Who is Giorgia Meloni, Italy's Next Prime Minister?
There is a surprising consensus among her supporters and detractors about what this fiery, populist woman can and cannot accomplish in office
For the first time in its history, Italy is on track to put a woman in the prime minister’s office. Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d'Italia— Brothers of Italy party—got the highest vote share (26%) in the national elections. She is expected to form a coalition government with Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League) and ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, who together got about 17%.
Meloni’s coalition will replace the temporary administration of Prime Minister Mario Draghi that was installed in 2021 after the previous government, an amalgam of the ideologically eclectic Five Star Movement and two center-left parties, collapsed. It is hard to understand Italian politics from the standard left-right binary lens because the country’s 17 parties mix and match issues rather freely producing combinations that would seem rather improbable from an American and even European perspective. For example, the Five Star Movement combines a really hard-line anti-immigration stance with an ultra-green, anti-austerity, and pro-welfare agenda. That said, it is fair to say that Meloni’s coalition is pretty far to the right. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy itself has fascist roots, Salvini’s League is to the right of the Brothers, and Berlusconi’s Forza used to be the more extreme of the main right-wing parties, but is now somewhere in the middle of its two partners.
But what about Meloni herself? Who is she and how is she likely to govern? There is a great deal of debate about whether she is a fascist, neo-fascist or post-fascist. What kicked off this discussion was her infamous 1996 comment, “I think Mussolini was a good politician, everything he did, he did for Italy.” Italy is of course the birthplace of fascism. And unlike Germany, which, post World War II, tried really hard to exorcise its fascist demons, Italy never went through a comparable process. There is more baseline tolerance for this noxious ideology in Italy than in other Western countries, which is why more people outside Italy are raising eyebrows at that remark than within it, especially since she never repudiated it (although she has stated subsequently that she does not support fascism).
It is hard to accurately evaluate the politics of other countries from a distance. But the picture of Meloni that emerges from the accounts of both her detractors and supporters is surprisingly consistent: that she is a Trump-like Italy First populist who wears her reactionary agenda proudly. However, she is not reckless. There is a consensus that she will be a fierce culture warrior who will push back against progressive causes such as gay rights, immigration, reproductive choice for women while aggressively promoting natalist policies to boost Italy’s plunging birthrates. And she will make alliances with other right-wing leaders in Europe—Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France—and even America, where she was a featured guest at the recent CPAC, to advance her ideology all over the West. However, she will proceed cautiously for three reasons:
1) Italy’s economy is highly dependent on the European Union for aid and debt assistance and she will be forced to respect its commitment to liberal values whether she likes it or not.
2) She fully understands the precarious nature of her country’s politics where governments go down at the drop of a hat. So her ability to enact grand plans to move the country to a presidential system and concentrate executive power or make radical changes in electoral rules to entrench herself in office like Orban is rather limited, especially since her coalition commands nowhere near the super majority it needs to make such radical constitutional changes.
3) Even her standing within her coalition is far from firm and she will constantly face challenges to her leadership from Salvini and Berlusconi that will force her to proceed with caution and try and build bridges with more progressive parties to weaken the hold of the duo.
In other words, the danger she poses may not be immediate but long term as she uses her political charisma—in or out of office— to move Italy’s center-of-gravity in an illiberal direction.
Here is a sampling of essays taking her measure from across the political spectrum—the far right to the far left and others in between.
“Is Giorgia Meloni the most dangerous woman in Europe?”
By Nicholas Farrell, The Spectator, U.K.
Farrell is the author of the 2003, Mussolini: A New Life, in which he described Benito Mussolini as an unfairly maligned leader whose “charisma” and Machiavellian adroitness were “phenomenal.” The Spectator describes itself as politically conservative.
She is accused of having a ‘nakedly reactionary’ agenda – largely, it seems, because of her hostility to illegal migrants and to ‘woke ideology’, which in a speech in America earlier this year she blamed for (among other things) ‘destroying the foundations of the natural family’.
