Italy’s election on March 4th will take place in a climate of tension and aggression not seen for decades. The difficulty in efficiently processing migrants recovered in the Mediterranean combined with ongoing economic difficulties for the average citizen despite a tentative macroeconomic recovery, and an ongoing refusal to come to terms with the past are pushing voters towards parties that had previously existed in the shadows of more traditional populist parties. Additionally, far right groups are showing themselves more openly than ever before, and opposition to these groups on the ground is often muted. Even if these parties do not gain the necessary votes to enter Parliament, the overall situation suggests they will push the parties there closer to their positions, to Italy’s detriment and by extension Europe’s.

The upcoming election in Italy seems like a return to the past in more ways than one. In fact, to go back to the last elected prime minister, we need to go to the 2008, which saw the return of Silvio Berlusconi as head of Italy’s government. Since he was forced to step in 2011 down as the Eurozone crisis shifted attention to the Italian public debt which stands at over 130% of GDP, Mario Monti, Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni have all led the country without being voted in. Although those who follow Italian politics will correctly point out that rarely does a single party govern on its own in Italy, it’s important to remember that at the last election in 2013, the Partito Democratico’s leader Pierluigi Bersani did not become prime minister, with horse trading eventually leading to Letta’s appointment and from there Renzi and Gentiloni.

As it stands, no party or coalition will win a majority yet, but a combined centre-right grouping of Forza Italia- Lega – Fratelli d’Italia seems to be the in the lead at roughly 36-37% of the vote according to polls by Panorama. However, this coalition appears tenuous seeing as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the small Noi Con l’Italia party are largely pro-EU, but both Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia are fiercely eurosceptic, with the former frequently calling for Italy to leave the Union. The centre-left coalition is considerably behind at rought 27-29%, and the Movimento 5 Stelle party, whose stance on Europe and a host of other issues has flip-flopped considerably, is the single strongest party at approximately 28%. The result will probably be a series of horse trading which will end in a broad coalition of sorts, and until that is decided, Paolo Gentiloni will stay on as premier. While Gentiloni himself has the highest approval rating of any leader, his party’s association with the previous prime minister Matteo Renzi, current Partito Democratico secretary, has damaged its chances beyond repair. But it is not the main parties I wish to draw attention to here, rather the fringe that is increasingly drawing visibility and legitimacy as a result of dissatisfaction and a sense of the mainstream parties offering no real change.

This all seems strange to say seeing as the Movimento 5 Stelle is currently the leading party in the polls, but their recent activity would suggest otherwise. With more outspoken figures like Grillo sidelined and the addition of several candidates with prior political experience to the voting lists, the party’s line may be ambiguous but it is aiming to come across as a party with administrative experience. Along with this, the party’s leader and prime ministerial candidate Luigi di Maio has been visiting European capitals to convince other leaders that he can be worked with, something that his party’s rhetoric to explicitly go against until recently. As a result, even this catch-all protest party is seeing some members abandon it and looking to other parties as an anti-establishment option. Although still far from mainstream attention, the party that seems to be gaining the most long-term from these trends is the Neofascist Casapound. This may sound strange, but one must also take a long-term view to current developments. The party is currently polling at just under 1%, presumably because parties like Lega Nord and Fratelli d’Italia still offer enough hardline views to satisfy the voters that would otherwise be attracted to parties like Casapound, but the party has scored some important victories. Already, it scored 9% of the vote in the municipal elections in Ostia, a municipality in Rome’s metro area. This might not seem a big deal, as the area is known for a long tradition of supporting fascist politics, and the party itself has ties to the Spada clan, the organised crime family which controls or extracts payments from a considerable part of the area’s businesses. It’s also worth noting that Roberto Spada, brother of jailed mafia boss Carmine Spada, assaulted RaiDue journalist Daniele Piervincenzi when asked about his endorsement of Casapound.

However, the party has since graduated to its leader, Simone Di Stefano, holding televised debates with journalists and is now actively campaigning further afield in Italy. In line with the election, it has also emerged that certain local-level 5-Star Movement activists in Ostia were in contact with Casapound members in order to agree potential arrangements for governance in the election, and Beppe Grillo, the Movement’s founder (although he is no longer a member of the official leadership) has also refused to condemn the party, and reports from the Huffington Post and other news outlets suggest that Casapound members are occasionally present at M5S rallies. Casapound members themselves have expressed affinity with the 5-Star Movement at times, with Di Stefano quoted in 2013 as saying that there was a possible “parliamentary covergence” between M5S and Casapound. Although the M5S openly declares it is not a fascist party, its campaign rhetoric has often explicitly echoed hard-right party campaigns, and the fathers of Luigi di Maio and Alessandro di Battista, another prominent member, were both heavily involved in the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a neofascist group. It is therefore impossible to exclude Di Maio (Di Battista is currently taking a break from the party) using this implicit association to his father as well as party’s refusal to speak strongly against race-related incidents in order to secure votes from those with neofascist leanings.

