‘We’ve tried them all, except Meloni’: Far-right leader tipped to become Italy’s first female PM
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, speaks during a rally in Milan on September 11, 2022. © Flavio Lo Scalzo, Reuters

As yet unaffected by the slings and arrows of governing, Giorgia Meloni is poised to carry her hard-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) party to victory in Italy’s general election on September 25, putting her in the running to become the country’s first female prime minister. FRANCE 24 reports from Italy’s economic capital Milan, where the new darling of the right has eclipsed former champions of the cause Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi.

Locals enjoying a late-afternoon stroll, couples lapping at fast-melting ice cream cones and tourists angling for the best shot of Milan’s imposing Gothic cathedral – just another Sunday in piazza Duomo, one might say, were it not for the flag-waving crowd gathered around a fiery orator with a thick Roman accent.

The speaker, Giorgia Meloni, is the leader of Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia or FdI), a far-right outfit that has emerged from its south-central power base to become a dominant force all the way up to the Alps. At 45, she is the favorite to become Italy’s first female prime minister after the country’s general election on September 25.

Pollsters predict Meloni’s party will emerge as Italy’s largest, taking a quarter of the vote – a more than fivefold 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 the seemingly eternal Silvio Berlusconi, easily surpassing their combined tallies.

With Italy’s convoluted electoral law favoring 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.

Come election time, the right always finds a way to pull together,” said Francesco Trevisi, a pensioner from faraway Lecce, in the heel of Italy, as he wound up his passeggiata in Milan’s central square.

He offered a simple explanation for the far-right leader’s astonishing surge: “She’s the only one we haven’t tried yet – which means she’s the only one yet to fail.”

Alone in opposition

Blame it on the unseasonal heat, a lackluster campaign or the Formula One Grand Prix taking place in nearby Monza, but Meloni fell well short of “filling up piazza Duomo” as she had promised. Still, the crowd of several thousand supporters underscored the shifting balance of power on the right.

That shift is especially startling here in Milan, the capital of Lombardy, the country’s economic powerhouse, where Brothers of Italy took just 3.6 percent of the vote four years ago.

Italy’s main business hub, Milan is where Berlusconi built his housing, advertising and television empires and where he owned a football club and launched his political career. Salvini’s anti-immigrant Lega party once envisaged it as the capital of a prosperous and independent north, freed from the corruption and inefficiencies of Roma ladrona (Rome the thief).

In past election campaigns, both men would have vied to stage the biggest rally at the foot of the Duomo, the world’s third-largest cathedral. This time, however, they had little choice but to cede home turf to their former junior partner.

In the quicksand of Italian politics, where politicians seem to change stance, party or coalition almost every other day, Meloni has at least one clear advantage over her allies: 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, she refused, describing the appointment of the former eurozone central banker as undemocratic.

“Like her or not, she’s stuck to her word and refused to enter unnatural alliances,” said local pensioner Grazia Valerin, chancing upon Meloni’s rally. “The same can’t be said of the likes of Salvini, who now pretends he was in the opposition when, in fact, he was in government,” added her partner Ruben, an insurance worker and one-time Lega voter who will be looking elsewhere this time.

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

“Meloni has skillfully exploited her position as the main opposition force,” Cotta explains. “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 has also benefited from the weakness and blunders of her allies-cum-rivals on the right, he adds, stealing support from the once-popular Salvini, whose standing has plummeted ever since a botched power grab in 2019.

“Salvini’s limitations have become all too obvious to most voters,” Cotta explains. As for the 85-year-old Berlusconi, “he’s now a spent force”.

“Berlusconi's decline has opened up a huge space among centre-right voters, who traditionally account for a decisive swathe of the electorate,” he says. “Salvini occupied part of that space for a while, now it's Meloni's turn.”

Message to Europe: Italy comes first

Disillusion with Salvini was a recurrent theme at the Milan rally, where many former Lega voters lamented its leader’s frequent U-turns.

“Meloni has learned from Salvini’s mistakes,” said 23-year-old student Massimo Boscia, who broke with Salvini over his decision to join a unity government with the left and his support for Covid-19 vaccination passes. “She has understood that in order to govern she will need to build her international credibility,” he said.

