A far-right politician is poised to become Italy’s first female leader

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ROME — The favorite to be Italy’s next prime minister has rocketed almost from out of nowhere. Her party, until recently, was on the fringes. She was overlooked for years by Italy’s male-dominated political class. She is an unmarried mother with a heavy Roman accent, always casual and blunt, gesturing with hands to the sky, lambasting “woke ideology” and cancel culture.

By any account, Giorgia Meloni’s rise is astonishing. In a matter of weeks, if all goes as expected, she stands to become Italy’s first female leader. She’s also set a benchmark for a far-right politician in Western Europe, earning a level of power that’s been out of reach for her counterparts in Germany and France, and doing so even after the forces propelling nationalism on the continent — a migration backlash and Euroskepticism — have waned.

But Meloni’s profile is distinctive, as is the path she’s found for political success.

Amid war in Europe, she has notably avoided the pitfalls of nationalist figures elsewhere. She’s a strong NATO supporter and shows no affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. She has pledged not to disrupt Italy’s stability and Atlantic alliances. The country, she says, won’t take some authoritarian turn.

What will surely change, though, is Italy’s tone. Meloni takes shots at the “LGBT lobby” and the “globalist” left. She highlights anecdotes about immigrant crime. She has said that “everything we stand for is under attack” — Christian values, gender norms. Some of her stances — like opposition to gay adoptions, for instance — don’t get much traction among Italian voters, but she cites them as evidence that she cares more about principles than popularity.

“In a political world where everyone’s saying one thing and doing another, our [party’s] system of values is pretty clear,” Meloni said in an interview with The Washington Post. “You may like it or not, but we aren’t misleading.”

If Meloni, 45, prevails, she’ll wind up with a hard job: running a country in a generation-long economic decline that is somewhat wary of her powers.

Those on the left have sounded the alarm, saying that Meloni could push Italy into Europe’s illiberal bloc, alongside Hungary and Poland, fighting against diversity and agitating against Brussels. Her opponents argue that her views can veer into the extreme. They cite past remarks — such as a speech from 2017 — in which Meloni said mass-scale illegal immigration to Italy was “planned and deliberate,” carried out by unnamed powerful forces to import low-wage labor and drive out Italians. “It’s called ethnic substitution,” Meloni said at the time, echoing the far-right “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

Her allies, on the other hand, say Meloni has the kind of serious plans her predecessors have lacked, and that she chiefly wants to address Italy’s economic woes. Her stump speech is theatrical, but it deals mostly with ideas about boosting investment and curbing welfare. Her party’s recently released platform has 25 proposals — everything from extending high-speed rail lines to jump-starting university research. Voters inclined toward Meloni tended to cite, in interviews with The Post, her perceived honesty and coherence as the reasons for their support.

For now, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party — the Brothers of Italy, a name that echoes lyrics in the national anthem — is the most popular in the country, favored by roughly one-quarter of voters. It has a coalition agreement with other parties on the right, giving it overwhelming odds to prevail against a fractured and reeling left. The right-wing bloc has said that the premier job should go to the leader of the party with the most votes. Still, following the Sept. 25 general election, the president, Sergio Mattarella, has final say on who gets the mandate.

Meloni acknowledged in her Post interview that Italy is facing extraordinary challenges. She mentioned the rising cost of energy and raw materials, uncertainty about whether the pandemic might come roaring back, and Italy’s towering public debt — which perpetually leaves the country several missteps away from crisis. There’s a reason Italy has had 11 governments in the past 20 years.

“I cannot say that, faced with such a responsibility, my hands aren’t shaking,” she said. “Because we’d find ourselves governing Italy during what’s perhaps one of the most complex situations ever.”

A savvy campaign strategy

Meloni’s ascent owes something to the fading star of another far-right politician, Matteo Salvini.

Salvini, as recently as several years ago, was seen as Italy’s political dynamo — holding raucous rallies, banning the docking of immigrant ships and echoing former president Donald Trump with his pledge to put “Italians first.”

From his perch as interior minister in 2018 and 2019, Salvini dominated the national discourse, and his League party had grown so popular that he thought he could vault into the prime minister’s seat. But his plan backfired. When he broke apart his government coalition to force new elections, other parties joined hands to freeze him out. He tumbled into the opposition. He lunged for new ways to stand out and contradicted himself with shifting positions. Eventually, Salvini took his party back into government, supporting former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, the embodiment of the European establishment.

“Salvini had won the lottery ticket,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “Then he lost it and Meloni got it.”

Even those who disagree with Meloni’s politics concede that she strategized wisely.

As Salvini tumbled, she built ties with like-minded parties in Europe — including Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice party — and she made trips to address Republicans in the United States.

To Italians, she framed her party’s perpetual opposition role as a matter of principle: The Brothers of Italy would only join a government if elected, as opposed to entering a majority through backroom deals. Meantime, she tried to show that her party would still be constructive players if it believed in a cause.

