Rome, Italy – In the winter of 2019, nightclubs across Italy were swaying to a steady electro beat driven by just a few words, repeated in a loop: “I am Giorgia. I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m Italian, I’m Christian.”
It was a catchy line delivered by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a relatively small far-right party, during a speech in October that year.
The nightclub remix was intended to mock Meloni, but three years later, her ultraconservative and nationalistic messaging seems to have also become a hit – and the 45-year-old politician is widely expected to become Italy’s next prime minister when the country goes to the polls on September 25.
Known for her steely determination and heavy Roman accent, Meloni has overseen her party’s meteoric rise from 4 percent support in 2018 to a projected 25 percent ahead of the election. Her uncompromising attitude has struck a chord with frustrated Italians who, after seven governments in 11 tumultuous years, see Meloni as the only political option left untested.
Her decision to stay firmly in opposition by refusing to support Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s outgoing government – unlike her coalition allies including the far-right hardliner Matteo Salvini and political dinosaur Silvio Berlusconi – has earned her even more popularity and solidified her “outsider” status, observers say.
But her hardline views on immigration and the preservation of the “Christian family” have raised fears of a return to controversial policies. Critics say her rhetoric poses a threat to civil rights and will pave the way for far-right views to take centre stage in the country’s political discourse.
Outside Italy, Meloni’s harsh criticism of the European Union and her alignment with Eurosceptic figures, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, have raised eyebrows over the direction of the EU’s fourth-largest economy. And then there are the concerns revolving around her party’s fascist origins – a bond that, critics say, she has not done enough to cut ties with.
So who exactly is the favourite to become Italy’s first female prime minister?
An early start
Born in 1977, Meloni was 15 years old when she knocked on the door of the youth wing of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a party founded after World War II by the nostalgic former members of Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. Located in a quiet street in the working class neighbourhood of Garbatella in Rome, Meloni found in the movement a “second family”, as she described in her autobiography titled: Io sono Giorgia [I am Giorgia].
Meloni’s mother was 23 when she had her, a year and a half after giving birth to her first daughter, Arianna. The mother juggled several jobs to make ends meet, with Meloni also following suit as a teenager – from bartending in the famed Piper club to babysitting.
Her father, an accountant from a wealthier area in northern Rome, disappeared when she was still young, sailing away on a boat to later settle in one of the Canary Islands. Sporadic visits would follow, but at the age of 11, Meloni decided to never see him again, considering his lack of interest.
Such absence, Meloni wrote, would later drive her need to constantly live up to other people’s expectations and prove herself – especially in a male-dominated environment.
“She had to learn from an early age how to fight to achieve things, something that forged her character,” said Marco Marsilio, the regional governor of Abruzzo for Brothers of Italy. “You would spot the difference among the dozens of renowned right-wing militants: she stood out for her determination,” added Marsilio, one of Meloni’s mentors and a member of the MSI at the time she joined the party.
As a member of the MSI’s Youth Front, Meloni excelled at rallying and coordinating student organisations at a time when the MSI was the only, strongly active, right-wing party in universities that were typically dominated by left-wing political culture.
The political militancy at the MSI was a “totalising experience”, Meloni recalled in her book, where activists would find a world to belong to – one relatively unscathed by a huge wave of corruption scandals and mafia activities, which in the 1990s led to the collapse of Italy’s post-war establishment.
Those were also the last years of the MSI which in 1995 morphed into the National Alliance (AN), a move aimed at leaving behind its fascist roots, rebranding itself as a conservative right-wing nationalist party. Within a few years, Meloni became president of the AN’s youth movement and by the age of 29, she had entered parliament.
And those were also the years that Berlusconi, a television tycoon, stormed Italian politics by creating Forza Italia (Forward Italy), a centre-right party that was conservative and populist, yet economically liberal with a friendly view towards the EU and a soft spot for tax cuts.
AN allied with Forza Italia, with whom later merged into a coalition that won power, with Prime Minister Berlusconi appointing Meloni as Italy’s youngest-ever minister in charge of the youth portfolio in 2008.
By 2012 Italy was in the midst of a biting recession triggered by a debt crisis in the eurozone, Meloni decided to embark on her biggest political gamble: co-funding Brothers of Italy.
Positioning itself on the far-right and with a logo that bore the same tricolour burning flame of the MSI, the new party united under a nationalist, protectionist and strongly euro-sceptical agenda, openly expressing intolerant views towards international financial markets, migrants and gay rights.
“Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death,” Meloni said in a June speech during a rally of the Spanish far-right party Vox in Marbella.
“No to the violence of Islam, yes to safer borders, no to mass immigration,” she roared in front of a cheering crowd that gave her a standing ovation.
‘God, family and the homeland’
Edoardo Novelli, a sociologist and professor of political communication at Rome 3 University, said Meloni’s vision trails the “God, family and the homeland” motto: one based on the Christian identity, the traditional family model and of a nation firstly composed of Italian patriots.
“This will create an idea that there are ‘right and wrong’ models, citizens of category A and B,” Novelli added.
“But this is not just an abstract vision, it will translate into real choices such as laws, government acts, opportunities, financing programmes,” he warned.
Yet as the electoral campaign draws to a close, and the chances of a win become more concrete, Meloni has had to conduct a balancing act to reassure Brussels that she, and her coalition, will not be a danger to Europe’s stability, especially as Italy is receiving the biggest chunk of an EU recovery fund worth 200 billion euros ($200bn).
She has repeatedly pledged her loyalty to the EU and NATO and confirmed Italy would continue supporting Ukraine while imposing sanctions on Russia.
“She has very much softened her tone on certain themes such as the distrust towards international finance markets and the EU, a change of attitude that has been carefully studied to enter government as a strong party,” said Lorenzo Castellani, a professor of history at Rome’s LUISS university with a focus on Italian right-wing parties.
Critics warn, however, that it is all a façade.
“There has been no evolution, but just a resumption of the historical themes of the Italian right and of neo-fascism presented in a more captivating way,” said Piero Ignazi, a professor at the University of Bologna. “The tones have changed, but it’s a matter of nuances and camouflage value,” Ignazi said.
At one of her latest rallies in Milan, she warned that “the good times are over” for the EU, while she insisted on one of her old-flagship themes sounding the alarm over the “mass immigration which is a weapon of big economic and financial powers used to lower competition among workers”.
Her party has also refused to back on Friday an EU parliament’s report condemning Hungary for its restrictions on civil liberties.
Critics also point to a proposal of Meloni’s coalition for a change of the constitution that would introduce a directly elected president, bringing Italy’s parliamentary democracy closer to a presidential system. Constitutional changes, as well as any centralisation of power, are traditionally considered taboos among left-wing supporters who regard the chart as the byproduct of Italy’s anti-fascist history.
Meloni has time and again rejected the claim she poses a danger to democracy.
Her party “handed fascism over to history for decades now” and “unambiguously condemns the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws,” she said in a video published in early August in Spanish, English and French.
Whatever the risks, Italians are screaming for a change as the country prepares for a harsh winter. The task at hand, for whoever emerges victorious on September 25, is sobering – and Meloni knows it: “I can’t say that in front of such responsibility my hands aren’t shaking,” she acknowledged last week.