How Giorgia Meloni Took Over the Italian Right

The likely next prime minister maintained ideological purity while her fellow right-wingers compromised. Now, she’s ready to reap the rewards.

By , a freelance writer in Milan.
League leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d'Italia leader Giorgia Meloni (C), and Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi (R)at the end of a meeting in Rome on Oct. 20, 2021.
League leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d'Italia leader Giorgia Meloni (C), and Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi (R)at the end of a meeting in Rome on Oct. 20, 2021.
League leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d'Italia leader Giorgia Meloni (C), and Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi (R)at the end of a meeting in Rome on Oct. 20, 2021. CLAUDIO PERI/ANSA/AFP via Getty Images

The day before the fall of Italy’s unity government led by Mario Draghi, the far-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni was holding a rally in central Rome. “We’re ready for elections, I am ready, Brothers of Italy is ready!” she declared.

When Draghi resigned from the position of prime minister on July 21, all major Italian parties seemed taken off guard and ill-equipped to conduct an early political campaign—except Brothers of Italy, a far-right party led by Meloni, the only significant political force that stayed out of the Draghi-led broad coalition. According to polls, the party has good chance of winning the upcoming election next month, which would make Meloni Italy’s first female prime minister—and the first one from a post-fascist party.

Meloni’s rise in the past few years has been meteoric.

The day before the fall of Italy’s unity government led by Mario Draghi, the far-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni was holding a rally in central Rome. “We’re ready for elections, I am ready, Brothers of Italy is ready!” she declared.

When Draghi resigned from the position of prime minister on July 21, all major Italian parties seemed taken off guard and ill-equipped to conduct an early political campaign—except Brothers of Italy, a far-right party led by Meloni, the only significant political force that stayed out of the Draghi-led broad coalition. According to polls, the party has good chance of winning the upcoming election next month, which would make Meloni Italy’s first female prime minister—and the first one from a post-fascist party.

Meloni’s rise in the past few years has been meteoric.

In the past general elections, which were held in 2018, Brothers of Italy got only 4 percent of the votes, running as a junior partner in a conservative coalition with Matteo Salvini’s League, a bigger nationalist party, and Silvio Berlusconi’s more moderate Forza Italia.

Today, the polls suggest Brothers of Italy is the most popular party in the country. According to the same polls, the same Brothers-League-Forza Italia coalition a good chance of getting enough votes to form a right-wing government. But this time, Meloni is no longer a junior partner: She’s the leader.


Meloni’s success was built, among other things, on the credibility crisis of her adversaries on the left and her allies on the right, who have all become increasingly inconsistent in the eyes of the public, especially during Draghi’s government.

In the past four years, Italian politics has been riddled with turnarounds, and, since it was appointed, the current Parliament has supported three radically different coalition governments without going through elections. Immediately after the 2018 vote, the League broke its electoral alliance with Forza Italia and Brothers of Italy and formed a government with the Five Star Movement. That coalition was headed by Giuseppe Conte, an independent lawyer then seen as close to Five Star (he now heads the party), who called himself proudly “populist”; it lasted until the summer of 2019.

At that point, the Five Star Movement formed a coalition, also headed by Conte, with the left-leaning Democratic Party and smaller centrist and progressive forces. That government collapsed in early 2021, when a small centrist party—Italia Viva, the personal party of Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister and Democratic Party leader—pulled support.

Brothers of Italy has been the only party that did not alter its allegiance or identity in recent years.

It was then that President Sergio Mattarella called Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank who enjoyed both national and international prestige, to head a unity government, in order to avoid early elections in a particularly difficult moment, as the country was struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and had to draft an economic recovery plan. That coalition was joined by the Democrats, the Five Stars, the League, Forza Italia, and smaller parties.

The only significant political force that opted out was Brothers of Italy. More broadly, it has been the only party that did not alter its allegiance or identity in recent years.

Meloni’s appeal is in part due to the fact that she is young, media-savvy, and has built a relatable, down-to-earth persona. And she has been lucky to emerge at a time when her two main rivals on the right are in crisis mode: Berlusconi is too old, and Salvini has lost his momentum. But if there’s one single issue that explains her growth in popularity, it would be her perceived consistency on policy.

As Martina Carone, an analyst for the political communication agency Quorum, put it, “She’s the only one that hasn’t done everything and the opposite of everything.” In Italy’s political landscape, where parties and leaders frequently change stances and perform ideological U-turns, Meloni stands out as the exception, Carone said.

Brothers of Italy, it should be noted, is drawing most if its newly found support from League voters, who felt alienated by what they view as Salvini’s policy incoherence.

“The League and Brothers of Italy have very similar programs and target the same electorate. They agree on almost everything: Let’s stop immigration, let’s make easier to avoid paying taxes, and let’s help senior citizens a bit—their constituencies are old,” said Davide Maria De Luca, a political reporter at the progressive newspaper Domani. “So it’s natural that, when Salvini’s popularity cycle is going down, Meloni’s goes up”

Meloni’s program largely overlaps with the League’s, especially when it comes to immigration: They support closed borders and naval blockades to prevent asylum-seekers from reaching the country by sea. But there’s a small difference. While for Salvini, immigration is the main focus, Meloni is stressing “Christian values”—that has become her defining issue.

In 2019, she gave a famous speech in which she declared, “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am a Christian,” that went viral on social media (especially TikTok) and even got a disco remix. This year, at a rally in Spain for the far-right party Vox, she gave an even tougher speech in which she vowed, “Yes to traditional family! No to the LGBT lobbies!”

This line of conservatism resonates with many Italians, for whom Catholicism is more about identity than faith, something that stands in opposition to globalized modernity and immigration. Unlike Salvini, who also resorted to a similar form of identity rhetoric, Meloni has been careful not to pick any fights with the pope, one of the most respected public figures in Italy.

