Campaigning as a Catholic Mother, Giorgia Meloni Could Be Italy’s First Woman Prime Minister
NEWS ANALYSIS: Dismissed by critics as representing only an extremist fringe, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy political party is now leading in polls taken ahead of the Sept. 25 national elections.
It might seem blasé to emphasize that a 45-year-old Italian politician is a Catholic mother, but this identity has been a central part of Giorgia Meloni’s campaign — and appeal — as she leads the conservative Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, known by the acronym FdI) political party to anticipated victory in national elections on Sept. 25.
Meloni’s declaration during a speech in Rome, “I am Giorgia; I am a woman; I am a mother; I am Italian; I am Christian” is such a signature element, it was remixed as a techno-dance track that has more than 12 million YouTube views.
The DJs who made it intended to mock her; instead, they helped boost her popularity.
FdI’s success this year is synonymous with the charismatic candidate’s persona: Her piercing blue eyes peer from campaign posters promising, “Ready to revive Italy! (Pronti a risollevare l’Italia!).
Meloni is much more than a TV-anchoresque blonde figurehead, though: She has been organizing in conservative political circles since age 15, first in her working-class neighborhood in Rome and then, at age 29, as a member of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies.
When Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi named her minister of youth in 2008, she became the youngest person in national history to hold a cabinet position.
Today, Berlusconi leads Forward Italy (Forza Italia), one of two center-right parties running in coalition with FdI. The other is League (Liga), led by Matteo Salvini.
Recent national polls show FDI at 25%, Liga next, with 13%, and Forza Italia, at 7%. The three parties have agreed that the one in first place will select the next prime minister if their coalition wins the Sept. 25 vote.
“People are really responding to her, to Giorgia, because she is so credible, fierce and, mainly, because she kept Brothers of Italy out of any coalition involving the left,” an FdI parliamentary candidate, who asked not to be named, told the Register by telephone.
Meloni’s rousing critique of the opposition was on display in a February speech, delivered in fluent English, before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida.
“Everything we stand for is under attack,” she declared. “Our individual freedom is under attack. The sovereignty of our nation is under attack. The prosperity and well-being of our families is under attack. The education of our children is under attack.”
“It’s the same all over the world. So-called progressives use the power of their mainstream media. They want a right wing on a leash, trained as a monkey. We won’t be a part of their inner circles. We prefer the public squares. We are on the side of the people,” she continued.
Meloni pointed to unchecked illegal immigration, “cancel culture,” “woke ideology” and European Union (EU) bureaucrats as major threats. She said the EU had recently distributed a report calling on countries to be “inclusive” by deleting references to Christmas, Jesus and Mary.
“Will we surrender in front of this?” Meloni asked with intensity. “No, we will not. We will fight it standing tall!”
“The truth of our ideas is what people are ultimately looking for,” she said. Many in the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Meloni is fluent in French and Spanish, too; rousing speeches she recently gave in France and Spain suggest she will have influence beyond her homeland. In fact, in 2020, she was elected president of the European Conservative and Reformist Parties, an organization of more than 40 Western political parties, including the Republican Party.
A Meteoric Rise
Giorgia Meloni co-founded Brothers of Italy 10 years ago. In 2016, she ran a failed campaign for mayor of Rome while pregnant with her daughter, Ginevra. (Meloni and her partner, journalist Andrea Giambruno, have never married.)
In 2018, FdI achieved a mere 4.4% of the national vote. It was often accused of being a “neo-fascist” party — in fact, it still is. A headline in the British newspaper The Guardian asserted: “Success of Far-right Brothers of Italy Raises Fears of Fascist Revival.” And an Associated Press article last month uses the “neo-fascist” slur.
But that label is not persuasive anymore. What changed?
“The populist reactions we are seeing in Canada, in Sweden and in Italy are similar,” observed John Farina, professor of religious studies at George Mason University, who has lived and taught in Italy. “It is a mistake to write off these movements as ‘nationalist,’ drawing a straight line back to the horrible history of fascism and Nazism. Something else is at work.”
“Italians want a responsive government. They want to be free of this idea that they should be told what’s best,” he said. “Years ago, people felt they were being cheated in things like the [European] currency exchange, but they went along with it. The EU meant better management, was the assumption, but people are not better off with overlords.”
Farina continued, “The United Nations’ global sustainability goals, for example, have an impact on the professional political class. Average people in Italy, like here, see it as potentially dangerous.”
“Giorgia is tapping into this. She has a plainspoken quality and stands up to it, which is appealing,” Farina said.
As the candidate herself told the National Conservatism Foundation two years ago, “Our main enemy today is the globalist drift of those who view identity, in all its forms, to be an evil to be overcome and constantly acts to shift real power away from the people to supranational entities headed by supposedly enlightened élites.”
Immigration and crime are issues roiling Italy, as they are relevant in the United States.
Meloni has pledged to make Italy more secure, in part by clamping down on illegal immigration.
But her opponents protested when she retweeted a video of an African migrant raping a Ukrainian refugee last month in a northern Italian city. They called it an insensitive act of revictimization.
(Meloni has 1.2 million followers on Twitter. She follows fewer than 1,000 other accounts, including Catholic cardinals, pontifical charities and offices of the Holy See.)
One social issue that does not figure in Italian elections is abortion, regulated by law since the 1970s. Although it’s legal until the unborn child is 12 weeks old (even longer in certain cases), the current law has an interesting aspect:
“Because the law in Italy allows an objection of conscience, doctors in Italy can refuse to practice abortion, even in public hospitals,” explained Frederico Arcelli, an Italian scholar serving as senior fellow at Canada’s Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.
The FdI platform vows to “defend the natural family, combat gender ideology, and promote life,” but Meloni has said she would not try to roll back the 1978 law that made abortion legal.
Arcelli cautions that, realistically, few changes can be expected from the new government in Rome because economic issues will predominate. Italy has Europe’s fourth-largest population and third-largest economy, but it is heavily in debt.
“The last government, the Draghi government, engaged in unprecedented spending,” explained Arcelli. “Now, Italy is Europe’s biggest recipient” of EU recovery funds.
Such dependence belies radical change.
Soon to Meet the Pope?
In her 2021 autobiography, I Am Giorgia: My Roots, My Ideas (Io Sono Giorgia: Le Mie Radici Le Mie Idee), the candidate expresses deep admiration for Pope John Paul II as “a great man, a saint.”
She writes, “He was the greatest pope of the modern era and the greatest statesman of the 20th century.”
Regarding Pope Francis, she is more equivocal: “[E]ven though I’m Catholic and I’ve never allowed myself to criticize a pope, I admit that I haven’t always understood Pope Francis.”
“Sometimes I feel like a lost sheep, and I hope one day to have the privilege of being able to talk to him, because I’m sure that his big eyes and his direct words can give meaning to the things I don’t understand,” she speculated.
Giorgia Meloni is now on course to hear directly from Pope Francis, as Italian prime ministers invariably meet the pontiff in person.