Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica

Following the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on January 26, Italy is now heading toward a technical government led by former European Central Bank (ECB) Governor Mario Draghi. Most political forces favored a government reshuffle to preserve the state institutions’ operations related to the vaccination campaign and post-pandemic economic recovery. Instead, the two nationalist parties—the League and Brothers of Italy—insisted on calling early elections, dissociating themselves from the mainstream right Forza Italia, headed by the evergreen Silvio Berlusconi. As a matter of fact, the nationalists enjoy strong support in the polls, with the League at 23.3% support and Brothers of Italy at 15.9%. With the situation evolving rapidly, the League has chosen a more cooperative approach, while Brothers of Italy has taken a harder line and is currently the only party openly opposing Draghi’s government. 

The Strategy of the Right 

When Berlusconi was barred from office for tax fraud in 2013, the Italian right lost its main leader. Since then, it has gradually been taken over by more nationalist forces with more pronounced anti-immigration views and sovereigntist foreign policy positions, such as the League and Brothers of Italy. The latter has particularly expanded its base during the pandemic. 

In the last national elections, held in 2018, the League formed a government with the Five Star Movement, headed by PM Conte, while Forza Italia and Brothers of Italy were in opposition. Since the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, stepped down in August 2019, the LEAGUE joined Forza Italia and Brothers of Italy in the ranks of the opposition. The League, Brothers of Italy, and Forza Italia have always worked as a coalition, running together for local elections; as a result, they currently control 14 of 20 Italian regions. 

Yet the current crisis has seen these parties adopt different strategies. Forza Italia, which holds pro-EU stances and counts among its members former president of the EU parliament Antonio Tajani, strongly supported Mario Draghi. The League first called for elections but then decided to accept Draghi’s nomination and try to get its fair share in the government that the former ECB governor is about to form. This is a hazardous yet winning strategy: if Draghi agrees to admit the League’s traditionally anti-immigration/anti-EU party into his ranks, Salvini will have the opportunity to advance his political objectives within a new government coalition. If not, Salvini can claim to have been excluded, rejoin the opposition, and argue against the “technocrats.” 

As more and more political forces become open to a government headed by Draghi, the only party not singing from the same hymn sheet is Brothers of Italy, which refuses to endorse Draghi and work with parties it has always opposed, such as the Center Left Democratic Party and Five Star Movement. 

The Strategy of Brothers of Italy 

Brothers of Italy may abstain during the confidence vote scheduled for the new government, but its narrative will still be focused on calling for new elections. Being in opposition is undoubtedly convenient: Brothers of Italy will avoid the responsibility of making tough political and economic decisions and will not participate in the decision about whether to take funding from the European Stability Mechanism, a tool that carries political stigma, as it was used during the 2008-9 financial crisis and was made available on the condition of implementing austerity measures. 

In the meantime, Brothers of Italy has gained momentum in the country’s southern regions and expanded its outreach to young people. While the League revolves around its leader, Salvini, and is progressively taking over the electorate of the traditional right, Brothers of Italy is less dependent on its leader, Giorgia Meloni, and is not staunchly opposed to expanding welfare benefits (the party often advocates for plans that would support families and increase the birth rate). 

Brothers of Italy is also heir to a long tradition of youth subculture across the peninsula that cultivate national and identity initiatives. In its local and youth activities over the past few years, Brothers of Italy has solidified links with the neofascist organization CasaPound, which has an even longer history of youth engagement and sometimes resorts to violence against its leftist counterparts. While these ties are not institutionalized, the opinions of an increasing number of Brothers of Italy representatives and affiliated intellectuals continue to appear in CasaPound magazines and publications released by the publisher Altafonte. 

Brothers of Italy has significant scope for spreading its propaganda. It can play the sovereigntist/anti-European card and say that the funds obtained through the European Recovery Fund are insufficient; it can blame Draghi for being a technocrat without a political base and leverage people’s frustration at economic stagnation and democratic participation; and it can continue cultivating fear of immigration and taking undemocratic stances. For example, following the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, Brothers of Italy rejected a resolution from the European parliament condemning the storming and wishing for a peaceful transfer of power (the League abstained). Meloni, in particular, refrained from congratulating Joe Biden for his electoral victory until after the U.S. Supreme Court formally announced the results of the election.

The next few months will probably see more of the same. Brothers of Italy’s strategy of consistency may pay dividends in the future, most likely at the expense of the League and Forza Italia. 

Giovanna De Maio

Giovanna De Maio

Giovanna De Maio is a visiting fellow at George Washington University, and a nonresident fellow and former visiting fellow at the Center for the United States and Europe (CUSE) at the Brookings Institution. She analyzes security aspects of transatlantic relations, with a specific focus on Europe's relations with great powers, and on Italian foreing policy. Prior to joining Brookings, she held positions as tran-Atlantic post-doctoral fellow at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) in Paris and at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Washington, DC. where she focused on West-Russia relations. De Maio holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Naples, L’Orientale, with a thesis on the repercussions of the Ukraine crisis on Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.