Giorgia Meloni's triumph as the first woman to lead a winning party in the macho world of Italian politics is not a moment to celebrate, for she has brought the far right into the European mainstream, precisely a century after her Fascist forebear Benito Mussolini seized power.
It could take until the middle of next month to know the exact composition of the new Italian government. But polls on Sunday night crowned Meloni a clear winner. Italy's new government is set to be a coalition led by Meloni's Brothers of Italy party, joined by the anti-immigrant League and Putin sympathiser Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
What's also certain is she has fractured an entente in European politics, bringing a party with its roots in neo-fascism into power for the first time since World War II — at the helm of a founding country of the EU at that. Following the ascent of Sweden's far-right Democrats this month as kingmakers in their governing coalition, the question is where could the next domino fall?
Southern Europe is ripe for the political disruption Meloni represents.
The far-right Vox, Spain's third-largest political party, entered a regional government for the first time in March, and Meloni said last week she hoped her success would pave the way for it to gain greater power. In Portugal, the right-wing Chega (Enough) party took 12 seats in January elections this year, up from just 1 seat in 2019.
Divisive leaders are gaining traction amid the challenges posed by immigration, rising poverty, falling birthrates, the climate emergency, deindustrialisation and youth unemployment. It would unite discontent in southern Europe with the EU's eastern flank.
Meloni, who has been the head of the umbrella group European Conservatives and Reformists Party since 2020, has supported Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban and voted against a motion in the European Parliament declaring Hungary to be an "electoral autocracy."
Broadly, her victory also risks having a destabilising effect on the heart of Europe: France.
In Paris, Emmanuel Macron lost his parliamentary majority earlier this year. Bringing extreme politics into the mainstream lends itself to Marine Le Pen and her national front, and also Jean-Luc Melenchon's extreme-left party Nupes (Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale). French far-right politician Eric Zemmour seized on Meloni's win to claim her strategy of "uniting" parties on the right could be a winning one for France, too.
The good news for her antagonists is that she may have a tougher time spreading her influence at home than abroad.
For one, the nation's well-established institutions have historically provided ballast against political extremism, from the mafia attacks of the 1980s and 1990s to the rise of Berlusconi. Daniele Franco, current finance minister, Fabio Pannetta, who sits on the executive board of the European Central Bank, and Domenico Siniscalco, a former finance minister who has been vice chairman of Morgan Stanley International for more than a decade are all on the roster of potential candidates for finance minister under Meloni being considered by the Qurinial Palace, according to insiders. (President Sergio Mattarella has to approve the composition of the coalition).
Meloni is facing what is often called the "glass cliff": When a woman finally gets significant power, it's at a time of serious crisis when the risk of failure is the highest. For one, Meloni faces a worsening economy. Growth is forecast to slow to 0.4% from 3.3% in 2022, according to average of estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Her government will have limited room for manoeuvre because as it has to hit targets agreed with Brussels to get the full 260-billion euros of disbursements in post-pandemic funding flowing into Italy's economy.
She'll also be juggling unreliable political bedfellows and an electorate that has kicked out one government after another over the past 20 years. Meloni will lead Italy's 68th government since 1946. In reporting up and down the country this week, from Rome, through Florence and Bologna to Milan, I repeatedly heard the same phrase in support of Meloni: "all the other politicians have failed us, so we may as well give her a go."
The reasons for the long odds on a long-lasting government are already there. Her far-right coalition partners, Matteo Salvini of the League and Berlusconi, have yet to present a united front even on the campaign trail. A weak showing by Salvini's League, which polls indicate received about 9% of votes, collapsing from 30% in 2018, may strengthen Meloni's hand and reduce the chance of coalition instability.
It doesn't help Meloni that she has an untested team made up mostly of family and friends, including her brother-in-law. Her win has also come on the lowest voter turnout for an Italian election since World War II.
While Meloni has promised tax cuts — which could be a hard sell in Brussels considering the nation's 150% debt ratio — she has made clear she wants to focus on cultural issues. Her campaign has focused on slamming migration, what she calls the LGBTQ+ lobby and defence of what she calls the "natural family."
Meloni has also borrowed from the extremists and nativists — from Orban to Tucker Carlson — who accuse George Soros of promoting the "ethnic substitution" of (white) Italians.
But with the economic outlook worsening, Meloni's message may have limited reach at home. The greater risk is how far abroad she can spread it.
Rachel Sanderson is a contributing columnist at Bloomberg opinion.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg and has been published by a special syndication arrangement.