ROME — It happened here, again. Nearly 100 years since the March on Rome, Italy on Sunday voted in a right-wing coalition headed by a party directly descended from Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.
This is, to put it mildly, concerning. Yet the most pervasive worry is not that Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party will reinstitute fascism in Italy — whatever that would mean. It’s that a government led by her will transform Italy into an “electoral autocracy,” along the lines of Viktor Orban’s Hungary. During the campaign, the center-left Democratic Party — Brothers of Italy’s main opponent — obsessively invoked Hungary as Italy’s destiny under Ms. Meloni’s rule. The contest, they repeated, was one between democracy and authoritarianism.
In the end, the Democrats’ anguished “alarm for democracy” failed to persuade voters: At an early reckoning, the party took 19 percent against the Brothers of Italy’s 26 percent. There are many reasons for that. One surely is that the picture they drew of Ms. Meloni, as a would-be tyrant taking an ax to Italian democracy and ushering in an era of illiberalism, was unconvincing. For all the rhetorical radicalism and historic extremism of her party, the fact remains that it will not be operating in circumstances of its choosing. Tethered to the European Union and constrained by Italy’s political system, Ms. Meloni won’t have much room to maneuver. She couldn’t turn Rome into Budapest even if she wanted to.
The major bulwark against autocracy in Italy can be summed up in one word: Europe. Our fragile economy — set to grow, in a best-case scenario sketched out by the International Monetary Fund, only 0.7 percent in 2023 — is heavily dependent on European institutions. Beyond the usual web of economic ties, the country is the biggest beneficiary of a European Commission-led recovery fund set to disperse in the next four years over 200 billion euros, or $195 billion, in grants and loans. Crucially, this economy-saving aid, without which the country may well spiral into recession, is conditional on respecting democratic norms. Any step down an Orban-like path would imperil Italy’s entire economy, surely a no-go for the new government.
Playing by European rules wouldn’t be as big a concession as it might seem. After all, Brothers of Italy over the years has progressively tempered its euroskeptic instincts. In 2014, Ms. Meloni announced that “the time has come to tell Europe that Italy must leave the eurozone.” The party, she pledged, would pursue “a unilateral withdrawal” from the monetary union, and in 2018 she sponsored a bill to remove references to the bloc from the Italian Constitution. Yet as the prospect of power came closer, those goals dropped off the party’s agenda. “I don’t think Italy needs to leave the eurozone and I believe the euro will stay,” Ms. Meloni conceded last year.
On foreign policy, too, Ms. Meloni is aligned with the dominant view on the continent. Formerly friendly with President Vladimir Putin of Russia — she asked the Italian government to withdraw its support of sanctions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and congratulated Mr. Putin on his no-doubt fraudulent re-election in 2018 — she has, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, reinvented herself as a torchbearer of Atlanticism and a staunch supporter of NATO. She is now a major proponent of a Europe-wide price cap on gas, the continent’s most potent economic weapon against Mr. Putin (and a measure, incidentally, so far opposed by Hungary). Whether opportunistic or sincere, such moves signal how ready Ms. Meloni is to occupy a conventional, Europe-friendly position, placating international partners and investors alike.
Then there’s the country itself. For a start, the right-wing coalition — which also includes the League party and Forza Italia — fell short of the two-thirds majority in Parliament that would have allowed it to modify the Constitution without recourse to a popular vote. Ms. Meloni’s dream of turning Italy’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, which critics saw as the first step toward a perilous extension of executive power, is already ruled out.
Managing the fractious government coalition won’t be easy, either. On one side, there’s Matteo Salvini, the ebullient leader of the League. Resentful of Ms. Meloni’s rise — which has come at his expense — and adamantly pro-Putin, he could cause endless trouble. On the other, there’s Silvio Berlusconi, who has already warned his partners that Forza Italia “will break with the government if it takes an anti-E.U. line.” In this quarrelsome setting, it will be extremely hard for Ms. Meloni to push through any truly disruptive policies. If she does, the already audible calls to reinstate Mario Draghi, who led the national unity government that fell in July, will grow louder.
Italy’s notoriously volatile political environment is also balanced by democratic institutions designed to foster stability and prevent authoritarian backsliding. The decentralized system is made of 20 semiautonomous regions and nearly 8,000 municipalities, firewalls to rein in centralized power. The Constitutional Court, whose general legitimacy has never been in question, is fairly independent from political influence, and the justice system recently went through a comprehensive, E.U.-driven reform. Any attempt by Ms. Meloni to arrogate powers to herself would be stoutly opposed.
To be sure, there are genuine reasons for concern. Ms. Meloni is the first post-fascist leader to win a national election in Italy after World War II, and her party is the heir of the Italian Social Movement, the reincarnation of the long-dissolved and constitutionally banned Fascist Party. The process of “de-demonization” that Brothers of Italy went through, including openly repudiating the fascist tradition, hasn’t quashed the deeply rooted connections with neo-fascist circles. Party officials have often been caught mingling and doing business with the sketchiest far-right groups around.
What’s more, Ms. Meloni’s sympathies, if not her present political orientation, lie with Europe’s illiberals. As recently as Sept. 15, she led her party to vote against a European resolution censoring Mr. Orban, and she is a close ally of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which is embroiled in a fierce rule-of-law dispute with the European Commission over government control of the judiciary. Her platform — militantly anti-migrant, socially reactionary and steeped in a culture of clientelism and tribalism — is unmistakably nativist and radical.
All this, of course, is problematic. But not all problems lead to autocracy.
Mattia Ferraresi (@mattiaferraresi) is a journalist and the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani.
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