Boscia spoke enthusiastically of Meloni’s economic platform, a mix of business-friendly tax cuts, “Italy first” protectionism and industrial investment, unrestrained by what he described as the “often sterile injunctions of environmentalism”.

Meloni’s right-wing coalition has pledged extremely expensive solutions to the energy and cost of living crisis in the eurozone's third-biggest economy – without detailing how they will be paid for.

While Italy is saddled with the eurozone’s second-highest public debt, there’s also a lot of money up for grabs – the EU has earmarked almost €200 billion in post-pandemic recovery funds for the country. Meloni says she will renegotiate that deal, which is contingent on Italy carrying out a series of reforms.

“To the EU I say, ‘The free ride is over’,” she roared on Sunday, vowing to “start defending Italy’s national interests like every other EU member already does”. Away from the rallies, however, she has adopted a more conciliatory tone, pledging fiscal prudence and 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 Vladimir Putin.

On the campaign trail, she has been careful to avoid criticizing Draghi, mindful of his standing both at home and abroad. Instead, she has relentlessly targeted the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), her main competitor, blaming it for every one of Italy’s woes.

In Milan, she accused the PD of attempting to demonize her party through a “violent” campaign of slander. “The left attacks us all day long because they have nothing else to offer,” she said. “They are trying to create a monster (…) calling me a fascist.”

The flame of discord

Meloni was 15 when she joined the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a far-right outfit created after the war by supporters of the fascist dictator Benito 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. 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 tricolor flame that was an icon of the MSI.

“Meloni leads a party whose roots go back to the fascist tradition, including through the symbol of the flame,” says Paolo Berizzi, a journalist at Italian daily La Repubblica who has been under round-the-clock police protection for the past three years after receiving death threats from neo-fascist groups. “In interviews with the foreign press she tries to come across as moderate, but when she addresses right-wing crowds at rallies she shows her true colors,” he adds.

Meloni has cultivated a straight-talking, tough persona. She describes herself as conservative, even as much of the foreign press calls her far right. She champions patriotism and traditional family values, while excoriating political correctness and global elites. In a fiery speech in support of Spain’s far-right Vox party in June, she railed against “Islamic violence”, “gender ideology” and the “LGBT lobby”.

As its name suggests, her Brothers of Italy is no sisterhood. Other than Meloni, its prominent figures are all men – with the exception of Daniela Santanchè, a former Berlusconi ally with a long record of anti-feminist rants, who once said women’s greatest pleasure should be “serving their men”.

In conservative meritocratic fashion, Meloni is opposed to diversity quotas to boost female presence in parliament or the boardroom, saying women have to get to the top through merit, like she did. If her party has a priority regarding women, it’s to reverse Italy’s declining birth rate.

“As things stand, this nation is destined to disappear,” Meloni warned on Sunday, before adding: “The solution is not immigration, like the left would have you think.”

It’s a view shared by opera singer Rafaella D’Ascoli, who sang the national anthem on stage as the rally drew to a close.

“Women shouldn’t have to choose between career and maternity, like I did when I quit my job to have a baby,” she said. “The point is to ensure they are able to do both.”

D’Ascoli described herself as a “firm believer in meritocracy”, like Meloni. “Women shouldn’t get jobs just to fill quotas and then keep quiet, but because they deserve them,” she said.

Victory for the Brothers of Italy leaders “would be a victory for women”, added her younger sister Serena, a pharmacist, praising Meloni's “tenacity”.

Aside from Meloni’s natalist policies, Serena said she was particularly drawn to her stance on immigration, which includes pledges to set up African hot spots to process applications while pushing back illegal crossings – a promise Salvini made at the last election and failed to deliver on.

Meloni’s tough rhetoric on immigration drew some of the loudest cheers from the crowd in piazza Duomo, many of them former Lega voters accustomed to Salvini’s tirades on the subject.

In fact, Meloni’s program is “much the same as Salvini’s”, said Claudio, a retired producer of the local digestif Amaro Ramazzotti. A nostalgic of the Lega of old, he said he would remain loyal to Salvini’s party, railing against southern “scroungers” who live off northern Italy’s wealth.

Italy must stop being “submissive towards Europe”, Claudio said, urging Meloni and Salvini to “stand up to other EU nations”.

“Italy has tried them all, now Meloni is the new package,” he added. “But as long as they govern together, it suits me fine.”