The collapse of Mario Draghi's technocrat-led government marks the end of the current legislature in Italy. Italians will head to the polls on September 25 to choose their new rulers. The odds-on favorite to be sworn in as Prime Minister is Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party. Meloni, 45, would be the first woman to hold the post, and the first right-wing P.M. in the history of the Republic born atop the ashes of the fascist regime in 1945.
Although the Italian right severed its links with post-fascist movements in the early ‘90s and many of its prominent members have served as ministers in Berlusconi's various governments, the center-left is up in arms at the prospect of a right-wing P.M. All polls show the center-right coalition, which includes Meloni, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Matteo Salvini of the Lega party, on course to win an overall majority in both houses of the Italian Parliament. That would mean a 5-year period in power in which Meloni and her allies could change Italy’s Constitution and veer toward a presidential system, which the right has advocated for years.
The Italian establishment is having none of this, though. The left-wing newspaper La Repubblica has begun a smear campaign against Meloni, calling her "Ducetta"—that is, "Little Duce", a play on the nickname of Benito Mussolini. The paper regularly frets about Meloni's supposed unsuitability for office and the threat she would pose to Italian democracy. It warns that Italy will be turned over to runaway investors, see the curtailment of civil rights, and will sever ties to the European Union. Many feel strongly about that last possibility, as Brussels is bankrolling Italy’s ailing economy through the Next Generation EU project. As President of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR) in the European Parliament, Meloni has reiterated that Italy’s standing in Europe would not change if she were to form a center-right governing coalition. In March, for example, writing for the moderate Corriere della Sera, Meloni expressed her belief in a European confederation of states.
The Italian Democratic Party and its media allies relentlessly harp on Meloni's alleged weaknesses; “She’s not worthy of being Prime Minister”, they claim; “She’s untested, and her party is short on political talent”, they add. But after years of trying the tested pro-establishment parties—and the populist Five Star Movement in 2018—Italians want change.
Rising inflation, the cost-of-living crisis, and wage and productivity stagnation have all taken their toll on Italy’s beleaguered middle and lower classes. Meloni, though herself a minister in the 2008 Berlusconi government, is seen as a breath of fresh air, unencumbered and willing to bring the country forward. Socially, she represents the over-subsidized Italian South more than the prosperous North, but has pledged to slash corporate taxes and deliver for business. She has also promised to scrap the infamous Reddito di Cittadinanza, the controversial basic-income program enacted by the Five Star Movement in 2018. “No more handouts, no more nanny state”, screamed Meloni at a party rally. Some went as far as suggesting that people refusing a job should be fined.
Pundits have attacked her and, most of all, her allies on foreign policy. Berlusconi and Salvini have been dovish towards Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin; Italy’s dependence on Russian oil and gas explains the country’s caution. The politicians’ perceived lack of passion in supporting Ukraine's resistance against Russia has created a stir. However, Meloni has repeatedly stated her support for President Zelensky and mentioned Kiev’s defense as a main focus in the center-right political manifesto.
The right-wing media have highlighted Meloni’s transatlantic ties with the United States and American conservative groups, too. Giorgia Meloni was on the spot on July 4 at the American embassy in Via Veneto to celebrate America's Independence Day. Over the years, she has developed close ties with the former United States ambassador in Rome, Lewis Eisenberg, and the outgoing chargé d'affaires, Thomas Smitham. Recently, she became an associate of the Aspen Institute, headed in Italy by Giulio Tremonti, a former Treasury minister under Berlusconi, whom many think will play a key role in her government.
Meloni, a fluent English-speaker and a keen language learner, has also appeared three times on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, where she rubbed shoulders with former American President—and darling of the Italian right wing—Donald Trump. In her speeches, she emphasized Italian conservatives' ties with America, her fight against woke culture, and her belief in an identity-based politics in which tradition and patriotism form the backbone of nation-states and political action.
It is far too early to say if Meloni will actually be Italy's first female prime minister. The general election is almost a month away and progressives are still fighting tooth and nail in their supposed battle against “fascism." One of Meloni's staunchest ally, Brothers of Italy co-founder Guido Crosetto, spoke to the British paper The Times and labeled people who praise Mussolini’s supposed achievements as “idiots,” in an attempt to distance the Brothers of Italy from Il Duce's political heritage.
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Clearly, it's not fascism that’s luring people to Meloni. After choosing not to join Mario Draghi's unity government in February 2021, her support has sky-rocketed. Many Italians have identified her as the last hope to restore national pride and unlock a system on the verge of collapse. A similar pattern befell the Five Star Movement in 2018, and The League in 2019 after they won the European parliamentary elections by a landslide. Many predict that, once in power, even Meloni will lose her appeal as the economy takes another turn for the worse and energy bills continue to rise.
Italian politics are still in flux. No one has been able to replace Silvio Berlusconi’s clout and political nous in the center-right coalition. No one has replaced his status as a darling of Italian small and medium entrepreneurs and housewives. His cult, though waning, still plays a major role in the alliance’s fortunes.
Great expectations loom for Meloni as they did for her predecessors. She brought her party from a less-than-2-percent vote share in 2012 to its current share of 23 percent. Will she be able to take the bull by the horns and ensure Italy’s political stability? Will it be smooth sailing, or will she—and Italian politics—face further tests? Only time will tell if Italy's hopes were pinned on the winning horse.