In yesterday's Italian election, even her political allies went backwards
In Conan the Barbarian (1982), a victorious general asks Arnold Schwarzenegger “what is best in life?” — to which Arnie infamously replies: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!”
In other words, winning is not enough — others have to lose.
As Giorgia Meloni savours the taste of victory this morning, there will be those who see her as an all-conquering barbarian — the Right-wing populist who took her Brothers of Italy (FdI) party from just 4% of the vote in 2018 to a commanding first place in yesterday’s Italian general election.
However, she hasn’t just won — her enemies have lost. At time of writing, we don’t yet have the full results, but the figures reported by the BBC, show the FdI breaking through the 25% barrier. That’s a clear lead over the Democrats (PD), which appears to have under-performed expectations — despite being the main party of the anti-populist establishment.
Meanwhile the Five Star Movement — which was the runaway winner in 2018 — has seen its vote cut in half. The same goes for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which used to be the main party of the Right, but is likely to end up as a junior member of Meloni’s ruling coalition.
There’s a more subtle — but crueller — variation of Conan’s philosophy which goes something like this: “It is not enough for you to succeed. Your friends must also fail.” The words are often attributed to Gore Vidal, but there are other quotations to that effect going back centuries.
Whatever its origin, the line certainly applies to the relationship between Meloni and her most important political ally — Matteo Salvini, who is the leader of Italy’s other Right-wing populist party, the League. Back in 2018, the League was a surprise success story — overtaking Forza Italia to become the biggest party on the Right.
Seizing his moment, Salvini lead his party into government as Five Star’s coalition partner. However the governing parties soon fell out. Salvini tried to force an election to capitalise on the League’s soaring poll ratings, but he was outmanoeuvred by the Democrats who offered themselves to Five Star as an alternative partner.
Dumped from the government, Salvini was humiliated — furthermore the episode made him look a like a schemer not a statesman. As if to correct that impression, he then led his party back into government when Mario Draghi took over as Prime Minister in 2021. However, that too backfired. It’s hard to compete for the populist vote when you’re simultaneously propping-up an establishment-led government.
Yesterday’s result was a further humiliation for Salvini. On the Right, his party is now a distant second to Meloni’s — and not only in Italy overall, but also in the League’s northern heartland. Any remaining doubt that Meloni is the senior partner in the Right-wing alliance has now evaporated.
Unless there’s some incredibly dirty dealing from Berlusconi and/or Salvini, Giorgia Meloni is now set to become Italy’s first female Prime Minister. Of course, her party wouldn’t be the first to squander its momentum. Having luxuriated in opposition, she now faces the trials of government — and, in particular, the challenge of dealing with Italy’s EU overlords.
But for the moment, Giorgia the Barbarian can be satisfied that she’s crushed her enemies… and her friends.