COMMENT: Will an Italian right-wing victory in upcoming elections be another win for Putin in Europe?

COMMENT: Will an Italian right-wing victory in upcoming elections be another win for Putin in Europe?
Giorgia Meloni, Fratelli d’Italia’s leader, the most likely to become Italy’s next Prime Minister and her supporters are largely pro-Russia / Wiki Commons, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0
By Marco Cacciati in Berlin August 4, 2022

On July 21, the Italian government headed by Mario Draghi collapsed, and elections were promptly called for September 25. The broad and unusual national unity coalition made up of parties ranging from the left-wing Sinistra Italiana to the far-right Lega, including the populist catch-all party M5S suddenly fell apart.

According to the most recent polls, the centre-right coalition is poised to win the next electoral round by a large margin – and that could be good news for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There is little doubt that the Kremlin had good reasons to celebrate the demise of one of the most hawkish governments in Europe towards Russia. Some even speculate that Moscow might have played a role in Draghi’s fall, but no actual proof of that has emerged so far.

The staunchly pro-EU PM, former president of the ECB and internationally respected figure Draghi has been sailing through rough seas for quite some time.

Italy’s unconditional support for Ukraine has been, more or less directly, the casus belli leading up to Draghi’s resignation.

Dissent had been brewing in recent months: European sanctions against Russia were not only implemented, but actively encouraged by Draghi. Export limitations hit many Italian businesses, already in a tough spot because of the pandemic, particularly hard. Amongst the major victims was reportedly the “Made in Italy” luxury design goods sector as expensive handbags, shoes and apparel have all been included in the Russia export bans.

The sanctions come at an especially bad time for Italy. A recession is looming and the forecasts for winter are all but rosy: Italy is the second most exposed country to the war among the major EU economies after Germany, due to its heavy reliance on Russian gas imports.

These gloomy prospects led Draghi to propose an “aid package” in June to help families face a challenging winter. But nothing comes for free, and the measure would have entailed drastic cuts to welfare benefits known as “guaranteed minimum income”.

These measures were introduced and vigorously defended by the anti-establishment Italian Five Star Movement (M5S), which had also recently been at odds with Draghi over the decision to supply weapons to Ukraine. This last row eventually led the populist party to pull the plug, along with the right-wing parties supporting the government, in turn galvanised by the polls and by the prospect of fresh elections.

The centre-right alliance set to win the elections is actually very much leaning on the right, and consists of three parties: the right-wing nationalist “Fratelli d’Italia” headed by Giorgia Meloni, the right-wing Eurosceptic “Lega”, presided by Matteo Salvini and the Christian-conservative “Forza Italia” led by the 85-year old billionaire Silvio Berlusconi.

Forza Italia has recently experienced an exodus of its most liberal MPs, unhappy with the right turn taken by the party. This new direction is strongly at odds with the party’s wing at the European Parliament, associated with the moderate EPP. Berlusconi’s bromance with Putin is well-reported and runs deep, dating back to the first decade of the century when the two used to spend idyllic summer days at Berlusconi’s “Villa Certosa”, in Sardinia. Even though the media mogul quietly condemned the Russian invasion, he still maintains contacts with the Russian Embassy in Rome. Berlusconi’s close friendship with Putin is somewhat comparable to Gerard Schroeder’s. Unlike his disgraced German counterpart, though, the “Cavaliere” hasn’t quite been shamed for it.

Matteo Salvini, Lega’s leader, is a notorious fan of Vladimir Putin, whose portrait used to be standing in his living room, amongst religious icons.

Salvini has a clear reputation when it comes to Russia: besides taking selfies wearing t-shirts with Putin’s face in Parliament – a fact that the Polish mayor reminded him of in a comical stunt in 2014 he advocated against the watered-down sanctions the EU imposed on Russia following Crimea’s annexation. He even visited the Russian Duma with great fanfare, greeted by the Russian MPs. Subsequently, along with other prominent European right-wing and Eurosceptic parties, he signed a co-operation agreement with Putin’s “United Russia”, from which rubles were ready to flow in return for non-better-defined amicable policies.

This led the Italian prosecutors to start an investigation into Salvini’s associate Gianluca Savoini, who had been busy in Moscow officially “networking to support Italian entrepreneurs”. It later emerged he was the intermediary between a deal between Salvini and United Russia.

Even though Salvini eventually condemned Putin’s invasion, as recently as June he boasted of his good relations with the Russian leadership and attempted to organise a trip to Moscow, with the trumpeted aim of brokering a peace deal.

The popularity of the right-wing in Italy has been growing in recent years, due to a perceived high influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East and overall social and economic unrest, aggravated by the pandemic. While Lega is in decline even though still holding around 14% of votes, Fratelli d’Italia, a party with solid roots in the MSI (a post-fascist, minoritarian party from the past century), quadrupled its votes between 2018 and 2022 and is today nearing 25%, ranking as the first party in the country.

This makes Giorgia Meloni, Fratelli d’Italia’s leader, the most likely to become Italy’s next prime minister, as per the Italian custom that grants the position to the leader of the party obtaining the most votes within the winning coalition.

Meloni is a charismatic woman akin to a young Marine Le Pen, but free of such an uncomfortable legacy. “Donna, Madre e Cristiana” (woman, mother and Christian): that’s how she publicly describes herself, making clear her intentions to embody a new respectable and conservative right, likeable by the masses and free (at least in words) from the heavy burdens of fascism and corruption.

Unfortunately, Fratelli d’Italia’s ties with fascism seem to be indissoluble, as reported last year by an undercover investigation by Fanpage. The report discovered strong links between prominent party figures with far-right and neo-Nazi fringes in Milan.

Meloni’s party was the only one in Parliament to refuse support to Draghi’s unity government, claiming “unacceptable” interference from Brussels and the urgent need to hold new elections. Eventually, her consistent strategy seems to have paid off, owing to the party’s popularity as the “only real opposition”.

On the international stage, Meloni stands out as a close friend of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and of the Polish right-wing Law and Justice Party, with whom she shares seats at the European Parliament within the centre-right European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR). She was also involved with US politician Steve Bannon in the founding of the European branch of “The Movement”, the populist think-tank established by ex-US president Donald Trump’s former advisor; the project eventually sank before taking any concrete action on European soil.

In contrast to her allies, Meloni’s stance on Russia appears to be more balanced. Despite hailing Russia in her 2021 autobiography as the “last defender of Christian values in Europe”, she strongly condemned the Russian invasion, backed the Ukrainian resistance, and even voted with the government in support of sending military aid to the invaded country.

Meloni’s voters, though, widely seem to have a different stance on Russia, especially when faced with soaring gas prices and sanctions allegedly harming Italy’s economy. Comments such as “we should think of Italy first” or “we don’t want to freeze our ass off because of Ukraine” are a frequent occurrence on her popular social media pages.

Many of her electors shape their opinions by drawing on blogs and social media channels run by right-wing and xenophobic commentators. These figures further gained popularity during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by spreading disinformation on vaccines and criticising the government’s restrictions.

Indeed, the romantic idea of Putin as a strong leader, deeply loved by his people and a valiant defender of traditional Christian values, still appeals to many on the right in Italy like in many other countries across the globe.

Meloni now repeats, as in a mantra, that come what may Italy will keep standing with Ukraine alongside the EU and Nato, in a seemingly desperate bid to soothe economic and political actors abroad.

We could probably grant her the benefit of the doubt, speaking of intentions. But can we really be sure of what will come next, in light of the tough winter ahead, the questionable track record of her allies and her supporters’ views on Russia?