A new coalition had just come to power in Italy, forming what was widely labelled the most right-wing government since 1945. Pinuccio Tatarella was one of two deputy prime ministers, in a government uniting his post-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) with the Lega Nord and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. International media expressed alarm at the MSI’s inclusion, and at the first meet-up of European ministers following the vote, Tatarella’s Belgian counterpart refused to shake his hand.
This isn’t today’s news: it happened in 1994. Now, Italy is again set to have a right-wing government built around the same three essential parties, but with their roles and relative sizes changed. Media tycoon Berlusconi first created this electoral coalition and led it through the 2000s. Yet since the collapse of his final government in 2011, the de facto leadership has swapped between the parties. In the election this September 25, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), heir to the MSI, was easily the biggest force: it scored 26%, the Lega 9%, and Forza Italia 8%. This secured a majority of seats for the coalition, and FdI leader Giorgia Meloni is expected to be given a formal mandate to try and create a government as early as this Friday.
Yet, if we want to know what her party is really about—and who her likely team will be—the reference to Tatarella isn’t just a historical curiosity. He was key to breaking this party out of its marginal role, diluting its ties to historical fascism and rebranding it as “conservative.” He contributed first with his support for the 35-year-old Gianfranco Fini to become MSI leader in 1987, and then as a proponent of its transformation into a broader right-wing party called Alleanza Nazionale in 1994–95.
One member of his circle, which supported close ties with Berlusconi at the turn of the millennium, was Ignazio La Russa. A veteran of the Milan neofascist scene of the 1970s, he was Defence Minister in the last Berlusconi government in 2008–11 and was FdI party president upon its foundation in late 2012. A close Meloni ally central to its strategic decisions, the 75-year-old was appointed president of the Senate—the second-ranking institutional role in the Italian Republic—last Thursday.
His journey illustrates the chameleonic normalization of Italian postfascism. While accepting the constitutional process and Italy’s international position in the EU and NATO, La Russa maintains a strong identitarian link to the MSI’s past, for instance in his tributes to its historic martyrs and even to Italians who died fighting for the Nazi-collaborationist Salò Republic. Recently footage re-circulated of the busts of Mussolini and photos of fascist colonialism in La Russa’s home; his brother, the security commissioner in the Lombardy region, was also recently shown fascist-saluting at a funeral.
Tatarella died in 1999, and during a series of cases of party infighting within Alleanza Nazionale in the mid-to-late 2000s, La Russa’s relations with the reforming leader Fini soured. It eventually merged with Berlusconi’s party, but the tycoon then almost immediately moved to expel Fini, and La Russa sided with Berlusconi. Yet after the collapse of the last right-wing government, in 2012 La Russa split away together with Meloni to form FdI.
FdI’s other main founder was Guido Crosetto, since 2001 a Forza Italia MP and one of few leaders not from the MSI tradition. During the sovereign debt crisis, Crosetto became increasingly critical of European budget constraints and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti’s supine response. At the end of 2012, he joined Meloni to form FdI. Since then, his direct involvement in frontline politics has varied; he often appears in TV discussions as a surrogate, though he is known to be a close Meloni advisor. In his role as president of the aerospace, defense, and security businesses association AIAD, part of employers’ confederation Confindustria, he is also a linkman between the party and business.
Upon its creation, FdI asserted its continuity with the MSI, adopting its logo and fending off legal challenges from other claimants. Meloni damned Fini for having “destroyed the tradition of the right” and becoming a “mascot for high finance and freemasons.” Compared to Fini, the vision of change promoted by Tatarella is less divisive within FdI: he initiated the MSI’s move toward a broader “conservative” identity but did not liquidate its tradition outright in the manner of Fini. FdI thus maintains a contradictory relationship with the “reform” process at the end of the millennium. Recently, the right-wing daily Libero warned against a Fini-style dissolution of the party identity.
Meloni has pointed to the difference between “postfascist” leaders — those had lived through the Cold War and postwar political violence and led the formation of Alleanza Nazionale — and the “rebel tribe” like herself who joined the party this same period 1990s. FdI upholds some obviously fascist ideas and icons, notably in its evocation of postwar MSI leader Giorgio Almirante. Yet FdI integrates this into a postmodern mix of influences. It speaks of liberal ideas like “human rights” but also launches conspiracy-theorist attacks on “globalists” and “LGBT lobbies.” It calls itself non-racist but also promotes “great replacement theory” and warns of the “extinction of Italians.” It condemns Fascist antisemitism but demonizes George Soros and publicly ruminates on whether Mussolini did good things, too.
Hence, even the “dilution” of the neofascist tradition does not mean its disappearance. Two of Meloni’s closest confidants are her sister, Arianna, and brother-in-law Francesco Lollobrigida, head of the FdI parliamentary group. In 2012, Lollobrigida took part in the unveiling of a mausoleum to Rodolfo Graziani, a war criminal who ordered the use of mustard gas in the invasion of Ethiopia and was defense minister for the Nazi-collaborationist Salò Republic. Party figures insisted that Graziani, honorary president of MSI after his release from jail, was just a soldier, and in 2020 a court ruled that the mausoleum did not represent “fascist apologism.” Lollobrigida made a much less patently fascistic, but still symbolically provocative, intervention the day after the September 25 election when he said the Constitution written by the Resistance parties was “great, but could do with updating,” notably by replacing a parliament-centered system with a presidentialist one.
