Firebrand Giorgia Meloni could become Italy's next PM; will she shed her fascist past?

Given Meloni’s neo-fascist roots, there are many in Italy as well who are concerned about her possible rise to power. And why today voters are attracted to her message

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Mon 19 Sep 2022, 11:16 PM

Pre-election opinion polls are saying that after votes are counted in Italy’s first general election in four years, set for this coming Sunday, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the hard-right political party Brothers of Italy, could be the country’s next prime minister.

That result would be remarkable for a couple of reasons: she would be the first woman to lead Italy, and her party was long considered on the neo-fascist fringe. In recent years, she has toned down her rhetoric, saying she supports the EU, NATO and the euro.

As Italy struggles to meaningfully absorb the waves of immigrants that arrived in recent years and Europe battles severe inflation and an energy crisis, does the rise of Meloni portend a sharp shift in politics as voters look to more nationalistic leaders?

Possibly so. Like the rest of Europe, the string of events that battered Italy have left some wondering if a malediction has been levied. Following the still-unresolved migrant crisis, Europe has endured the pandemic, war in the Ukraine, record post-WWII inflation and soaring energy prices that not only frighten the general population but could also drive many of Italy’s small entrepreneurs – a mainstay of the economy – out of business.

Not surprisingly, voters are looking for strong, clear leadership – someone authentic whose message seems based on firm principles not opportunism or cynical machinations.

The upcoming election will be the first for Italian voters to directly express their political will since 2018, though prime ministers have changed three times in that time span. Under the Italian constitution, the president, whose elder statesman position is designed to bring rationality and stability, can help form new coalitions even without elections.

In that role, venerated President Sergio Mattarella has guided the nation through several iterations of government since 2018, with the latest led by the respected Mario Draghi. When that government collapsed over the summer, new elections were finally called.

A growing number of Italians are finding the authenticity they seek in Meloni. Her direct style of speech, still with the tones of her humble working class neighborhood in Rome, seems to have found favor, helping propel the Brothers of Italy political party she cofounded from a 4 percent share of the vote in 2018 to a projected 25 percent today, enough to be the senior partner in a right-wing coalition that would include Matteo Salvini’s League party and Forza Italia, the party controlled by the seemingly eternal Silvio Berlusconi.

Voters could also find her actions consistent. As other right-wing parties joined the most recent coalition cobbled together by Mattarella and led by Draghi, the Brothers of Italy went into the opposition role due to differences with more liberal parties in the group.

And she has consciously toned down her rhetoric. In an interview with a French TV network during for municipal elections in her neighborhood in 1996, Meloni described Mussolini as “a good politician”, but today is much more circumspect. With the campaign slogan “Ready,” she says she is a supporter of NATO, Ukraine, the EU and the euro.

Italians see the right-wing as more friendly to Vladimir Putin through personal ties – Berlusconi in particular – but Meloni has distanced herself from the policies of the Russian leader. She now says Putin is an anti-Western aggressor. Still, voters likely see the right-wing parties as positioned to negotiate a better gas deal with Russia, helping ease the looming crisis.

Certainly other nations and the Europe Union are wary. Once in power, could Meloni change her tune? “I fear the social and moral agenda of the right wing,” says Frans Timmermans, European Commission vice president.

Of course, given Meloni’s neo-fascist roots, there are many in Italy as well who are concerned about her possible rise to power. And why today voters are attracted to her message.

Enrico Letta, a former prime minister and current head of the centrist Democratic Party, says fear is fuelling the far-right’s gains in Europe.

“Fears are today a big part of the way in which our societies are living this period,'' Letta told the Associated Press news agency, citing the pandemic and its economic woes, the energy crisis of soaring utility bills and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “It's easier for the right, for the extreme right to push, to boost (itself) on these fears.''

He also pointed to recent gains by the far-right in Sweden as the populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party has surged to become the country’s second-largest political force.

Letta says that there are two outcomes possible in Italy: One is the right-wing offering the solution of nationalism. “The other solution is on our side, and our solution means Europe.”

But Meloni is keen to moderate her image as a nationalist, despite a recent inflammatory speech in which she excoriated a range of developments in modern life. “The tone was very wrong,” she later said in an interview. “But it happens to me when I’m very tired,” she said, noting her passionate delivery “becomes hysteric”.

Is Meloni actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as some suggest? If she is seen as steadfast by Italian voters, and they are correct in that opinion, how much could her views really change?

Time will tell if she does indeed grasp the levers of power. For now, it appears a growing number of Italians are willing to take a chance.

“We’ve tried everyone else,” a resident of her Rome neighborhood told a reporter. “Why not try her next?”

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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