Meloni now accepts gay civil unions (which have been legal in Italy since 2016) but opposes gay adoption. She says that a child has ‘the right to a father and a mother’. She opposes gender politics in schools, and what she calls in Italian-English ‘la LGBT lobby’. A passionate, occasionally manic speaker, she famously shouted at a rally in Rome in 2019: ‘They want to call us parent 1, parent 2, gender LGBT, citizen X, with code numbers. But we are not code numbers… and we’ll defend our identity. I am Giorgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Italian, I am Christian. You will not take that away from me!’
The speech went viral and was even made into a disco dance track which became a smash hit. I spot a framed platinum disc on the wall. Yes, it’s for the song. She cracks up and says: ‘It’s not real! It was a present!’ She laughs a lot. She also smokes the odd ultra-slim cigarette.
There is no denying that Meloni and her coalition ally Salvini take a pretty hard line on immigration. In the past eight years, about 750,000 migrants have crossed the 300 miles of Mediterranean that separate Libya from Sicily – many ferried across by NGO charity vessels on permanent standby. Such numbers make the fuss about those crossing to England from France seem petty.
Meloni has often called for a naval blockade to deal with the boats coming from Libya. ‘Racists are cretins, OK? But that doesn’t mean Italy must not co-ordinate its migratory flows.’ Her favoured solution now, she tells me, is for the European Union to pay Libya to stop departures and take back those who make it to Italy. In 2016, the EU paid Turkey €6 billion to do the same thing – with mixed results.
‘The EU, because those migrants irritated Germany, for once got its act together. We must do the same thing with Libya. Europe must strike a deal to stop the departures and open up hotspots in Libya to process asylum requests and distribute fairly across Europe only the genuine refugees. Borders exist only if you defend them. Otherwise they do not exist.’ Italy ‘needs a quota of migrants’, she says. But ‘the first rule is that no one must enter Italy illegally’.
Doesn’t Italy need as many migrants as it can get? Its population is expected to decline from 60 million to 40 million by the end of the century, because it has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world – 1.2 children per woman. Will it not soon be facing demographic disaster without immigrants? Well, the situation will not be helped if they are overwhelmingly men, she points out. ‘The only thing to do is to solve the problem at home and place Italians in a position in which they can have children. Women don’t want to have children, because they live in a society that makes them pay if they do. But they will, if instead they find themselves in a society that rewards them as mothers.’ A maternity wage is ‘a beautiful idea’, she says, but there is already child benefit and instead she talks of free kindergartens that are open for longer, of maternity leave paid for by the state rather than the employer, and of reducing the tax burden on people with children.
It is indisputable that Brothers of Italy are the heirs to Mussolini, in the sense that the party was founded in 2012 by Meloni and others who had been members of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) which was set up in 1946 by former fascists. In 1995, MSI became Alleanza Nazionale and rejected fascism. Its then leader served as foreign minister and president of the Chamber of Deputies in successive Berlusconi governments…
It’s not just left-wing international media that calls her ‘far-right’; the right does it too, mainly because they consider her relationship with fascism to be deliberately ambiguous. In last week’s video message she tried to address that: ‘The Italian right consigned fascism to history decades ago, condemning without ambiguity the suppression of democracy and the shameful laws against the Jews.’
She says: ‘In the DNA of Brothers of Italy there’s no nostalgia for fascism, racism, or anti-Semitism. There is instead a rejection of every dictatorship: past, present and future.’ What about those times when members of her party have been filmed doing the fascist salute? ‘They are a tiny minority,’ she says. ‘I’ve always told my party bosses, even in memos, to exercise maximum severity with any manifestation of imbecilic nostalgia because those who are nostalgic for fascism are no use to us. They are only the useful idiots of the left.’
The closest Meloni gets to discussing fascism at any length in her book is near the end, in a passage in which she writes: ‘I have no fear repeating for the umpteenth time that I do not believe in the cult of fascism.’ And she describes Mussolini’s 1938 anti-Semitic laws as ‘detestable’. Why, I ask, does she make so little reference to fascism? ‘It’s something that does not belong to me,’ she replies.
