When Giorgia Meloni was searching for a location to launch her campaign for Italy’s general election, she chose the city of Latina, founded by the fascist regime in 1932. The leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy was accompanied by one of her party’s candidates: Rachele Mussolini, grand-daughter of the dictator Benito Mussolini.
“We want to win back this symbolic place in the history of the Italian right,” Ms Meloni told a crowd of supporters at the launch in Latina, before turning to one of her flagship issues — the fight against immigration. “If we need to do a naval blockade, we will do a naval blockade. If we need to dig trenches, we will dig trenches. No one enters Italy illegally, and those who have will be sent home,” she said.
Brothers of Italy is a crucial component of the centre-right coalition led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, which opinion polls suggest is close to obtaining a governing majority in the March 4 vote that is the next big battleground in European politics.
While Ms Meloni’s party only has the support of about 5 per cent of voters, according to polls, Mr Berlusconi’s coalition would without her have almost no chance of winning an absolute majority of seats.
Her strident “Italians first” rhetoric — along with that of the Northern League led by Matteo Salvini, the second biggest member of Mr Berlusconi’s coalition — epitomises the rancorous turn that the election has taken in recent weeks that has revived memories of the country’s racist, authoritarian past. Some even fear Italy’s democratic institutions, so painstakingly built up since the second world war, could falter as European populists challenge the liberal order across the western world.
“It is one thing to make immigration policy more efficient, especially in the context of economic troubles,” says Massimiliano Panarari, a professor at the school of government at Luiss University in Rome. “But when xenophobic and even racist discourse is legitimised by political forces, this should create alarm, true democratic alarm.”
Concerns about the rise of the anti-immigrant right in Italy have been simmering for some time, ever since Brothers of Italy and the Northern League began to capitalise on fears over the huge numbers of migrants — totalling more than 620,000 — from Africa and the Middle East who have been rescued from the Mediterranean Sea and brought to Italian ports.
That reached a tipping point this week after a 28-year old neo-Nazi sympathiser in the city of Macerata went on a shooting rampage targeting African migrants, injuring six. Perpetrator Luca Traini, who gave a fascist salute and wrapped himself in an Italian flag before surrendering, claimed to police that the act was retaliation against the brutal death of a young Roman woman in the city whose body was allegedly chopped up and hidden in two suitcases by a Nigerian immigrant.
The attack inflamed political debate in Italy, with Forza Nuova, a party of the extreme right, offering to give Mr Traini legal assistance. A banner appeared in Rome honouring his name. “The distressing thing is that Luca Traini has received some incredible and numerous expressions of sympathy and solidarity,” says Mr Panarari.
Rightwing leaders — including Ms Meloni — said there was no justification for the attack, while immediately qualifying their comments to blame immigration for breeding social tension. “We have to return to a time when Italians believed in a state that guarantees security, order and legality,” said Ms Meloni, 41. Mr Salvini weighed in to argue that “out of control” immigration brought “chaos, rage and social clashes” with Mr Berlusconi, who has tried to cast himself as a moderate force within the coalition, following suit, labelling it a “social bomb”.
Emilio Gentile, professor of history at La Sapienza University in Rome, says there have been times since 1945 when Italy’s extreme-right has been more powerful, including when the Italian Social Movement — which carried on the fascist legacy — had seats in parliament. What has changed this time, however, is the widespread disaffection with traditional political parties and institutions, which previously served as a bulwark against extremism.
In addition, Mr Gentile believes there is more indifference in Europe today about the rise of the far-right. “When Jörg Haider was heading towards government in Austria in 2000, there was an uproar in Brussels. Now the EU tolerates this in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria, and this favours the same rhetoric in Italy,” he says.
After the Italian Social Movement disbanded in the early 1990s, it was replaced by the National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini, which attempted to rid itself of Mussolini’s legacy. However Ms Meloni, who took over when the organisation became the Brothers of Italy five years ago, appears to be shifting the party back to its 1930s roots.
In the party’s campaign hub of Latina, Manuel Di Giulio, a 28-year party official, denies there is any xenophobia involved. “Many concentrate on the skin colour but it wouldn’t make a difference if social problems are caused by someone with blue eyes and blonde hair. This has nothing to do with racial hatred. We have to find a balance in the migrant flows and distinguish illegal migrants from refugees. We cannot host them all,” he says.
In the main square, Daniela, a 70-year-old retired woman with a pension of €800 and an unemployed daughter, backs Brothers of Italy enthusiastically — using language that illustrates the depth of the resentment in Italian society. “This very city was built by Mussolini on a swamp, and now what’s left?” she asks pointing to a group of black men. “There won’t be any white places left in Europe. Soon it’s all going be as black as coal.”