[UPDATED Monday 5 March, with election results]
Fascist and far right parties across Europe are sending congratulations to Matteo Salvini, leader of the far right racist Lega, which has seen its vote surge in Italy’s general election while the centre left vote has collapsed and fascists gain renewed confidence on the streets.
Election results released by the interior ministry show that the rightwing coalition made up of corrupt billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI), the racist far right populist Lega and the outright fascist Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) is the largest bloc, with a total of 37% of the vote.
But within the rightwing bloc, Salvini’s Lega is the largest single element, pulling in 17.4% of the vote – unexpectedly and significantly higher than the 14% gained by Berlusconi’s own FI. That shifts the balance of power inside the bloc sharply away from the old media mogul and towards Salvini, who is very well placed as talks start to form a government. The FdI with 4.3% was the fifth placed party overall.
The Lega’s 17.4% vote is a huge increase on its previous general election record of just over 10% – and it is very close to the 18.7% gained by the centre left Partito Democratico (PD), whose vote has crashed.
The populist and increasingly anti-immigrant Five Star Movement (M5S) is the largest single party, on 32.6%, but it has not been able to overtake Berlusconi’s coalition on its own. It has fared better in the south of the country, with the rightwing bloc dominant in the north.
The danger in Italy, the original home of fascism where a continuing thread back to the days of Mussolini remains unbroken, lies in the potential to develop the classically fascist combination of electoral and streetfighting organisation. Gains by the far right here will also further boost fascist and far right racist parties across Europe.
The election comes in the wake of a series of large rallies in Italy’s cities by the far right and fascists – and counter-mobilisations by antifascists.
Attacks by fascists – from Casa Pound, Forza Nuova and smaller nazi groups – on migrants, people from ethnic minorities and antifascist or leftwing activists have increased sharply, as this interactive map published by a national newspaper shows.
A new electoral system this time made the election difficult to predict, and negotiations over the shape of the next government may take some time with various permutations possible.
But some trends are clear. The centre left Partito Democratico (PD), which comfortably won the last elections in 2013 – and took a huge 40% in the European Parliament elections a year later – is in trouble.
The last opinion polls before the election showed it at 21.3%, with another 5% potentially coming from smaller coalition partners.
Italy’s economy was already in a bad state before the 2008 international economic crisis. Although it is in theory now growing slightly, ordinary people can’t tell the difference. The PD government betrayed the faith of voters, delivering austerity measures that made life harder, and employment is still over 10%.
Former prime minister Matteo Renzi further alienated voters with an attempt to introduce constitutional reforms aimed at boosting business and widely seen as a power grab. His plans were defeated in a referendum, forcing his resignation as prime minister in 2016, although he remains leader of PD.
Bitterness against austerity, poverty and corruption has been turned towards racist scapegoating, especially of migrants and Roma people. From the supposed anti-establishment centre ground, through the far right to the hardcore fascists, Italian politicians are competing to stir up and capitalise on this racism.
On the rise now is the populist Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S), with anti-immigrant racism now a key part of its populist, anti-establishment pitch.
Polls show M5S as the leading single party in the run-up to the elections – at 26.3% in pre-election polls – although the traditional coalition system means it is not the main bloc.
That leading bloc of parties, shown in the pre-election polls with a total of 37.5%, is regularly termed the centre-right coalition in the press. In reality it is a far right bloc, bringing together the rightwing Forza Italia vehicle of corrupt media baron Silvio Berlusconi and the far right populist Lega – previously Lega Nord, the Northern League, which has been moving closer to fascism in recent years.
The third party in this ugly grouping is the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), the “Brothers of Italy”, the remnants of the old fascist MSI, directly descended from Mussolini’s original fascists. A small christian-conservative Us with Italy (NcI) party completes the grouping.
Inside the Berlusconi bloc, however, we can see the gains of the racist populist Lega. The once primarily regionalist party went nation-wide and made a turn towards fascism under new leader Matteo Salvini in 2014, allying itself with the likes of the fascist Front National in France and setting up a tie-up with the hardcore fascist activists of Casa Pound. Its formal ties with Casa Pound did not last, but the two retain connections.
The last poll before voting day showed the Lega on 14.8%, only marginally behind the FI’s 15.9% – the junior partner is now an equal. It is campaigning on the slogan “Italians first”.
That rise in the Lega’s projected vote comes on the back of Salvini’s ratcheting up of racism, including a pledge to deport 600,000 migrants. When Luca Traini, a former Lega election candidate, with links to Casa Pound and Forza Nuova, launched a shooting rampage that injured six African migrants in the Italian city of Macerata, Salvini distanced himself from the gun attack but blamed “unrestrained immigration” for social strife.
In turn, Berlusconi is stepping up the racist rhetoric too. “Fortunately there is no racism in Italy,” he has said. “But we have to prevent it taking root by expelling, in a humane way, all the illegals and returning a sense of security to Italians.”
The Lega’s position in the coalition is strengthened against Berlusconi by the 5% vote for the outright fascists of the FdI. If the Lega takes anything like the projected 14.8% vote, it will have substantially gained on its strongest previous electoral showing of around 10%.
Meanwhile the openly fascist Casa Pound has launched its own electoral list, which it boasts has a large contingent of former MSI representatives. It is not likely to pick up much in the way of general election votes, but has started to make gains on local councils.
Its membership is growing and its main activities are not in the electoral arena but in social activism, using methods more often associated with the left, such as squatting. Now it feels confident to establish anti-migrant “patrols” on the streets in some areas.
Smaller groups such as the hardcore fascist Forza Nuova, founded by Roberto Fiore, are also growing. FN’s membership is reported to have increased from 1,500 in 2001 to around 13,000 today. The FN’s streetfighters are behind many of the recent fascist attacks.
Gains for the Lega and the far right coalition more generally in the elections can only give more confidence to the streetfighting and activist wing of Italian fascism.
Fascism in Italy was never thoroughly wiped out after World War Two and it has had a stronger continuing presence there than anywhere else in Europe – and a history of participation in and links with the state.In 1960, the rightwing government of Fernando Tambroni tried to formally endorse the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the fascist organisation formed in 1946 by Mussolini’s heirs and supporters. In the 1970s, the fascist paramilitaries of Ordine Nuovo ran a terrorist bombing campaign. Five fascists, members of Alleanza Nazionale – successor to the MSI – became ministers in a Berlusconi-led government in the 1990s.
It says something about the political climate in Italy that while fascist parties across Europe try to hide their true political colours under a more respectable veneer, FN puts up posters (see photo, right) appealing to unashamed fascists among the electorate: “Fascists vote for FN”.
Tight results between and inside the main voting blocs could produce a variety of potential governments, but it is the widespread shift to the right, the gains of the Lega and increasing fascist activity on the streets that should concern us most.