Do you believe her?
“Why I voted for Giorgia Meloni”
By Rocco Loiacono, The Spectator, Australia.
Loiacono, a lecturer at Australia’s Curtin Law School, also writes for The Epoch Times that was created to defend Falun Gong, a religious cult in China, from state persecution but has become associated with far-right causes and tactics, including spreading conspiracy theories.
Day after day Meloni has been called a fascista, and the legacy media is writing the most disgraceful garbage, accusing her, believe it or not, of engaging in identity politics! Probably because in a famous 2019 speech, she declared:
‘Please answer me these questions … why is the family an enemy? Why is the family so frightening?
‘Everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would like us to no longer have an identity and to simply be perfect consumer slaves.
‘And so they attack national identity, they attack religious identity, they attack gender identity, they attack family identity.
‘I must be citizen x, gender x, parent one, parent two … I must be a number.
‘We do not want to be numbers … we will defend the value of the human being.
‘I’m Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m Christian, I’m a mother, I’m Italian, they won’t take that away from me.’
As Greg Sheridan wrote in The Australian, if we’re going to be forced to endure identity politics then there is nothing wrong with Meloni declaring proudly that she is a woman, a mother, a Christian, and an Italian. As she declared: Difenderemo Dio, patria e la famiglia che fanno tanto schifo a qualcuno! (We will defend God, country, and family. These things that disgust people so much!).”
Editor’s Note: You can watch the video clip of Meloni’s famous speech that the author is alluding to here.
“Italy: The daunting economic challenges facing Giorgia Meloni”
By Uwe Hessler, Deutsche Welle.
Hessler writes about financial issues and Deutsche Welle is a German publicly funded international broadcaster kind of like the BBC.
Giorgia Meloni has won the election with a Trump-like nationalist agenda vowing to put Italy's interests first.
Financial markets digested the victory of Italy's coalition, led by Brothers of Italy (FdI) leader Giorgia Meloni, largely without any major hiccups.
Italy's main stock market index, MIB, even gained slightly on the following Monday, while the closely watched spread between Italian and German 10-year debt barely moved over Friday's closing at 230 points. The gauge of interest rate differentials is a risk barometer for government debt and had last seen a dramatic spike to 300 points when outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced the collapse of his government in July.
Antoine Bouvet, senior rates strategist at ING, said on the Dutch bank's website that this was a sign the markets "have made their peace with the prospect of a government led by Giorgia Meloni." All the more so, he added, as the coalition had obtained enough votes to ensure political stability, but not enough to be able to change the constitution…
This year, the government has spent more than any other country in the EU — about €66 billion ($63.6 billion), or 3% of GDP — for tax breaks and subsidies to help companies and poor households pay their energy bills. The measures, however, are due to expire in November, and extending them until the end of the year would cost €4.7 billion, the Italian Treasury has calculated.
Matteo Salvini, Lega leader and Meloni's main ally, declared after the election that the energy crisis would be "the first test for the new government."
State pension reform is another costly problem for the new government. A 2011 scheme of temporarily lowering the pension age to 64 is due to expire in December. Salvini wants to prevent the age automatically going back to 67 again by scrapping the law. Moreover, since Italian pensions are index-linked, soaring inflation is compounding the expected drain on state coffers.
Closely related to unsustainable pensions is Italy's demographic problem of an aging population and dwindling birth rates, which will increase the pressure on public finances…
What surely helps Meloni in her struggles is the EU's €750 billion post-pandemic Recovery Fund from which Italy will receive the lion's share with €200 billion in grants and loans over the next few years…
A die-hard euroskeptic, Meloni has said she wants to renegotiate part of the package to better reflect the impact of the energy crisis. At the same time, she has vowed to keep public spending in check and stick to EU deficit rules, which might help her in the talks with Brussels.
But Paolo Grigani, senior economist at Oxford Economics, doubts that the new Italian leader will resist the temptation of overspending, even more so as pressure from Lega leader Salvini to ignore EU demands is already mounting.
