Rome—Ahead of Sunday’s general election, 92 percent of Italians say their top concern is rising energy prices. Even before the inflation crisis, millions of Italians avoided turning on their home appliances; now, they are discussing how to use less gas to boil pasta. Yet the importance of this issue doesn’t necessarily translate directly into partisan allegiances.

Part of the problem is acknowledging the real scope of the crisis. Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right Fratelli d’Italia party currently heads polls, claims that the response does not have to involve “particularly excessive” new costs for the state. For instance, it could simply reduce the tax burden on fuel bills. Businessman Guido Crosetto, a Meloni adviser, starkly warns that this fall may find the country in a disastrous “Gotham City” scenario—but adds that the necessary choices stand above politics, and need to come from the outgoing government even before the next one is formed.

Yet the measures being discussed in Italy today often seem ill-suited to the looming crisis. The pandemic and the resulting lockdowns further worsened the condition of low-paid and informal workers, especially women. One of few protections for the precarious was the so-called “Citizens’ Income,” a job-seeker’s benefit introduced in 2019; as of this July, just over 1 million households were recipients. Now, this protection is under threat.

The up to €780-a-month payment is relatively popular in regions with high unemployment and among the young. However, it is intensely disliked by the employers’ body Confindustria and much of the political center and right, who condemn its supposed fraudulent use and role in discouraging Italians to take up low-paid jobs. It is also controversial among many voters, who label this a priority issue but split 61-39 percent in favor of abolishing it. Yet the momentum behind its outright abandonment also appears to be waning.

The People’s Defender?

The party that most vigorously defends Citizens’ Income is Giuseppe Conte’s Five Star Movement, which played a decisive role in its introduction in 2019. Five Star came first in the last general election in 2018, with 32 percent of the vote. Yet, long claiming to be “neither Left nor Right,” the party followed an erratic course in office, slumping to just 10 percent in polls before this current election was called.

After its 2018 election success, Five Star formed two successive but opposite-facing coalitions, first with the anti-immigrant Lega, and then with the soft-left Democrats. Former law professor Conte, an independent, was prime minister in both. When this second coalition was felled by neoliberal hawks in February 2021, its members joined former central banker Mario Draghi’s national-unity cabinet, tasked with distributing EU post-pandemic funds. But in July 2022, claiming that its agenda was being trampled on, Five Star withdrew from Draghi’s government, prompting this snap election.

As Five Star leader, Conte now emphasizes the party’s “progressive” hue. He claims that the coalition with the Lega was only transactional, but that he did want a lasting center-left pact. Yet Five Star’s many twists and turns have also produced internal splits. This June brought the exit of Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who led the party into the 2018 election; he accused Conte of undermining Italian security by rejecting further arms shipments to Ukraine. Such a line is, moreover, unpalatable to the Democrats, of whom Di Maio has now become a junior ally.

A two-week polling blackout before September 25 shrouds the end of the campaign in mystery. After a strong polling uptick in the first weeks of the race, Five Star is clearly rising among left-wing voters and in the south. In Conte’s campaign stops, heavily centered on the mezzogiorno, he seems focused on reengaging past Five Star voters tempted by abstention, claiming that the party has realized “80 percent” of its 2018 program. His own popularity is also key: Party founder Beppe Grillo has not appeared at its rallies.

Giorgia Meloni

Even if Five Star beats initial low expectations, it will likely take little over half its 2018 total. One of the promises it delivered—a one-third cut in the number of parliamentarians—will in any case see many of its representatives lose their seats.

The big winner is expected to be the right-wing alliance, headed toward a majority in both houses. While this currently polls at just under 50 percent, the electoral system disproportionately favors coalitions, and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia is running together with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant Lega and tycoon Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Meloni’s prominence reflects not just her much-vaunted bid for “respectable” status for a party with Fascist roots but also the volatility of the right-wing electorate. While she has attracted some previous abstentionists, most of her base are recent switchers from Salvini and Berlusconi, each of whom—unlike her—joined Draghi’s cabinet. The party has recruited some former Berlusconi allies, but its leaders are largely veterans of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), such as Meloni and cofounder Ignazio La Russa.

Meloni, who joined the MSI in 1992 at age 15, often praises its longtime leader Giorgio Almirante—an editor at the biological-racist journal La Difesa della Razza during Mussolini’s regime, and until his death a proud fascist. While dismissing attacks on her party’s roots as irrelevant, she also uses pedantically worded constructions to avoid repudiating this past, for instance claiming to have “consigned fascism to history.” Asked whether she agreed with former MSI leader Gianfranco Fini’s 2003 description of fascism as the “absolute evil,” she replied that she had “not disassociated herself” from this. In fact, Fini’s comment had concerned anti-Semitism and the Holocaust specifically; at the time, La Russa replied that condemning Fascism’s “dark pages” made it easier to discuss the “no few positive ones.”

Racist conspiracy theories and former neofascist cadres still bear considerable weight in Fratelli d’Italia, but the party also deploys the old MSI strategy of making space for itself within a broader right-wing front. While taking credit for having been the only major opposition to Draghi, the party also emphasizes that it will not bring major disturbances. To this end, Meloni today stresses her “Atlanticist” foreign policy. Although defending allies like Viktor Orbán’s far-right government in Hungary, she also tells business and foreign leaders that she has no intention of upsetting Italy’s international position, and will continue much of Draghi’s agenda. This also raises tensions within the right, given both Salvini’s public doubts over anti-Russia sanctions and the fact most of Fratelli d’Italia’s own voters want to abandon them.

Trying to save his ailing leadership amid a polling collapse even worse than Five Star’s, Salvini is also highlighting other differences with Meloni. He combines a call for a 15 percent flat tax with the insistence that Italy will have to increase deficit spending—a proposal rejected by Meloni. For their part, Lega-affiliated governors in wealthy Lombardy and Veneto insist that their support for her administration would depend on their having more autonomy over their regions’ tax revenues.

Tax Take

Fratelli d’Italia is “postfascist”: It distances itself from the Mussolini era, but defends the postwar record of the MSI, from which most of its leaders hail. In particular, it honors the MSI as a “social” right-wing party that “always stood up for the poorest.” But parts of the MSI were heavily influenced by Reaganomics, and the old “social” rhetoric had little policy impact when the party joined Berlusconi’s governments in the 1990s–2000s.

Today, Meloni’s jobs plan is centered on tax cuts for bosses who hire staff, while she opposes introducing a minimum wage, and promises to drop Citizens’ Income. Instead, she floats nonspecific alternatives which would aid those who “cannot work,” rather than potential workers “sitting on the sofa.” Intermediate steps that stop short of abolishing these benefits could include making them more conditional or akin to a “workfare” system.

More broadly, Meloni’s emphasis on her lack of economic radicalism and concern for a smooth transition from Draghi will be tested hard by the mounting cost-of-living crisis. As economist Simone Gasperin writes, while Meloni often promises to “get the state off the back of producers” and to cut both taxes and tax inspections, soaring energy costs may soon demand a more interventionist approach.

Her ally Crosetto damns Conte’s “populist” agitation on economic issues, accusing him of “playing on rising collective resentment.” But, quietist in foreign policy and forced to rework its economic agenda, Meloni’s party may well intensify its own identitarian thrust, whether by attacking migrants and “Soros-funded NGOs” or by pursuing a plan to criminalize “apologism for communist totalitarianism and Islamic extremism.”

Though they provide red meat to activists, such policies are no answer to Italians’ pressing hardships. Meloni will likely win Sunday’s election. The question is whether her success will stop there.