Italians went to the polls to elect a new government Sunday, and exit polls suggest the big winner will be a right-wing coalition led by
Freakouts over Italian conservatives have become so common in recent years one might well ask what’s different this time.
Ms. Meloni leads the Brothers of Italy, a party with a lineage tracing to the fascist parties of the country’s past. She campaigned on culture-war issues such as her opposition to the “LGBTQ lobby.” Her coalition also brings back into proximity with power the League of
and the Forza Italia party of
both European bogeymen in different ways.
Ms. Meloni has been too coy in her reluctance to distance herself fully from her party’s fascist legacy. But it’s also not clear how much policy is likely to change on her watch. On economics, expect a conventional (for Italy) right-wing populist agenda that focuses on targeted tax cuts and welfare handouts rather than the big-bang reforms a different conservative leader is attempting in the United Kingdom.
European worthies fret this lays the groundwork for a new conflict between Rome and the European Union over budget rules. This is a concern with Italian government debt near 150% of GDP and no plan to stimulate economic growth. But the EU also has surrendered leverage it might have had by shielding Rome from market judgments. Large-scale purchases of Italian bonds by the European Central Bank have hemmed in the spread between German and Italian bonds, a benchmark indicator.
On foreign policy, Ms. Meloni and her conservative allies aren’t noticeably more pro-Ukraine than any other Italian politician regarding Russia’s invasion. But she also isn’t noticeably less supportive, and appears to feel bound by a consensus among voters to support sanctions against Russia.
Ms. Meloni has followed other Italian conservatives’ lead by promising a crackdown on illegal migration, perhaps including a naval blockade of Libya. That plan sounds implausible, but Italy is on the front line of a wave of illegal migration that started in 2015 and never fully stopped. If anyone in Brussels has better ideas for bringing the situation under control, Italians probably would be all ears.
That sounds like a lot of continuity. The key difference is that Ms. Meloni’s coalition may be the conservatives who are finally allowed to run the government—and this may be the real lesson of this election.
A right-wing coalition led by Mr. Salvini emerged from the 2018 election as the plurality winner. But Mr. Salvini’s reputation was viewed as so toxic that complex machinations were undertaken in Parliament to prevent him from becoming Prime Minister. He was forced to serve as a deputy in an uncomfortable coalition with the left-wing populist 5 Star Movement. Italian voters never had a chance to test their right-wing politicians’ mettle.
The frustrations that created that result in 2018 have grown after two years of pandemic and a Russia-induced energy crisis. Ms. Meloni came into this election with a relatively low profile and her party has never held power. She’s on track to win in part because she never joined the grand coalition government that formed behind caretaker
A win for Ms. Meloni will usher in a complex new period of Italian politics and Italy’s relationship with the European Union. Then again, every Italian election does these days. The key point is that Italians may at last get the conservative government they seemed to want four years ago. Now they’ll find out if it works.
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Appeared in the September 26, 2022, print edition.