By Gwynne Dyer

There’s an election in Italy next Sunday, almost exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s ‘blackshirts’ marched on Rome and brought the first fascist dictator to power.

Giorgia Meloni, the hard-right populist politician who is likely to win that election, rejects any comparison with that ugly past. The party she leads, Brothers of Italy, has some ‘nostalgic’ neo-fascists in its ranks, but she prefers to compare it to Britain’s post-Brexit Conservative Party or the US Republican Party as rebranded by Donald Trump.

They do have a lot in common: a dislike for the European Union, hostility to immigrants, gays and Muslims, and a fierce, truculent nationalism. She is militantly Christian, she dabbles in ‘Great Replacement’ paranoia, and she wages a non-stop culture war.

“There is no middle ground possible,” Meloni told a rally last June. “Today, the secular left and radical Islam are menacing our roots…Either say  yes, or say no. Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobbies. Yes to the universality of the Cross, no to Islamist violence. Yes to secure borders, no to mass immigration.”

The brutal simplicity of these slogans works just as well with lower-income, poorly educated Italians as it does with the same sort of people in ‘heartland’ America or ‘red wall’ Britain. But when you compare her to populist peers like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Donald Trump in the United States, she doesn’t seem so bad.

She now claims to support both the European Union and the NATO alliance. She has avoided the pro-Putin stance that was common on the radical right until the invasion of Ukraine. With the fragile Italian economy teetering on the brink of recession, she is promising the EU no radical surprises from Italy.

So not a complete disaster, then. Her need to access the EU’s Covid recovery fund, which has promised Italy 191 billion euros over the next six years, should force Meloni to stick to orthodox economics. If the EU withheld those funds, her prospects of remaining in power would be slim.

Brothers of Italy will probably be the largest Italian party after this election, but with only 25-30% of the vote she will have to form a coalition. The problem there is that the obvious candidates, Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing  Forza Italia! and Matteo Salvini’s farther-right Lega, are direct rivals of her own party.

Both men  will be trying to claw back the popular support that Meloni’s Brothers of Italy has stolen from them. That requires taking more extreme positions, and with the Russian energy blockade promising a hard time for Europe economically this winter, their obvious strategy is to push for a softer line on Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Both men have been Putin fanboys in the past. Berlusconi sees the Russian dictator as a personal friend, and Salvini called him “the best statesman on Earth” three years ago. Now Salvini soft-pedals his admiration for Putin, but he demands an end to the sanctions against Russia because they are allegedly hurting Italy more than Russia.

Meloni can’t afford to play that game, and the expected post-election coalition of far-right parties is unlikely to last very long. She has sufficiently detoxified herself that she could lead a coalition with other parties instead, and that may well happen.

Post-fascist parties in power in Italy are still bad news, but the damage to the European Union and the NATO alliance can probably be contained.