a rally last June. “Today, the secular left and radical Islam threaten our roots. . . Either say yes or say no. Yes to the natural family, no to LGBT lobbies. Yes to the universality of the Cross, no to Islamist violence. Yes to secure borders, no to mass immigration.

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The stark simplicity of these slogans works just as well with low-income, uneducated Italians as it does with the same type of people in “heartland” America or “red wall” Britain. The goal is to distract them from the fact that their populist heroes really rule in favor of the wealthy (which is why these leaders must be outright liars).

Meloni also lies, but when you compare her to populist peers like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump, she doesn’t look so bad.

Like them, she has no permanent political principles, just cynical techniques for attracting distressed and desperate voters. But she moved to the center to boost her party from 4% of the vote in 2018 to an expected 25% this time around.

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It now claims to support the European Union and NATO. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she avoided the pro-Putin stance that was common on the radical right. As the Italian economy teeters on the brink of recession, it promises a good ride in Brussels.

So not a total disaster. Continued access to the EU’s COVID recovery fund, which has promised Italy 191 billion euros over the next six years, should prevent Meloni from straying too far from the orthodox economy.

The Brothers of Italy will probably be the largest party after this election, but with only 25 to 30% of the votes, Meloni will not be able to govern alone. The problem is the two parties with which it will have to form an alliance, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia! and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, are his party’s rivals.

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Both men will be trying to reclaim the popular support that Brothers of Italy stole from them, so there will be tears before bedtime.

Normally, their chosen tactic would be to undermine Meloni’s party by pushing for tougher immigration policies and bigger disputes with the EU. With Russia’s energy blockade promising tough times for Europe economically this winter, the obvious strategy for far-right parties is to push for a softer line on Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Both men have been Putin fanboys in the past. Now Salvini is softening his admiration for Putin, but he is demanding an end to sanctions against Russia because they allegedly hurt Italy more than Russia.

Meloni cannot afford to play this game, and the expected post-election coalition of far-right parties is unlikely to last long. She’s detoxed enough to be able to lead a coalition with other parties instead, and it just might happen.

Italy’s post-fascist ruling parties are always bad news, but the damage to the European Union and NATO can probably be contained.

Gwynne Dyer is a freelance journalist based in London, England.

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