Giorgia Meloni has successfully rebranded her Brothers of Italy party as the country’s dominant conservative force, without fully expunging its post-fascist roots. Her right-wing coalition is forecast to glide into power after Sunday’s general election, making her the favourite to become Italy’s first female prime minister – and its first far-right premier of the postwar era.
The new darling of the Italian right summed up her personal brand in a now-famous tirade at a rally in 2019, which went viral after it was remixed into a dance music track.
“I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian,” a fired-up Meloni told supporters in central Rome. “No one will take that away from me.”
The phrase has become a leitmotif of 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 looming election, a high-stakes vote that could usher in the most momentous change in decades – a first female PM – while also handing power to the most conservative government since World War II.
Pollsters predict Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party will emerge as Italy’s largest, taking a quarter of the vote – a more than five-fold increase from its score at the last general election in 2018. She is set to leapfrog her better-known right-wing allies Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, easily surpassing their combined tallies.
With Italy’s convoluted electoral law favouring broad coalitions, the three right-wing parties are on course to trounce the fractured centre-left, potentially handing a Meloni-led government a majority large enough to change Italy’s constitution.
Europe under siege
The coda to Meloni’s “Christian mother” harangue, which she repeated word for word in Spanish at a rally in support of Spain’s extreme-right party last year, underscores the fears of an arch-conservative camp that feels under siege in a globalised, fast-changing world.
In Meloni’s mind, the besieging forces include immigration, Islam, European integration, “woke ideologies” and what she describes as “LGBT lobbies”. It’s a view she shares with the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whom she has strenuously defended in his tussles with Brussels over democracy and the rule of law.
Until recently, her ideological models also included 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 man in the Kremlin, unequivocally condemning his invasion of Ukraine and supporting Western sanctions on Moscow.
Last month, she recorded a video message in three languages to reassure Italy’s partners that she would stick to Rome’s traditional alliances, including NATO. She also dismissed as “nonsense” claims that she would head an authoritarian government.
“We fiercely oppose any anti-democratic drift with words of firmness that we do not always find in 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 fascism over to history for decades now, unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws,” she added.
Meloni was 19 when she was first interviewed by foreign media while canvassing 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 that everything he did, he did for Italy.”
She would later shift her tone, saying the dictator had made “mistakes”.
Meloni was raised by her mother in Rome’s working-class neighbourhood of Garbatella, after her father left them when she was just 2 years old. Garbatella was a bastion of the left, but the young Meloni chose the opposite camp.
As a teenager she joined the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a far-right outfit created after the war by supporters of Mussolini. She won her first local election at age 21 and became Italy’s youngest-ever minister a decade later when she was given the youth portfolio in Berlusconi’s 2008 government.
After the collapse of Berlusconi’s last administration, she founded her own party with other MSI veterans, naming it after the opening lines of the national anthem, Fratelli d’Italia. Since then, she has gradually succeeded in pushing Brothers of Italy into the mainstream – without ever fully repudiating its post-fascist roots.
She has notably rejected calls to remove from her party’s logo a tricolour flame that was an icon of the MSI and harks back to the fascist tradition.
Meloni has played down her party’s ideological origins, claiming it is a mainstream force akin to Britain’s Conservative Party. But on the campaign trail she has been careful not to alienate those core supporters who associate with the tricolour flame.
“I dream of a nation where people who have had to lower their heads for many years, pretending that they have different ideas so as not to be ostracised, can now say what they think,” she told a rally earlier this week.
Alone in opposition
While ideology still mobilises her party’s rank and file, Meloni’s surge in popularity among the wider public has more to do with her pragmatism and calculated political moves, which have earned her a reputation for steadfastness and coherence.
Whereas Salvini and Berlusconi joined forces with the centre-left last year to form a unity government under Mario Draghi, Meloni refused, describing the appointment of the former eurozone central banker as undemocratic.
Her decision to shun the national unity coalition made her a natural recipient of Italy’s protest vote, said Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena.
“Meloni has skilfully exploited her position as the main opposition force,” Cotta explained in an interview last week. “She has capitalised on the resentment of a segment of the population towards Draghi’s government – a capable, efficient administration that also came across as severe and technocratic.”
The far-right leader also benefited from the weakness and blunders of her allies on the right, stealing support from the once-popular Salvini, whose standing has plummeted ever since a botched power grab in 2019.
“She has come across as a savvier and more credible politician than Salvini, offering responsible opposition and maintaining cordial relations with Draghi,” said Cotta.
At the same time, she has sought to reassure those who question her lack of experience, with her slogan “Ready” adorning billboards up and down the country.
‘God, homeland, family’
On European issues, too, Meloni has sought to balance conciliatory gestures with fiery rhetoric aimed at galvanising her base.
Wary of Italy’s huge debt, she has emphasised fiscal prudence, despite her coalition’s call for tax cuts and higher social spending. She has pledged support for the EU’s sanctions against Russia – in stark contrast with Salvini, who is still struggling to shake off the fallout from his past fawning 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 Meloni-led government is likely to draw scrutiny on the subject of human rights, not least in its treatment of migrants and minorities. She has called for a naval blockade of Africa’s Mediterranean coast to stop 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. Its motto is “God, homeland, family”.
Although Meloni insists she won’t abolish Italy’s abortion law, Brothers of Italy has already moved to restrict its application in the regions it controls. Insisting on the need to bolster Italy’s low birth rate, party officials have alluded to the “Great Replacement” theory, a conspiracy suggesting that global elites want to substitute Europeans with immigrants.
All of which points to rocky relations with the EU, says Gianfranco Pasquino, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna, who nonetheless played down the risks of a breakdown in relations with Brussels.
“The foreign press is worried about a Meloni government but such fears are exaggerated,” he said. “There will certainly be clashes with Europe, but Meloni is more of a politician than an ideologue – she won’t seek a radical break.”
No matter what kind of government Meloni eventually ushers in, Pasquino said, Italy will undoubtedly persevere.
“Italy never fares particularly well, but the advantage is that it never fares terribly either.”