Meloni, while speaking with The Post, mentioned supporting Draghi on handling aspects of fallout from the Ukraine war amid division in the prime minister’s coalition.

“When help was needed, we offered it,” Meloni said.

Especially as it pertains to her positions on Europe, she has moderated more noticeably than the other Western European nationalist who earlier this year made a run for power, France’s Marine Le Pen. While Le Pen’s platform had ideas that would have led to standoffs with Brussels — like prioritizing national law over E.U. law — Meloni’s does not, said Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform.

“This kind of sanitization and Europeanization has gone a lot further in Meloni’s case than in Le Pen’s,” Scazzieri said.

The catch now for Meloni is that to enter government, she’ll need Salvini, whose party is part of the right-wing coalition. On the trail, Salvini — who once wore a Putin T-shirt while touring Red Square — has suggested that the West should rethink sanctions against Russia, arguing that the measures are causing pain in Europe and failing to change the Kremlin’s calculus.

Analysts say there’s already reason to wonder about the durability of any Meloni-led coalition, given the potential for competition and rivalry with Salvini. In theory, Salvini could complicate Meloni’s trajectory even before she gets the top job, by suggesting the party leaders stand back and pick an alternative representative.

Enrico Letta, the president of Italy’s center-left party and Meloni’s chief sparring partner on social media, made the point in an interview with The Post that Italy isn’t in the midst of a sudden far-right surge. In European elections in 2019, Salvini’s League got 34 percent of the vote. Meloni’s party got 6 percent. As then, roughly two-fifths of Italians still favor the far-right parties; the difference is that Meloni has siphoned off much of Salvini’s support.

“It’s not a wave — it’s her,” Letta said. “Part of the country is betting on her, because she is young and new.”

He predicted that her honeymoon would “end soon,” and that the inevitable compromises would sully her reputation.

Meloni, and those around her, said she has built her party up with no shortcuts.

“We took the longer route,” she said. “Italians today understand that we’re a very reliable party.”

Well prepared for confrontation

Meloni says she learned at a young age the importance of having enemies.

Her childhood in the Roman outskirts was difficult. She was abandoned by her father, who sailed off to the Canary Islands. She was raised by her mother, a right-winger who wrote romance novels. Playing with candles, she accidentally burned down the family home. And she was bullied for being overweight. In her autobiography, she recounts the story of being called a “fatso” when trying to get into a volleyball game. She dieted and slimmed down.

“Years later I’m grateful to those rednecks,” Meloni wrote.

All these years later, Meloni references her adversaries all time, sometimes with glee. On Facebook, she cites skeptical or critical news headlines. On the trail, she talks about how the left is obsessed with trashing her and is doing “everything to stop us.” Even in a video she released last month, rejecting any party ties with Italy’s fascist past, she noted that suggestions to the contrary had been “inspired by the powerful media circuit of the left.” In her interview with The Post, she explicitly cited the “globalist” left as an enemy, and said the West is “paying for the weakness” of its ideology, which she said seeks to flatten differences in identity.

Italy has had all sorts of leaders — including Silvio Berlusconi, with his politics-as-theater approach to governing (and who six years ago discouraged a pregnant Meloni from running for mayor of Rome, saying a “mother cannot be mayor”).

Meloni is hardly the first to relish political combat. But some Italians worry she’ll further polarize the country and loosen some of the restraints in society. Edith Bruck, a Holocaust survivor and poet who lives in Rome, and who has befriended Pope Francis, noted Meloni’s shorthand way for introducing herself: as a woman, a mother, an Italian and a Christian.

“What is the implication of that?” Bruck said. “That she isn’t Muslim or Jewish? It all goes back to the idea that Europe is Christian and non-Christians are a threat.”

Meloni’s allies see it differently. Giovanbattista Fazzolari, a Brothers of Italy senator who has known Meloni since she was a teenager, said Meloni would represent the whole country, but that there could be “exceedingly hard” clashes with entrenched powers that she judges aren’t working “for the good of the nation.”

On the campaign trail, Meloni has dealt with mostly adoring crowds, plus the occasional protest group chanting “fascists” at her supporters. And she’s used even the off-script moments as evidence that she’s ready for the job.

During a speech on the island of Sardinia, a young man with a rainbow flag evaded security and made his way onstage. He was beginning to talk about his desire for legalized same-sex marriage when Meloni interjected.

“You and I don’t agree,” she said. “I want the [political] right to think differently. It’s a democracy.”

She mentioned that Italy already provides the right to civil unions, “so you can do what you want.”

The confrontation ended peacefully. She asked the crowd to applaud, and Meloni promoted a video clip of the moment on social media.

As the man left the stage, she said, “I respect people’s courage to stand up for what they believe in.”

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