“I’m a Woman, I’m a Mother, I’m Christian”: How Giorgia Meloni Took Control in the Italian Election

In national elections on Sunday, forty-four per cent of Italian voters opted for right-wing candidates, all but insuring that the next Prime Minister will be Giorgia Meloni, whose party—Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy—won more than a fourth of the total votes cast. Meloni, who has previously expressed admiration for Mussolini, ran a campaign based on anti-L.G.B.T.Q. and anti-immigration themes, while promising continued support for Ukraine. She is likely to govern with two other right-wing leaders: Matteo Salvini, the Putin-admiring former Interior Minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Putin-admiring former Prime Minister. An election was called after Mario Draghi, the outgoing Prime Minister, was unable to keep his governing majority together. A former president of the European Central Bank, Draghi had led the country through much of the COVID pandemic, assembling a broad coalition of the center-left, the populist Five Star Movement, and even Salvini, who, after he joined the Draghi government, saw some of his supporters rally to Meloni.

I recently spoke by phone with Alexander Stille, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author of several books about Italian history and politics. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the center and left were unable to keep the far right out of power, where Meloni is most likely to focus her governing attention, and why a political system often seen as dysfunctional is well equipped to prevent the far right from enacting a wide-ranging agenda.

You have also written extensively about France, and it seems as if every time there’s an election in France between a far-right figure and a more mainstream figure, there’s a popular front, to use a loaded term, against the far right, even if this popular front has been weakening over the past twenty years. Taking into account that Italy has a different electoral system, why didn’t we see a popular front in its recent election?

There are a couple of reasons. No. 1, as you mentioned, is the nature of the electoral system. Because the French have a two-round system, you end up with a very stark choice between one candidate and another. On top of that, Marine Le Pen’s party’s long history of close ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin made it, particularly in the current climate, feel like a much riskier choice. Giorgia Meloni rather shrewdly tacked very hard toward the center and adopted a very strong anti-Putin, pro-Ukraine position, which prevented that.

In fact, the party in Italy that most resembles Marine Le Pen’s in terms of its foreign policy positions was the Lega, which had a real electoral collapse. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, very foolishly proposed going to Moscow on a trip paid by the Russian government to broker a peace agreement. When the public was outraged by that possibility, he had to cancel it. It was an embarrassing misstep on his part. He also criticized the sanctions. Silvio Berlusconi made some very incautious declarations about the Russia-Ukraine situation, suggesting that Putin had been forced into this invasion and that he wanted to install what Berlusconi called a governo perbene in Ukraine, which means a nice, respectable government. That, of course, backfired on him. Meloni’s clear, unequivocal, pro-Zelensky, pro-Ukraine position was rewarded.

Meloni’s party had been moving ahead in the polls for a long time, even before the invasion of Ukraine. Do you think her success had to do more with Ukraine, or rather with her not agreeing to become part of the previous government, which seemed to hurt Salvini?

You’re getting warmer there, in that the parties that did well were those that went against Mario Draghi’s government. Meloni was always in the opposition, and that made her popular. The other party in this election that arguably comes out well is the Five Star Movement, which surprised people, but Giuseppe Conte’s decision to bring down the Draghi government was rewarded, in effect. Salvini, Berlusconi, and the [center-left] Democratic Party all suffered at the polls—and they were the pillars of the Draghi government. One can read this as a protest vote that rewards the parties out of power.

While I think people in America see this as a kind of political earthquake, it feels much less that way to me. Remember that the predecessor party of the Brothers of Italy, Alleanza Nazionale, was in the government during many of the Berlusconi years. There have been further-right governments—not radically different from what we’re seeing now—that Berlusconi headed, which included the Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega. The first Conte government, in which Salvini was Minister of the Interior, was quite right-wing, with a very populist feel to it. So this seems less radical to me than it may to people who hear about the kind of genealogy of Fratelli d’Italia and conclude that the Fascists have returned to power. I don’t quite see it that way.

How do you think this government might differ from Berlusconi’s?

The underlying problems that Italy faces have been around for a long time. In the early nineteen-nineties, when Berlusconi came to power, Italy was in a remarkably good position in many ways. They’d come close to matching the U.K. in terms of G.D.P. per capita, or G.D.P. in general, although the country had a very high national debt. Since then, Italy has been one of the slower-growing economies in the world. The unemployment rate is high, and the national debt remains very high, which limits the country’s ability to spend its way out of some of these problems. All those problems remain. The Berlusconi governments were particularly unable to deal with them. The governments of the center-left were only marginally better.

How this government will deal with [these problems] is unclear. On top of that, they inherit a very complicated situation with high inflation and escalating energy costs, which may get radically worse during the winter, given the situation in Ukraine and Russia. And then what happens, almost inevitably, is that once you’re in the government, you start paying the cost of public dissatisfaction. This government should have a very large majority in parliament, so it should have the political means to deal with these problems. But these problems are difficult, and, even with all the votes, how you actually enact policies that address some of these issues is far from clear. They have a very tough assignment. They’ve been in the opposition, which means that discontent flows naturally toward them. And now it’ll start to work in the other direction.

What do you think inspires Meloni? What do you think she cares about?

She has not stood out in terms of pushing a particular economic program. The things that she’s said publicly are really more about identity politics than economic politics. She titled her autobiography “I Am Giorgia.” And part of a speech—in which she said, “I am Giorgia, I’m a woman, I’m a mother . . . I’m Christian”—was turned into a techno remix in Italy, which was meant to mock her but ended up making her quite popular. These are all identity statements. She was attacking the ways in which an E.U.-governed world was stripping away the traditional markers of Italian identity and making a kind of bland, unisex form of identity, an international cosmopolitan type of identity, stripped of all of its Italian specificity. I think the most radical thing that she has done is attack the L.G.B.T.Q. movement, and stress traditional forms of identity. That seems to be where her passions lie.

But what you really can do about that in political terms is not very clear to me. She has a twenty-five-point program that her party published, and at the top of it is: helping Italian families have more children. Italy, like most wealthy countries in the world, has an extremely low fertility rate, something like 1.3 children per woman. Very few countries have been successful in moving those numbers much. Oddly enough, France, despite not going toward the far right, is one of the countries that’s had a little bit of success in that regard. Meloni has programs that would reward families with children.

I’m going to lay out the optimistic case for her not doing too much damage: she can’t make too much of a dent in social policy; she is somewhat hemmed in on economic policy by being part of the E.U., and needing the E.U.’s pandemic-recovery funds; and she’s already taken a fairly moderate line on Ukraine. This suggests someone who is either unable or unwilling to go to extremes, except maybe on immigration. You mentioned Salvini as Interior Minister, when the stance toward migrants was often grotesque.

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