"Given that the right-wing coalition has not emphasized structural issues in its election campaign or manifesto, we doubt that it will implement the necessary reforms," he told Reuters.
“Italians Didn’t Exactly Vote for Fascism”
By Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic.
Mounk is an international studies professor at Johns Hopkins and founding editor of Persuasion that, like The UnPopulist, is devoted to defending liberal democracies from populist authoritarianism and the host of the excellent podcast, The Good Fight. The Atlantic, is a U.S.-based magazine that covers politics, culture and arts.
The Italian constitution, which came into force in 1948, is resolutely anti-fascist, yet the country’s political culture has never made a clean break with its extremist past. For a German gas station to sell items that commemorated Adolf Hitler would be truly shocking (and probably illegal); in Italy, the sight of Mussolini memorabilia for sale in stores is not that unusual. Similarly, mainstream German political parties shun far-right extremists such as the Alternative for Germany; in Italy, parties with roots in fascism have long been an accepted part of the political scene.
Even so, Sunday’s electoral success for Giorgia Meloni and her party, Brothers of Italy, is unprecedented. It marks the first time in Italy’s postwar history that a party with fascist roots has won the most votes in a national election. Meloni, who received just over a quarter of votes cast, is now very likely to become prime minister at the head of a far-right coalition with the League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia, headed by Silvio Berlusconi.
How will the new government change Italy? And how much damage could it inflict on the country’s democratic institutions?
Italian history gives reason to worry about what lies ahead.
Brothers of Italy is descended from the Italian Social Movement, or MSI, which was founded in the aftermath of World War II by fascist politicians who had played a significant role in the Republic of Salò, the pro-Nazi puppet regime that governed the northern half of Italy after the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943. Meloni’s party has as its symbol a green, white, and red flame, which many regard as intended, in its original design, to express enduring loyalty to Mussolini.
Meloni herself, who has led Brothers of Italy since 2014, grew up in Garbatella, a working-class neighborhood of Rome, and cut her teeth in the youth wing of the MSI. Today, she regularly inveighs against immigrants and the gay-rights movement, and has made common cause internationally with far-right parties and illiberal leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. In June, she spoke at a campaign event for Vox, a rightist party in Spain. “Five hundred thirty years ago, the capitulation of Granada put an end to the Reconquista, Andalucia turned Spanish, and Europe became Christian,” she said. “Today, the secularism of the left and radical Islam threaten our roots.” Compromise with such opponents is unthinkable: Parties of the right such as Vox and Brothers of Italy, she said, needed to say a clear no to the “LGBT lobby,” to “gender ideology,” and to “mass immigration.”…
Although there are strong grounds for dismay at the prospect of Prime Minister Meloni, the actual likelihood that Italy will return to the darkest hours of its history is low.
Part of the reason is that Meloni has, to an extent, distanced herself from her party’s past. She has declared that “fascism is history” and suspended members who persisted in praising fascist leaders. Meloni has also sought to demonstrate that she would prove a reliable partner for Italy’s European and North American allies. She has, for example, moderated the party’s criticism of the European Union, emphasizing that she wants the country to stay in the eurozone. And unlike many other far-right leaders in Europe, Meloni has been a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin and a staunch supporter of Ukraine.
But the chief reason to doubt how much Meloni will change Italy is simply that she is neither as popular nor as powerful as her electoral victory may suggest. Her star is burning brightly now, but it may dim just as quickly…
Given the economic stagnation and pandemic pain the country has experienced lately, Brothers of Italy’s rapid rise in popularity was hardly surprising.