The reason this is worrying is not that Casapound are likely to win representation beyond the local level, as they are unlikely to hit the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. Rather, it is a slow step towards normalising this sort of political party and its clearly extremist agenda as it goes largely unchallenged. The failure to honestly discuss Italy’s past as well as a feeling of disconnect between voters and parties, and a growing affluence of disaffected youths to far-right movements also helps parties like Casapound and other extremists like Forza Nuova gain a popularity and legitimacy that other such parties elsewhere in Western Europe fail to achieve. They achieve this in Italy partly because they play on current fears of migration and disillusionment with the current parties, but also on a nostalgia for the supposed stability and prosperity that Mussolini’s brutal rule brought. The fact that Italy’s subsequent destruction and humiliation was brought about by his choices regarding an alliance with Hitler and ruinous expansionist attempts is something they all seem to forget. That, as well as the ethnic repression in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Vallée d’Aoste, and Alto-Adige-Südtirol, the decision to enact antisemitic laws and the brutal repression of any dissenting views. One must remember, Mussolini inspired Hitler’s style of presentation and governance, not the other way round.

A telling episode of just how normalised and pervasive fascist nostalgia has become is recounted by Luca Miniero, the director of the recent film Sono Tornato (I’m Back), which like Guess Who’s Back for Hitler, is a comedy exploring a hypothetical return of Benito Mussolini in modern Italy. In various interviews, Miniero confirmed that he included some candid camera footage of the actor playing Mussolini, Massimo Popolizio (whose physical resemblance with the dictator is striking) visiting various towns in Italy. While some passers-by see it as a bad joke, some insult him, and others avoid him, a considerable number see it as first funny, then loosen up and start taking selfies, as well as somehow forgetting that they have an actor in front of them, speaking as if Mussolini were truly there. They lament the “invasion” from Africa and elsewhere, as well as the rotten political environment characterised by an out-of-touch and corrupt elite, stating that in both cases Mussolini would “fix” things.

Throughout the film the depiction of Mussolini as a sort of hero or villain in the context of the storyline is avoided, it just attempts to portray a hypothetical attempt of his to navigate modern Italy with his character and views, and the shocking extent to which he does not seem out of place in modern Italian society, navigating social interactions and media appearances with ease, and worrying very few people. In fact, his aggressive and highly mediatised style certainly has its imitators in people like Berlusconi and Salvini (and in the latter, a good part of his ideological message).

A return to fascism in Italy is highly unlikely, but the tolerance for fundamentally illiberal and partly authoritarian governance in exchange for a semblance of stability and “putting Italian first” should be of deep concern. If the next government is unable to deliver reforms that render the political process more transparent, improve the socio-economic situation, and provide economic and educational reforms that can render Italy more competitive economically as well as lead to an Italian population that is better informed and better able to critically analyse information, these groups can easily gain strength by tapping into growing resentment and promising “action”, no matter the damage done to civil liberties and institutions. Let’s not pretend for a second: Casapound supporter and suspected gangster Roberto Spada assaulted a journalist simply for asking questions, showing disdain for freedom of speech and the right of journalists to do their job without fear (that he is also so clearly linked to groups with criminal activities indicate the kind of respect for the rule of law parties like Casapound ultimately have). Luca Traini, the former Lega Nord candidate who went on a shooting spree against Africans in Macerata simply because of their colour as “revenge” for the death of a drug addict at the hands of a Nigerian drug dealer (who is currently being prosecuted), and the people defending his actions in some circles show the desire for violence rather than due process that Italians are fast becoming apathetic to, and in some extreme cases, supportive of. These parties and groups are openly violent and make no secret of their desire to use violence on “others” (which as the assault on Piervincenzini shows, can easily be the “real Italians” these groups claim to defend). We’ve gotten used to Italy staring into the abyss seemingly every year for some reason or another, but this time it feels all too real. Luca Miniero and Massimo Popolizio’s Mussolini character is coarse with typical poor-taste “barracks humour”, coming across as comical and an oddity more than as an intimidating bigot with a talent for communication (which the real Mussolini undeniably had), and is ultimately used a tool by TV to manipulate the masses for commercial gain, almost becoming less “fascist” than his admirers. He is also the reflection of a dangerous nostalgia and refusal to face the past that has resurfaced now stronger than ever, which can leave future generations bearing the cost of populist follies aimed at appeasing this extremist fringe to some degree. These extremists are here to stay if their hypocrisies go unchallenged and their unabashed support for violence offers them legitimacy as somehow demonstrating their “honesty” or their apparent demonstration that “they mean business”, despite their obvious disdain for the rule of law and the rights and institutions that make for modern and democratic states. Brace yourselves Italians, Europeans, and all others: we’re in for a rough ride.

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