Italy’s new government won’t be ‘fascist’, but it will face major challenges

On 25 September, Italy went to the polls and elected a record number of far-right members of parliament. As a result, the leader of the largest party in the winning coalition, Giorgia Meloni, is expected to form a government later this month. If that happens, it will be a first for two reasons: the country will have its first far-right government since the end of World War II and its first government led by a woman.

Since these unusual characteristics apply to a G7 nation with the world’s eighth-largest economy—right in the middle of an international crisis—observers are understandably worried. While doubts abound, I’ll focus on two key aspects: the so-called risk of fascism and the foreign-policy challenges of Rome’s new government.

A far-right government, not a fascist one

Dozens of catchy headlines suggest that Rome may soon have its first ‘fascist government’ since the dark days of Benito Mussolini. Sure, Meloni herself praised the country’s dictator multiple times in her younger days. Several high-profile members of Meloni’s party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), share a common past among the ranks of post-fascist organisations, and indeed the party itself rose from the ashes of a former post-fascist party, whose controversial symbol (a tricolour flame) it still bears today.

However, cries of fascism are thoroughly exaggerated, due to a number of internal and external factors.

Domestically, Meloni’s far-right coalition rests on tenuous ground. The three key parties have different views on a number of vital issues (including sanctions against Russia, which Meloni supports, unlike the two other coalition parties), and there would be no parliamentary majority if any of the three left the government.

On top of that, keeping the coalition’s electoral promises would be far too costly, and the necessity to ditch many of the proposed reforms would likely impair governmental stability, which, after all, has never been a feature of Italian politics (the country has had 67 governments in the past 76 years).

That said, Italy has a number of checks and balances that would avert any serious risk to democracy. The president of the republic acts as a guarantor of the constitution and has significant powers to that end; the Constitutional Court oversees the admissibility of all laws; and the political opposition and civil society as a whole continue to remain vigilant.

But there are many external constraints as well, since Rome has countless high-profile international engagements that inevitably influence the direction of any new government.

Italy is a founding member and a top-10 donor of many international organisations, whose prearranged obligations prevent substantial deviations from the commitments set by previous administrations—a condition known as path dependence.

It is also the number one peacekeeper of the global north, in terms of both the number of missions it leads and the number of troops it deploys. This strong commitment to the rules-based order would be virtually impossible to relinquish during the average lifespan of an Italian government (1.7 years, since 2000).

And as much as the winning coalition campaigned for regressive social policies with an abrasive rhetoric, its ability (and perhaps real willingness) to make substantial changes is limited, and so dark words like ‘fascism’ have no place in this case.

Rome’s new foreign and security policy challenges

The first major foreign policy challenge for the new government will be Italy’s military expenditure, which will rise from 1.5% to 2% of the country’s sizeable GDP ($3.3 trillion in 2021) in six years. It will have to partially decide where to allocate the large extra funds while avoiding unproductive expenses.

Within the EU, Meloni and her allies will have to demonstrate that they can effectively lead the union’s third-largest economy and second-largest manufacturer and continue to consolidate the country’s public finances. Much of Italy’s huge post-Covid-19 recovery plan, which is worth around $340 billion, depends on this.

Close to home, a volatile Mediterranean remains a significant concern, exacerbated by the ongoing Libyan civil war, very strong flows of irregular maritime arrivals (71,000 in the first nine months of 2022) and regional rivalries with France, Turkey and Egypt.

Further away from Italian shores, but still inside its Mediterraneo allargato (enlarged Mediterranean) sphere of interest, Italy’s numerous trade routes and peacekeeping missions provide ongoing strategic challenges, including the key NATO mission in Iraq that Italy has commanded since May.

In addition, the ‘enlarged Mediterranean’, which stretches to the Arabian Sea, is witnessing a growing Chinese presence through Beijing’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ and Russian military presence through its bases in Syria, further complicating Rome’s deployments under multilateral and unilateral missions aimed at strengthening the rules-based order.

And, finally, Italy is quietly focusing on the Indo-Pacific, by virtue of its long-term engagement in the Western Indian Ocean and recent partnerships with ASEAN, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. How Rome will engage with the world’s geopolitical and geoeconomic epicentre—and its many potential flashpoints—will be a substantial test for the new government.

Overall, these challenges will put much pressure over the new Italian administration, which could seek not to fail by maintaining existing foreign policy postures—although we can also expect occasional controversial measures (especially when it comes to trying to stem irregular maritime arrivals). Should political divisions continue to worsen due to domestic and foreign policy divergences, however, Italian politics could always play its time-tested trick and change yet another government.