Election in italy: the right is back

Elections will be held in Italy on Sunday. If anyone has a chance of winning a parliamentary majority, it’s the right-wing bloc and the eternal Berlusconi.

Giving Berlusconi a late political spring: Giorgia Meloni, head of the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia party Photo: Yara Nardi

On Sunday, March 4, Italy will elect a new parliament – and until a few months ago, at least the sure loser was certain: the right around Silvio Berlusconi. The outcome of the elections was open, but one thing seemed clear, if the pollsters were to be believed: The Partito Democratico (PD) under Matteo Renzi, which had been in power in Rome until then, would win the race – with the fundamental opposition Movimento5Stelle (M5S – the 5-Star Movement) under its leading candidate Luigi Di Maio .

No way. The right is back and with it the eternal Berlusconi. If anyone has a chance of winning on Sunday, of winning a parliamentary majority and thus the government, or at least of taking first place among the three political camps, it is the right-wing bloc. An 81-year-old with a lifted, tanned face and transplanted hair who looks as if he has just escaped from Madame Tussaud’s waxworks – from Monday on, he may once again have Italy’s fate in his hands.

Berlusconi owes this new political spring to the fact that he has succeeded in forging an electoral alliance with the Lega Nord under Matteo Salvini and the right-wing minor party Fratelli d’Italia (FdI – Brothers of Italy) under Giorgia Meloni, supplemented by a fourth, small, moderate center-right list.

This is fatally reminiscent of 1994, Berlusconi’s first election victory. Then, too, he brought his Forza Italia together with the Lega Nord and with the post-fascists of the Alleanza Nazionale (AN), capturing a majority in parliament. At the time, the alliance was united by populist tones and at the same time quite divided: The ultra-nationalists of AN simply could not with the northern separatists of the Lega; the alliance lasted only a few months.

Fracture lines of an aspired coalition

This time, too, the fault lines in the envisioned coalition are unmistakable, but they have shifted completely. It starts with Berlusconi himself. He was one of the first European populists to celebrate electoral success, with outbursts against the "political vices," the judiciary, even Europe.

Today he presents himself as a "bulwark against populism" and has received a knighthood for this from Manfred Weber – the group chairman of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, to which Forza Italia belongs as well as the CDU/CSU. Weber had therefore rushed to Rome a few days ago.

Stupidly, Berlusconi is running together with two decidedly populist parties. With parties that want to get foreigners out and oppose the EU. The bastion thing is bogus. Rather, it is true that in Italy’s right-wing bloc there are two different populisms facing each other: Berlusconi’s good-mood populism and Salvini’s and Meloni’s bad-mood populism.

Cornucopia of promises

Certainly, Silvio is also good for outbursts against migrants. He has already diagnosed that "500,000 criminal immigrants" are on their way to Italy to clean out the Italians’ refrigerators. But he’s not really interested in the subject, any more than he’s interested in the euro and the EU.

He has been interested since 1994 in captivating Italians with a cornucopia of promises – from free dentures for pensioners to a "flat tax" of 23 percent for everyone to minimum pensions and minimum incomes for all.

Along the way, he hopes, his Forza Italia could become the strongest force in the right-wing alliance. Even if he himself, thanks to his criminal record as a tax fraudster, cannot even run for office this time and cannot become prime minister.

Bad-mood populism

Salvini and Meloni, however, have completely different ideas about the future of the Italian right. Salvini in particular relies on bad-mood populism: Just a few years ago, the Lega Nord preached separatism, much like in Catalonia – under him, however, the accents have shifted radically.

The main enemy is "the foreigners. "Italians first" is his campaign slogan, and it pulls. Salvini wants to "get 500,000 illegal immigrants out immediately" and "take back the cities" for Italians – that’s the sound. It pulls just like the polemic against the euro, "a currency that only benefits Germany." Since its founding, the Lega has never been as strong in polls as it currently is, with 12 to 14 percent.

And Meloni, a Roman of 41 who speaks with a strong dialectal inflection, also makes aggressive propaganda against foreigners with her post-fascist "Brothers of Italy." Both Salvini and Meloni find nothing at all wrong with Berlusconi’s being part of the European party family of the EPP – the Christian Democrats and Conservatives. After all, the two said in unison, that’s where the admirable Viktor Orban is at home. Just last Wednesday, Meloni flew to Budapest to shake Orban’s hand.

Protest vote of the dissatisfied and embittered

Electorally, the division of labor in the alliance functions excellently, especially in the north. There, the Lega picks up the protest vote of the dissatisfied, the embittered, and the Movimento5Stelle is therefore significantly weaker than in central and southern Italy. As a result, according to the calculations of election researchers, the right has the best chance of winning most of the personal constituencies – through which a good third of the seats are allocated – in Lombardy, for example, 31 of the 35 seats, and in Veneto 16 of the 19 seats.

It remains to be seen how this right-wing, this alliance of hostile brothers, will ultimately govern. Berlusconi announced his preferred candidate for prime minister on Thursday: Antonio Tajani, currently president of the European Parliament and formerly an EU commissioner.

Tajani is pro-European; he is supposed to ensure that no unrest breaks out in Brussels, in Berlin, in Paris – and on the financial markets – after a victory for the right. But Tajani stands for the opposite of what Salvini and Meloni preach with their aggressively Euroskeptic course.

The head of the Lega has completely different ideas. He travels the country with the slogan "Salvini Premier. And his primary election goal is to make the Lega the strongest force in the right-wing bloc. This is not entirely out of the question, as some opinion polls put Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at 16 percent, just 2 percent ahead of the Lega. Berlusconi could then hardly say no to a head of government like Salvini. But he can’t say yes either: He knows too well that a Salvini government could plunge the EU, like Italy, into a deep crisis.