ITALY HAS BEEN VOTING, and, as you read these words, may already have elected its first female prime minister. According to the pollsters, Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) is the most likely winner of this snap election. Founded in 2012, Brothers of Italy is currently the most popular of the right-wing parties vying for power.
The rest of Europe, well aware of the Brothers’ antecedents, is looking on aghast at Italy’s electoral behaviour. Meloni’s party traces its ideological lineage all the way back to Mussolini’s fascists. Indeed, she has been known to proclaim the original fascists’ slogan: “God, Country, Family”; at her party’s rallies. Officially, the Brothers of Italy have repudiated Italy’s fascist past. Unofficially … who knows?
The rise of parties like Brothers of Italy in countries with a long tradition of left-wing electoral strength is one of the most puzzling aspects of twenty-first century electoral politics. The surge to the right in Italian politics follows an equally dramatic electoral swing in Sweden, where, earlier this month, the Social Democratic government fell victim to a voter surge towards the far-right Sweden Democrats.
Like the Brothers, the Sweden Democrats’ ideological roots are also problematic. They, too, extend all the way back to the 1930s and 40s when Sweden boasted a large number of Nazi sympathisers – especially among the country’s military, cultural and commercial elites. Stieg Larsson, author of the extraordinarily popular series of novels built around the characters of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, spent much of his professional life researching the persistence, and growing strength, of fascist ideas and organisations in Swedish society.
How is it then that in Italy, where whole cities have stood as electoral redoubts of communist and socialist strength; and in Sweden, where the Social Democratic Party enjoyed fifty years of back-to-back electoral victories; political scientists are now recording startling reversals of ideological loyalties. The former communist stronghold of Sesto San Giovanni, in Milan, is poised to fall to the Brothers of Italy. The Swedish Trade Union Federation stands evenly divided between the Social Democrats and the Swedish Democrats.
It gets worse. According to Lily Lynch writing in the New Left Review: “[I]f only men [had] voted in 2022, then right-wing and nationalist parties would have gotten nearly 60% [of the popular vote] and the Sweden Democrats would be the largest party.”
That gender gap is equally evident in New Zealand polling, with support for the right-wing National and Act parties disproportionately concentrated among males, and female voters skewing dramatically towards Labour/Green/Māori Party. Clearly, cultural drivers are at work here in New Zealand that bear close comparison with those influencing the outcomes of elections in Europe. What is not replicated here, however, is the formation and growth of parties rooted in the fascist right.
Not that there isn’t an ongoing effort on the part of the academic left to elevate the threat of white supremacist and Nazi-inspired political groups operating in New Zealand. In spite of the fact that the largest, and allegedly most fearsome, of these groups, Action Zealandia, would be lucky to muster 20 active members (most of whom live in fear of public exposure and job loss) considerable energy continues to be devoted to building New Zealand’s tiny far-right community into a terrifying bogeyman.
Similar concerns are voiced about the clutch of tiny right-wing parties that have either already stood, or intend to stand, in New Zealand general elections. Even when taken together, it is rare for these parties’ electoral support to crest the 5 percent MMP threshold.
Also absent from the far-right scene in New Zealand are the sort of individuals who end up fronting parties like the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats. New Zealand has no one on the right of its politics to match Giorgia Meloni. Impeccably turned out, passionate in her delivery, Meloni doesn’t just have charisma – she has style.
The only political figure in New Zealand politics who has come anywhere close to Meloni in terms of charisma and style is, of course, Winston Peters. Indeed, for the past 30 years, Peters has offered what amounts to a master-class in the prosecution of populist electoral politics. Long before Meloni and the Sweden Democrats leader, Jimmie Akesson, began making headlines, Peters’ astute mixture of right- and left-wing ideological themes has, on no fewer than four occasions, lifted him up to the coveted position of king – and queen – maker.
The issue of race lies at the heart of all right-wing populist movements, and in this respect Peters’ party, NZ First, is no exception. As a “successful” Māori himself, the NZ First leader, has turned to his political advantage the desire of many Māori to be accepted as full and equal citizens of New Zealand. This “we are all one people” theme was a twofer, simultaneously attracting the support of Pakeha voters alarmed at the radical demands of so-called Māori “separatists”. Peters also exploited the deep-seated historical hostility towards Chinese and Indian immigration which has long been a feature of New Zealand’s racial politics.
Such has been Peters’ ability to play upon the sensitivities of the electorate that he has been able – like Meloni and Akesson – to attract significant financial support from the business community. In Italy and Sweden, it is the negative consequences of immigration that have loosened the donors’ purses. That said, however, it would be foolish not to factor-in the many opportunities for extracting political concessions that proportional representation provides. If the votes of your party are crucial to the construction of a working parliamentary majority, then your leverage is considerable.
While Peters, now 77, remains a runner in the populist stakes, it is unlikely that any other serious contenders for the prize money will emerge. The key to the success of the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats has been the abject failure, in both countries, of the formerly dominant Left. The vacuum thus created has seen the rise and fall of many far-right experiments aimed at rounding-up voters who feel betrayed and abandoned by their erstwhile leftist protectors. In Meloni and Akesson the formula would appear to have been perfected. In Peters, however, the populist soufflé appears to be running out of puff.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 26 September 2022.