Posted on December 2, 2020

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Italian Far Right: The Rise of Brothers of Italy

Giovanna De Maio, Brookings Institution, November 30, 2020

As the Italian government, led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, received international and domestic support for its efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in spring 2020, some argued that populism and nationalism had receded and that there was now a greater role for experts in politics and an overall sentiment of national cohesion during tough times.


{snip} As the September regional elections have shown, in spite of Conte’s widespread (but declining) approval ratings and the overall stability of the current government coalition, the national-populism of both the League and Brothers of Italy is alive and well, and could be represented in the next government should new elections be held prematurely.


The League and Brothers of Italy share the same views — tough migration policies, a fierce opposition to any tax increase, and a distaste for the globalist left — and both strongly focus on the defense of Italian national identity. Both parties gained momentum after the eclipse of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (since Berlusconi was banned from holding office for several years). So far, the League has gained broader traction than Brothers of Italy. In the past few years, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the League abandoned its traditional secessionist stances that advocated for a federal autonomy for the northern regions of Italy, doing so to appeal to the broader public in the south of Italy. In 2018, it became the junior partner of a government coalition with the Five Star Movement which lasted until August 2019. While in power, Salvini passed the toughest regulations on migration and closed Italian harbors for NGO ships rescuing migrants at sea.


Brothers of Italy, instead, traces its origins back to the Italian Social Movement — the party founded in 1946 in support of Benito Mussolini — whose logo Brothers of Italy integrated in the party’s symbol. While several years have passed and Brothers of Italy, in its current form, has only existed since 2012 under the leadership of Giorgia Meloni, the party continues to attract support from Italian neo-fascist groups. {snip} Despite promoting very similar narratives to Salvini’s party, Brothers of Italy has more vocally opposed abortion and euthanasia rights, as well as same-sex marriage. In its electoral program, the party specifically mentions that it seeks a “safeguard[ing] of national identity against the process of ‘Islamization’ by opposing the removal of Christian symbols from school in addition to advancing other measures to defend Christianity both domestically and internationally.”


During the COVID-19 crisis, both the League and Brothers of Italy repeatedly associated illegal immigration with the spread of COVID-19 and accused the government of applying a double standard in favor of immigrants that penalized Italian businesses and freedom of movement. However, the two parties experienced completely different trends in the polls: the League is in constant decline, slowly decreasing from 24% to an unstable 20% support while Brothers of Italy has moved from an unstable 10% to a solid 14%.

The League suffered internal tensions including challengers to Salvini’s leadership from the autonomist front (namely, Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region) and from those who see the League as a party pursuing a national agenda  (Giancarlo Giorgetti, the League’s deputy Secretary General). {snip}

Compared to Salvini, Brothers of Italy was able to be more consistent with the themes on migration and radicalization (in particular following the terrorist attacks in France and Austria), criticizing the government on the lockdown measures, but also giving credit to Conte when Meloni thought that things were moving in the right direction. {snip}

{snip} In fact, in the last regional elections in September 2020, the League and Brothers of Italy (along with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) participated as a united coalition, and there is almost no doubt that they will do so again should new elections be held prematurely before 2023—and that their forces, combined, will attract many votes. However, it is very likely that, given the rise of Brothers of Italy, and the declining trend of support for both the League and Forza Italia, such a coalition would advance more radically conservative positions on civil liberties and immigration.