Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s far-right leader on the cusp of power

Giorgia Meloni has successfully rebranded her Brothers of Italy party as the country’s dominant conservative force, without completely erasing its post-fascist roots. Her right-wing coalition is expected to come to power after Sunday’s general election, making her the favorite to become Italy’s first female prime minister — and the first far-right prime minister of the post-war era.

The new darling of the Italian right summed up her personal brand in a now-famous diatribe at a 2019 rally, which went viral after it was remixed into a dance music track.

“I’m Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m Italian, I’m a Christian,” an excited Meloni told supporters in central Rome. “No one can take that from me anymore.”

The phrase has become a thread running through Meloni’s astonishing rise from the leader of a fringe party with roots in Italy’s post-fascist right wing to the country’s likely next leader.

It captures the apparent paradox at the heart of Italy’s approaching elections, a high-stakes vote that could usher in the most sweeping change in decades — a first female prime minister — while also handing power to the most conservative government since the Second world war.

Pollsters predict that Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party will grow to become Italy’s largest, taking a quarter of the vote – a more than fivefold increase from its score in the last general election in 2018. She will skip her better-known right-wing party . allies Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, easily outnumbering their combined numbers.

With Italy’s complicated electoral law favoring broad coalitions, the three right-wing parties are on track to defeat the fractured center-left, potentially giving a Meloni-led government a majority large enough to amend Italy’s constitution.

Europe under siege

The coda of Meloni’s “Christian Mother” speech, which she repeated word for word in Spanish last year at a rally in support of Spain’s far-right party, underscores the fears of an arch-conservative camp feeling besieged in a globalized, fast-paced – changing world.

According to Meloni, the besieging forces include immigration, Islam, European integration, “awakened ideologies” and what she describes as “LGBT lobbies.” It is an opinion she shares with the Hungarian Viktor Orban, among others, who has defended it vigorously in his battle with Brussels over democracy and the rule of law.

Until recently, her ideological models also belonged to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whom she praised for “defending European values ​​and Christian identity” in her 2021 book, “I am Giorgia”. But she has since distanced herself from the Kremlin man, unequivocally condemned his invasion of Ukraine, and supported Western sanctions against Moscow.


Last month, she recorded a video message in three languages ​​to reassure Italian partners that she would abide by Rome’s traditional alliances, including NATO. She also dismissed as “nonsense” claims that she would run an authoritarian government.

“We vehemently oppose any anti-democratic drift with words of determination that we don’t always find among the Italian and European left,” Meloni, 45, said in the message sent to foreign media in English, French and Spanish.

“The Italian right has handed down fascism to history for decades and unequivocally condemns the suppression of democracy and the shameful anti-Jewish laws,” she added.

Post-fascist roots

Meloni was 19 when she was first interviewed by foreign media while recruiting for an election campaign in her native Rome. She told French reporters at the time that “[fascist dictator Benito] Mussolini was a good politician, in the sense that everything he did, he did for Italy.”

She would later change her tone, saying that the dictator had made “mistakes”.

Meloni was raised by her mother in the working-class neighborhood of Garbatella in Rome, after her father left them when she was only 2 years old. Garbatella was a bastion of the left, but young Meloni chose the opposite camp.

As a teenager, she joined the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a far-right outfit founded after the war by supporters of Mussolini. She won her first local elections at the age of 21 and became Italy’s youngest-ever minister ten years later when she was given the youth portfolio in Berlusconi’s government in 2008.

After the collapse of Berlusconi’s last government, she founded her own party with other MSI veterans, which she named after the anthem, Fratelli d’Italia. Since then, she has gradually succeeded in pushing the Brothers of Italy into the mainstream – without ever completely rejecting its post-fascist roots.

In particular, she has rejected calls to remove from her party’s logo a tricolor flame that was an icon of the MSI and harks back to the fascist tradition.

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Flag-waving supporters at Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party in Milan’s Piazza Duomo. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Meloni has downplayed the ideological origins of her party, claiming it is a mainstream force akin to the British Conservative Party. But on the campaign trail, she made sure not to alienate those core supporters who associate with the Tricolor Flame.

“I dream of a country where people who have had to lower their heads for years, pretend they have other ideas so as not to get banned, can now say what they think,” she told a rally earlier this week.

Only in opposition

While ideology continues to mobilize her party’s supporters, Meloni’s popularity among the general public has more to do with her pragmatism and calculated political movements, which have earned her a reputation for steadfastness and coherence.

While Salvini and Berlusconi joined forces with the center-left last year to form a unity government under Mario Draghi, Meloni declined, calling the appointment of the eurozone’s former central banker undemocratic.

Her decision to shun the coalition of national unity made her a natural recipient of Italy’s protest vote, said Maurizio Cotta, a political science professor at the University of Siena.

“Meloni has skillfully used her position as the main opposition force,” Cotta said in an interview last week. “She has taken advantage of the resentment of some of the population towards Draghi’s government – a capable, efficient government that also came across as stern and technocratic.”

The far-right leader also took advantage of the weakness and gaffes of her allies on the right, stealing the support of the ever-popular Salvini, whose status has plummeted since a failed coup in 2019.

“She comes across as a smarter and more credible politician than Salvini, offers responsible opposition and maintains cordial relations with Draghi,” Cotta said.

At the same time, she has tried to reassure those who question her lack of experience, with her tagline “Ready” gracing billboards across the country.

‘God, homeland, family’

Also in European issues, Meloni has sought to balance conciliatory gestures with fiery rhetoric to strengthen her base.

Wary of Italy’s massive debt, she has emphasized fiscal prudence, despite her coalition’s calls for tax cuts and higher social spending. She has pledged support for EU sanctions against Russia – in stark contrast to Salvini, who is still struggling to shake off the fallout from his earlier cringe-inducer over Putin.

However, Meloni has also warned that she will start “defending Italy’s national interests”, telling EU officials that “the free ride is over”.

A future government led by Meloni is likely to be critical of human rights, not least the treatment of migrants and minorities. She has called for a naval blockade of the Mediterranean coast of Africa to prevent migrants from reaching Italy.

Like other far-right outfits, her party has supplemented its nationalist, anti-immigrant pitch with messages about conservative social values ​​and the protection of traditional families, vehemently opposing adoptions by same-sex couples. The motto is “God, homeland, family”.

While Meloni insists she will not abolish Italy’s abortion law, Brothers of Italy has already taken steps to limit its application in the regions it controls. Insisting on the need to bolster Italy’s low birth rate, party officials have hinted at the “Great Replacement” theory, a conspiracy that suggests global elites want to replace Europeans with immigrants.

All this points to difficult relations with the EU, says Gianfranco Pasquino, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna, who nevertheless downplayed the risks of a rupture in relations with Brussels.

“The foreign press is concerned about a Meloni government, but those fears are exaggerated,” he said. “There will certainly be clashes with Europe, but Meloni is more of a politician than an ideologue – she will not seek a radical break.”

No matter what kind of government Meloni eventually ushers in, Pasquino said, Italy will no doubt persevere.

“Italy never does particularly well, but the advantage is that it never goes bad either.”

Merry

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