After parliamentary elections last weekend, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, is set to become the first woman to lead her country’s government. That fact is obscured for many Europeans by accusations that she’ll also be Italy’s first post-war fascist prime minister.
Meloni flatly rejects this charge, despite her party’s origins. Her party has “handed fascism over to history” she insists. Some of her supporters say the fascist label is a slur designed to weaken her appeal for euro-skeptic Italians hungry for decisive leadership and change. In truth, 21st century Italy is hardly ripe for dictatorship, and there is no good reason to fear that Meloni, like fascists of the past century, wants to destroy her country’s democracy.
But her blunt anti-E.U. rhetoric, her outspoken homophobia, the intensity of her opposition to inflows of asylum-seekers from across the Mediterranean, and her vocal support for the likeminded governments of E.U. member states Hungary and Poland are key to both her popularity with nationalist voters and the scrutiny she will face in Brussels.
Meloni’s political ascendance is not yet official. Italy’s president must first invite her to try to form a government in a process that will take weeks. But the scale of her election win—the Brothers won about 26% and its coalition partners won another 18% to just 26% total from the entire center-left Democratic Party-led bloc—makes her government all but inevitable. The vote results will also boost her standing within her winning coalition. Support for firebrand Matteo Salvini’s Lega and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was limited to single digits. The Europe-hating Italexit party won less than 2%, leaving it without a single seat in parliament.
Meloni’s triumph is due in part to her calibrated campaign plan to shed the label of radical. She told voters and interviewers she wanted to change the E.U., not abandon it. She has reassured Europeans and Americans that she fully supports NATO and Ukraine’s fight to repel Russia’s invasion. She has assured Brussels she wants to improve financial agreements with the E.U., not rip them up.
At least initially, these assurances will protect her government. Italy, with the second-highest debt-to-GDP in the E.U., badly needs access to the 200 billion euros in COVID Recovery funds promised by the European Commission in exchange for fiscal and other reforms. Italy also needs the European Central Bank to continue buying its debt. A sputtering economy, high inflation, and a coming energy crisis intensified by Russia’s war in Ukraine and an E.U. bid to end Europe’s addiction to Russian energy will only make that funding more necessary.
But winter is coming. Economic hardship will also increase demand for help from hurting Italian voters. Pressure from the public and right-wing coalition partners to cut taxes and spend more money to help Italians pay their bills will grow. Will Meloni’s “woman of the people” instincts lead her to pick new fights with the E.U. over money and minority and migrant rights? She’ll soon discover it’s hard to remain a political rock star once you’ve taken a real job—with responsibility for the livelihoods of millions who aren’t predisposed to like her.
She will have to remember too, however, that her coalition’s clear majority of seats in parliament does not reflect support from a majority of Italians. Her chance to form a government owes as much to the inability of the left and center to unite in opposition than to the breadth of her party’s appeal across the country. Unlike other populist parties, Brothers of Italy remained outside the broad unity government she will now replace. Forming and maintaining a government in a country as politically volatile as Italy—which has now had seven governments in the past 11 years—will require a flexibility and dexterity that Meloni and her party have never before attempted. What’s more it was her campaign drive in the other direction—toward the center—that helped lift her party from 4% of the vote in 2018 to 26% today.
Which way will a coming crisis push Italy’s new prime minister? It won’t take long to find out.
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