The only topic that sets Brothers of Italy and the League apart is, to some extent, foreign policy: Salvini has a history of statements in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Meloni recently described herself as proudly pro-NATO. But foreign policy is hardly a hot topic in Italian elections. Moreover, as De Luca pointed out, Meloni’s Atlanticist stance is “part of a process of normalization”: Precisely because she thinks she has good chance of becoming Italy’s next leader, she has to establish a good relationship with the country’s most powerful ally.

Salvini, whose League reached its peak in May 2019, when it obtained 34 percent of the votes in Italy’s European Parliament elections, started losing popularity in the summer of that year, when he pulled the plug on the government alliance with the Five Star Movement. He was trying to push for early elections, hoping to capitalize on the European Union election success, but the move backfired when Five Star succeeded in building a different coalition, with the left.

It was a “figuraccia,” a humiliating moment, as De Luca put it. “The media coverage changed, newspapers started depicting Salvini as a fool, and voters started to migrate toward something similar to the League, but different,” he said. The takeaway is that “Italian voters are willing to forgive many things, but not defeat.”

The League’s loss of support and Meloni’s concurrent rise accelerated under Draghi’s unity government two years later. For Salvini, joining the coalition was a risky move. On one hand, “he accepted because he saw it as an occasion to push some of his policies and participate in the management of the EU stimulus package,” said Carone, the political analyst. But at the same time, she added, Salvini weakened his image of the uncompromising tough guy, first because he joined forces with progressives and then because, under Draghi’s strong leadership, he didn’t get as much of the spotlight as he had in the past.

When the League was in coalition with Five Star, Salvini was formally interior minister and deputy prime minister, but he monopolized the media attention and set the government agenda, making the fight against immigration a priority. But with Draghi, it was different: “Draghi’s presence ‘flattened’ everything else, there was no room for Salvini to behave like a kingmaker,” Carone said.

With Salvini (and everyone else, from the Democratic Party to Five Star) playing second fiddle to Draghi, Meloni seized the mantle of being the only major political leader who refused to bow to a technocratic unelected prime minister.

This was no small matter. For all other political forces, joining the Draghi government was a double-edged sword: They could claim to have behaved like responsible adults, but it was also an implicit admission that they, the elected politicians, couldn’t get their own jobs done. This also put a strain on the implicit pact that parties have with their constituencies—the idea that votes count and that leaders owe their legitimacy to the people.

Meloni stayed out of that mess. She’s the one who didn’t need a babysitter, and she could also present herself as the only one who had a respectful and transparent relationship with electoral democracy—who listened to her voters and consistently represented their views.

“Today there’s no other leader in Italy that is in a strong position as Meloni,” Carone said.


Meloni seems to have learned from Salvini’s mistake, and she has tried to build a profile for herself that is reassuring on foreign policy and the economy, as if to make it clear that she doesn’t want to destabilize Italy’s position within NATO and the EU. She has vowed to support Ukraine, for instance, and taken pro-market stances, vowing to cut taxes and stop the reddito di cittadinanza—the welfare program for the unemployed and the working poor.

Brothers of Italy’s voters aren’t necessarily well-off; in fact, the party enjoys a lot of support in the peripheries of great cities, which tend to be working-class. However, unlike other far-right parties in Europe, Brothers of Italy has maintained a pro-market, tough-on-welfare profile, for two reasons.

First, the welfare issue (especially reddito di cittadinanza) has been monopolized by the Five Stars, so any support would seem to be a concession to them. Second, Meloni really wants to build an image that is reassuring for international markets and the EU, two players that frown upon big spending: She wants to reassure them that she won’t increase Italy’s already exorbitant public debt. In this regard, she seems to take inspiration from former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Even if Meloni comes from a post-fascist party, which was founded by people openly nostalgic for the Benito Mussolini era, Italians don’t appear particularly worried.

“Meloni wants people to think of her like the Italian equivalent of French Les Républicains or of the Viktor Orban of the early days,” said Matteo Cavallaro, a scholar of the far right at the University of Lausanne.

Even if Meloni comes from a post-fascist party, born from the ashes of the Italian Social Movement, which was founded by people openly nostalgic for the Benito Mussolini era, Italians don’t appear particularly worried by this.

The rise of a leader of this kind is just the last chapter of what Cavallaro calls the “strategy of normalization” of post-fascists, which was started by Berlusconi when he entered politics in 1994. On one hand, Berlusconi normalized the far right by bringing them into his governing coalition; Meloni herself served as a minster of youth in one of Berlusconi’s governments. On the other, he tried to politically destroy any leader on the more moderate right, because he feared such a leader could oust him, and therefore helped the far right to grow, especially now that he’s 85 and viewed as too old to compete.

The result is that, today, there’s no moderate conservative leader who could compete with Brothers of Italy, and so the party has been accepted in the mainstream.

“Berlusconi has normalized the far right. Now that process has been completed, and the rise of a leader like Meloni signals that Italy has lost its antibodies,” Cavallaro said, likening the movement to a virus.

Today, the main problem for Meloni is not being considered too extremist but how long her popularity will last. “In the recent past, we saw several Italian leaders enjoy sudden rise in support only to lose it in the blink of an eye. Think of Salvini, the Five Stars, or Matteo Renzi,” said Carone, the pollster, referring to the former prime minister who went from getting over 40 percent of the vote in the 2014 EU elections to polling below 3 percent today.

“Meloni’s real challenge will be how to handle power in the medium term,” Carone said. “It’s easy to get burned in this country.”

Giorgio Ghiglione is a freelance writer in Milan. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Internazionale. Twitter: @giorgioghiglion

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