Can Giorgia Meloni Become Italy’s Marine Le Pen?
Italy’s next far-right superstar wants to keep migrants out while welcoming members of the Mussolini family into her party. If Italy holds early elections, she may become a key member of the next government.
When the rescue ship Sea Watch docked at an Italian port and 42 migrants who had been rescued at sea disembarked in late June, in defiance of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s order, the far-right Italian politician Giorgia Meloni suggested on Twitter that the ship ought to be seized and sunk, after arresting the crew.
The tweet was pretty much in line with Salvini’s rhetoric against rescue ships—only more extreme.
Outside of Italy, Meloni is far less famous than Salvini, who is largely seen as the country’s de facto leader. But at home, Meloni has become one of Italy’s most prominent right-wing politicians. The head of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a small but growing post-fascist party, she is the one ally from the right whom Salvini’s League party hasn’t cannibalized.
Despite moving his party to the right, Salvini has been more successful at stealing votes from the center-right Forza Italia party than from the nationalist right. As a result, the ally he needs going forward isn’t a man from the center, but a woman from the far-right.
While voters from the more centrist Forza Italia, headed by the 82-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, have flocked to the League, Salvini’s meteoric rise hasn’t dented the support for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy—and the party is increasingly seen as the natural partner for a possible right-wing governing coalition led by the League.
After a resounding defeat in the European elections in May, the League’s coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, has vocally opposed many of Salvini’s proposals—in particular on more fiscal autonomy for the wealthy north and the construction of high-speed railway, which it opposes for environmental reasons. Salvini is well aware that he would have an easier time governing with more like-minded parties that share his right-wing agenda; moreover, he currently enjoys high popularity ratings and may want to head to the polls while they’re still at a peak.
Recent polls suggest that the League could get 34 percent of the vote and the Brothers of Italy around 7 percent in a national election—both figures are close to the results in the May European Parliament elections. This means that, should Salvini decide to end the coalition with the Five Star Movement, which is struggling in the polls (at around 19 percent, down from the 33 percent it won in the 2018 election that brought it to power) and with which relationships are increasingly strained, together the League and Brothers of Italy could pass the threshold of 40 percent of the vote. That would effectively hand them a majority of seats in Parliament due to nuances of Italian electoral law and a 3 percent threshold to enter parliament that favors larger parties.
The two parties have been allies in the past and recently ran as allies in local elections. Unlike the Five Star movement, whose leaders often quarrel with the League and disagree on a number of topics, Meloni shares many of the League’s views: Both want much stricter immigration laws and oppose a new, more flexible law to obtain Italian citizenship.
In fact, on the surface they are so similar that one would wonder why they don’t merge or why Brothers of Italy voters don’t gravitate toward the larger League. But these voters are very attached to their independence: They would be glad to support the League as junior partners but not to merge. Most importantly, they want a leader who comes from a truly right-wing tradition.
Meloni fits the bill. She claims to have a “serene relationship” with fascism; while denouncing its authoritarianism, the racial laws, and the war, she sees the fascist era as just another period in the country’s history. However, the Brothers of Italy have repeatedly nominated heirs of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and has requested that streets be named in honor of Giorgio Almirante, a former fascist official and secretary of the Italian Social Movement, in several cities.
According to Luigi Di Gregorio, a professor of political science at Tuscia University, Meloni voters appreciate Salvini’s work but are not willing to vote for him because he is “too simplistic, overexposed in the media, and not very sophisticated.” Also, they are suspicious of his party’s past. Until a few years ago, the League, back then known as the Northern League, was a separatist party that sought—rhetorically at least—the secession of the rich north from the poorer south, a vision hardly compatible with the nationalism of old-school right-wing voters who opted for so-called post-fascist parties (initially the Social Movement, then the National Alliance, and eventually the Brothers of Italy).
For Italian nationalists, and especially those inspired by fascism or post-fascism, national unity is a nonnegotiable core value. After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, Italy remained divided in many small states, some of them under foreign control, until it was reunified at the end of the 19th century. Therefore, the concept of national unity is intertwined with a sense of independence and pride, and with aspirations of reclaiming Italy’s place among Western powers. After a scandal hit the Northern League’s founder, Umberto Bossi, Salvini tried to transform the party, which now also appeals to southern voters under the strategically truncated name League.
Although Salvini changed his party’s name, put northern separatism on hold, and embraced “Italians first” rhetoric, it’s not enough for some die-hard nationalists: “Cutting the word ‘North’ from the name doesn’t quite erase 20 years of history,” Di Gregorio said. For some right-wing voters, he added, Meloni represents a “more serious and consistent position with the history of the right.”
Born in Rome and raised in the working-class neighborhood of Garbatella, Meloni, 42, has had a long political career. She entered politics in 1992 at the age of 15, joining the youth wing of the Social Movement, a party of fascist nostalgists founded by officials from Mussolini’s army. They made no secret of admiring Mussolini and his views but didn’t want to bring his regime back. Their motto was “Neither deny nor restore”—advocating participation in democratic life based on Mussolini’s ideas without wanting to organize a coup to restore fascism.