This suggests that Meloni’s victory on Sunday has less to do with nostalgia for Italy’s fascist past than with anger at the country’s parlous present. But by the same token, Meloni’s popularity may soon wane after she takes on the responsibility of governing. The fate of the last newcomer hyped as the future of Italian politics is instructive: Since its surprise success in 2018, the Five Star Movement has lost more than half of its vote share and now languishes on the sidelines…
The most immediate concern about Italy’s new government is not any threat to the country’s democratic institutions, still less a return to fascism. Rather, it is what the electoral dominance of the far right will do to the hard-won progress that immigrants and sexual minorities in Italy have made over recent decades…
Most of the Italians I have spoken with in recent days await the new government with weary equanimity. One neighbor, an outspoken woman in her 70s who, like most people in her village, has voted for the left all her life, told me of her intense dislike for Giorgia Meloni. But when I asked her whether she was worried about what the leader of Brothers of Italy would do to the country, she gave a nonchalant shrug. “In the end, the new government won’t be that different from all the others,” she said. “It’ll fail to get much of anything done. And then it’ll collapse.
“Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is no Mussolini – but she may be a Trump”
By Lorenzo Marsili, The Guardian.
Marsili is a philosopher, activist, particularly of environmental causes, and founder of European Alternatives and Fondazione Studio Rizoma. He is the author of Planetary Politics: a Manifesto. The Guardian, of course, is a famous U.K.-based newspaper.
Political analysts the world over are now busy parsing Giorgia Meloni’s statements to determine if she is a fascist, a neofascist or a post-fascist. Why, they ask, are Italians seemingly willing to consider a return to the politics of their country’s darkest hour?
But is Italy really dealing with the resurrection of its fascist past? And, more important, is Italy a laboratory whose experiment the rest of the world could eventually follow? The answers, respectively, are: no and (therefore) yes.
Those who brand the Brothers of Italy as fascists miss the point. Meloni’s party is not so much the heir to Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement as the first European copycat of the US Republican party…
She has now won that power, the first woman to do so in a painfully patriarchal society. It is unlikely she has any wish to squander such an achievement on a trashy remake of fascist corruption a hundred years too late. Her goal is to grow the kernel of a new Italian and European politics.
This desire came out clearly in the runup to the elections. Meloni did everything in her power to assure the US administration of full continuity with an Atlanticist, anti-Russian and anti-Chinese stance. At the same time, she aimed to reassure the financial markets – and, yes, the EU – that her government would keep public debt in check. On both counts she frustrated her now junior allies, Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who were flirting with empathy for Russia and with careless spending.
If she could reassure Washington and Brussels on foreign and economic policy, she correctly reasoned, she would be left in relative peace to build her power and carry out her agenda at home. No one would risk ostracising the Italian government during a security, energy and cost of living crisis just to come to the defence of migrants, or to protect women’s reproductive rights.
This approach, however opportunistic, is allowing her to carve out a place for a new type of far-right regime in Europe. Hawkish on foreign policies, orthodox on economic policies, nostalgic, nationalist and inimical to civil liberties, this rightwing politics is illiberal at heart. But it would aim for respectability in what used to be called the establishment, including by not undermining the rule of law in the way the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has done.
It is precisely because Meloni is not a fascist outcast that her actions offer a blueprint for, if not the world, then Europe. Gone may be the days when the victory of far-right populists and extremists appeared unthinkable or untenable. We may instead be in a new degenerated, rightwing normality: where that honourable and necessary space in a democracy – the space occupied by Jacques Chirac, Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel – becomes perverted and consistently occupied by Trumps and Melonis. Meloni may succeed in mutating the far right from the status of outsider in European politics to tenacious insider.
Such degeneration has been spearheaded in the US by the Republican party, as remade by its collusion with Donald Trump, which the FT columnist Edward Luce rightly described recently as a “nihilistic, dangerous and contemptible” political force. One half of the traditional political spectrum in the US has broken away, taking with it the health of American democracy. That same process – rather than the sensational emergence of a fascist, but ultimately short-lived government in Italy – may be what is taking hold in Europe…
“In Rome’s progressive neighbourhood, Meloni’s victory causes anger and concern”
By Aleksandar Brezar, Euronews.
Brezar is a staff writer for Euronews, a European news network based in Lyon, France.
Located just outside the ancient Aurelian Walls that surround the historic part of central Rome, the neighbourhood of Pigneto is widely considered the most progressive part of the Italian capital.