Another key figure from the early 1990s generation of MSI recruits is Carlo Fidanza who has been the party’s leader in the European Parliament since 2019. Last year he had to “self-suspend” from this role after a documentary illustrated his ties with a leading Milan neofascist, with a litany of fascist-saluting, saying “Heil Hitler,” making an antisemitic joke, and allegedly proposing that the undercover reporter make an illicit campaign donation. Meloni’s party damned this “muckracking;” she insisted that Fidanza should be “educated, rather than chased out” of the party. Despite his “self-suspension” in October 2021, he continued to represent the party in both the European Parliament and international forums, paying a visit to Miami the following month during which he met Florida’s deputy governor Jeanette Nuñez, and also attending a June 2022 rally at which Meloni addressed the Spanish far-right party Vox.
The reconvention of Italy’s parliaments last Thursday began the formal process of government formation. While this showed some of the tensions in the three main right-wing parties, Meloni is now set to be handed a mandate to form a government, and looks near-certain be able to put one together.
The process of choosing ministers has begun already, with various designs for what Italians call a totoministri: the make-up of the cabinet. The choicecenters on two key problems: (i) the balance between its three parties and (ii) Fratelli d’Italia’s search for “high profile institutional figures” to represent her own party, not least given the mediocrity of its leadership team. While Meloni was Youth Minister in 2008-11, and La Russa Defense Minister, in general her team lacks heavyweights. More than that, it seeks to quell concerns from business leaders and international allies, especially given its insistence that it will not upset EU post-pandemic recovery plans.
One likely FdI appointee is Adolfo Urso, a former MSI man and Tatarella ally who currently heads parliament’s secret services commission. He visited Washington in September to reassure the US ally about Meloni’s plans, and could take the Defense role. Another contender for that ministry is Crosetto, FdI’s key link with business, who has also been touted for a top role such as Minister of Development. At the end of April, he was key to FdI’s “programmatic conference” in Milan, showcasing its credentials as a “productivist,” pro-growth party. Seeking to reach a wider right-wing electorate, the conference featured various allies from outside the MSI tradition, notably former magistrate Carlo Nordio, Berlusconi-era finance minister Tremonti, and former Senate president Marcello Pera. All three were elected as FdI candidates on September 25. Another speaker at the conference was sociologist Luca Ricolfi, today also an outside pick for a ministerial role. One controversial possible FdI choice is Daniela Santanchè, a beach club owner prone to outlandish TV interventions, and who called herself “proud to be a fascist” as recently as 2008. She is touted for Tourism Minister. Raffaele Fitto, a former Christian Democrat with a long career in Brussels, who joined FdI in 2019, could be Minister of European Affairs.
Lega leader Matteo Salvini has laid his claim to be Interior Minister, hoping to resume the anti-immigration grandstanding he pursued in this role in 2018–2019. Lorenzo Fontana, a leader of the Lega from Verona known for his anti-abortionist activism and outspoken nativism, was elected president of the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, last Friday. Other Lega leaders seem more interested in ministries able to disburse funds. There is widespread speculation that the Lega’s Giancarlo Giorgetti, who was Development Minister in Mario Draghi’s cross-party administration, could become Finance Minister, after Meloni’s first choice, former Bank of Italy chief Fabio Panetta, declined. From Meloni’s perspective, this has the merit of handing the Lega a top ministry, valued by its powerful regional governors, but not the one most conducive to Salvini’s own visibility and influence. The rivalry between the two parties will surely have a major effect on the government’s longevity.
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is the less obviously destabilizing force, but there have also been tensions related to his efforts to push his close ally Licia Ronzulli as health minister. In particular, most Forza Italia senators refused to join their right-wing allies in voting La Russa as president of the Senate, as might have been expected in the formation of a new coalition, on the grounds that Meloni has put up too many “vetoes” to Berlusconi’s own picks. Other key players from Forza Italia are Antonio Tajani, a possible foreign minister, and former Senate president Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, a lawyer. Tajani’s candidacy came under pressure this week after the leaking of recordings in which Silvio Berlusconi slammed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and blamed Ukraine for provoking the war with Russia.
We cannot know long this government can last, with the severe headwinds of recession and war in Ukraine likely to provoke many unpleasant surprises. But we also face a different world to the one when EU ministers could even contemplate shunning a postfascist representative like Tatarella. Through three decades the postfascist tradition has become a normal part of the mainstream landscape, with antifascist attempts to raise the alarm over its racism, conspiracy theorizing and ties to more militant circles increasingly unable to trouble the wider right-wing electorate. And while already in 1994 the barriers between center-right and far right were collapsing in Italy, this phenomenon no longer seems peculiarly Italian.
Photo: “On. Giorgia Meloni, Presidente del Gruppo Parlamentare “Fratelli d’Italia” della Camera dei Deputati, On. Ignazio La Russa, Presidente di “Fratelli d’Italia” e il coordinatore nazionale Guido Crosetto,” by Quirinale.it.