She followed this party when it evolved into the National Alliance to join forces with Berlusconi. When the National Alliance and Forza Italia merged into the now-defunct People of Freedom party, Meloni joined the new group under the leadership of Berlusconi. Between 2008 and 2011, she served as minister of youth in Berlusconi’s fourth government. But in 2012, she broke with the longtime prime minister and co-founded Brothers of Italy.
Known for her anti-immigrant stance and her extremely colloquial manner, Meloni was defined by the Guardian as “the friendly face of Italy’s surging far right.” Meloni speaks with a strong working-class Roman accent and often uses slang words from the Roman dialect. Both her accent and her down-to-earth body language help convey the image of a working-class girl next door. And, in an attempt to adopt an anti-conformist style to appeal to younger voters, Meloni has even shared a fan’s drawing depicting her as a manga character and developed another avatar of her own.
According to Di Gregorio, Meloni could have been the Italian equivalent of France’s Marine Le Pen: a nationalist politician able to court voters beyond the traditional far-right base, attracting the disaffected from numerous other parties. But this was not possible because, Di Gregorio noted, this place was taken by Salvini, who “simplifies better and mobilizes better.”
But there’s another important difference. Giovanni Diamanti, a pollster at Quorum, said that one of Salvini’s strengths is his ability to win the support of right-leaning and, like Le Pen, disappointed former left-leaning voters in areas that traditionally voted for socialists and communists. Meloni, on the other hand, can count on a hardcore base: Her constituency is “more ideological,” he said. Also, electoral data suggests that her party is particularly strong in Lazio, the region surrounding Rome. (With its 5.9 million inhabitants, Lazio accounts for almost 10 percent of Italy’s population.)
Alessandro Giuli, a conservative TV host and columnist at the right-wing newspaper Libero, goes even further: He argued that while Salvini’s success has been based on “hunting down former leftist voters” using right-wing arguments, Meloni aims to reconquer the hardcore of the Italian right, which Giuli said represents “from 8 to 11 percent of Italian voters.”
Meloni is particularly skilled in creating controversies that provide her with media attention. When Italy’s men’s soccer team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, she blamed the failure on the fact that Italian clubs hire too many foreign players. When a right-wing terrorist shot six African migrants in Macerata, she put the blame on immigration. And when the Egyptian Museum in Turin issued a promotion aimed at Arabic speakers, Meloni accused it of discriminating against Italians.
These statements are in line with Salvini’s rhetoric: In fact, he has also blamed the Macerata shooting on immigration and asked soccer clubs to limit the number of foreign players. But while their stances may be similar, their style and ideologies are different. Meloni is more overtly nationalistic in the classical sense; she defined herself as a “nationalist” and has publicly memorialized the fallen soldiers of World War I. Also, the name of the party, “Fratelli d’Italia,” is the opening line of the Italian national anthem.
Meloni makes frequent displays of national pride, a theme that is dear to right-wing voters but that leaves much of the Italian public indifferent. Unlike Salvini, Meloni, who calls herself a Catholic, has never sought a confrontation with the pope. Salvini, on the other hand, likes to talk about sovereignty, which does not have an ideological basis and can appeal both to right-wing voters and former left-leaning voters. The two shouldn’t be confused, argued Di Gregorio, the political scientist: “Sovereignism is the simple defense against globalization,” whereas “behind the idea of patriotism there is a strong belief in the homeland.”
Meloni has repeatedly said that she is ready for an alliance with Salvini. She and Salvini have long been allies as part of center-right coalitions until 2018 when—after surpassing Berlusconi for the first time—the League abandoned the center-right coalition to form the government with the populist Five Star Movement.
Now Berlusconi is old, and his Forza Italia has entered into an irreversible crisis. “Forza Italia lacks a leadership and an identity,” said Diamanti, the pollster. Many of the votes that the Brothers of Italy have gained came from Berlusconi’s party. Five Star is struggling as well, and that also could play into Meloni’s hand, as Salvini could feel emboldened enough to discard his embattled partner and try to force early elections.
Until now, Meloni has succeeded in preserving her autonomy despite having an almost identical message to the League’s; a government coalition could put that independence at risk. Meloni may have the same ideas as Salvini but risks being crushed by an ally who is similar to her but stronger.
As Five Star’s leaders know all too well, Salvini is very good at putting coalition partners in the shadows: If he was able to steal support from a very distinct party like the Five Star Movement, he could easily do the same with the Brothers of Italy, and Meloni will be forced to find something new in order to stand out. However, for her, it is a risk worth taking, not only because for the first time she could enter the government as leader of one of its parties but also because—with Berlusconi in decline—she would have a chance of becoming the new face of the Italian right.
Giorgio Ghiglione is a freelance writer in Milan. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Internazionale. Twitter: @giorgioghiglion