On Sunday, far-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party won by a clear margin, and she is likely to become Italy’s first female prime minister.
The day after the elections, Pigneto’s streets, coated by the constant, drizzling rain, seemed emptier than usual. Bars and restaurants took longer to open, and the general vibe was that of defeat…
Meloni’s meteoric rise — and attempted rebranding — saw her transition from a radical young activist of the MSI, a neo-fascist party founded in 1946 by the former chief of staff for Benito Mussolini, into a seemingly more palatable mainstream conservative.
Yet her victory is particularly painful for Pigneto locals.
Here, the streets are peppered with images and biographies of the neighbourhood’s Partisan rebels, who played a significant role in liberating Rome from fascists in World War II. Many of them paid the price of freedom with their lives and the lives of their families, yet they are never mentioned by Meloni when she insists Italy should be proud of its history…
Meloni’s talk of a “natural family” and her vocal opposition to immigration from Africa led to her being accused of racism and xenophobia.
Having a proponent of the Great Replacement — a white nationalist conspiracy theory that purports secret globalist forces want to replace white Europeans with perceived outsiders — as the country’s leader will likely make life harder for Italians that are already marginalised.
For people in Pigneto, these fears are both problematic and overblown. Of the nearly 59 million citizens of Italy, 95% are ethnic Italians. The other 5% consist of mostly Europeans, with some 1.5% originating from Africa…
Meloni also opposes abortion, euthanasia, and any laws that recognise same-sex marriage or penalise homophobia and hate speech, such as the 1993 Mancino law prohibiting inciting racial or ethnic hatred — which she and other far-right figures in the country have vowed to repeal.
Although she claimed “there is no homophobia in Italy” in 2020, on other occasions she stated that “she would rather not have a gay child” and slammed the decision to feature a gay couple in the popular Disney animated film, Frozen II, exclaiming, “Take your hands off of children” in a social media post in 2018.
But will Meloni be as much of a hardliner as prime minister as she was in the opposition?
Gustav Hofer, a correspondent for French outlet Arte and documentary filmmaker, told Euronews that although most of her electorate is not expecting her to be extremely radical while in power, Meloni will eventually have to satisfy her most far-right supporters, who are also the most ardent and loyal among her voters.
“At the beginning, she will try to give herself a moderate image and to communicate to those outside Italy that she’s not that bad, not that dangerous as she’s been pictured,” Hofer said.
“But little by little, probably, she will also have to satisfy a part of her electorate. I’m not saying 26% of Italians became fascist overnight, but definitely some 5% of those who voted for her, who have been sticking with her over the years, they expect her to do something to that effect.”
“The thing is, I don’t see this as a big win for the right-wing wave in Italy — the wave was already on the right, and she didn’t get new votes for her movement,” Hofer said.
“So it’s almost we’re in a post-populist situation where even the populist narrative does not resound with a large part of the society anymore, but she still got a majority in the government and a majority in the country.”
Yet conservatives went out and voted, while more progressive voters did not. According to Hofer, this was the result of the left alienating its voters by failing to promise anything other than being the opposite or better option to their opponents.
“Their only programme was, ‘We are opposing the rise of fascism’. But that doesn’t really interest people who are having a hard time paying their bills, or who said, ‘If you wanted to make things better for us, why haven’t you done it because you’ve been in charge for a very long time,” Hofer explained.
In the end, the right-wing pounced on the opportunity created by the progressives being in disarray, especially their failure to present a unified front in the run-up to the September election…
Jonathan Vincent Scott Reilly, a graduate student at George Mason University, provided valuable research assistance.
Also, I can’t recommend enough my friend and former colleague, Radley Balko’s, new Substack, The Watch. Radley has been doing heroic work in shining the light on the systemic abuses in America’s criminal justice system and defending falsely accused individuals, even reversing convictions. He has won numerous awards for his work and if you are interested in criminal justice reform, this will be a must-read newsletter that would be well worth the small subscription fee.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.