Rome’s blue-collar Garbatella district was founded in 1920 and then expanded to house industrial workers and Romans displaced by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s demolition of their homes to remake the ancient city centre. The district has been a bastion of hard-left politics ever since.
It was in this inhospitable terrain in 1992 that Giorgia Meloni, then 15, became an activist for the far-right Youth Front of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), founded after the second World War by Mussolini loyalists. She entered a world of fierce, sometimes rough, competition between left-wing and right — wing students that at times erupted into brawls in streets, schools and universities.
“She had the courage of a lion and would not let the microphone be snatched out of her hand,” recalls ally and friend Marco Marsilio, who met her the day she joined the party. “The violence and assaults did not scare her. They became one more reason to stand up.”
Today, Meloni (45), has her sights set on becoming Italy’s first female prime minister, buoyed by disenchanted voters willing to bet on a tough-talking, no-nonsense firebrand with limited administrative experience.
When Italians vote on September 25th, Meloni’s 10-year-old Brothers of Italy is expected to emerge as the largest party in parliament, propelling its right-wing coalition — which includes Matteo Salvini’s League and tycoon Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — to a comfortable majority.
Yet, on the cusp of power, Meloni is still dogged by controversy about her youthful far-right activism and what she stands for now as Europe’s energy crisis, the rising cost of living and the sustainability of Rome’s debts dominate Italy’s political debate.
Rivals claim Meloni is a dangerous extremist who would polarise the country, roll back civil liberties, embolden the radical right and sour relations with Brussels while allying Italy with Eurosceptic and nationalist powers such as Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government in Hungary.
Such allegations were further stoked this summer when a video surfaced on social media of a teenage Meloni praising Mussolini. “Everything he did, he did for Italy — and there have been no politicians like him for 50 years,” she told a French news crew.
Meloni countered that Italian conservatives had “handed fascism over to history” decades ago and said claims that she threatened democracy and international stability were slander by leftist political elites.
“We can no longer allow the image of Italian conservatives, a bastion of freedom and defence of western values, to continue to be defiled,” Meloni said in a video statement released in English, French and Italian.
What is indisputable is that Meloni’s fierce public persona, hard work and novelty value have generated a groundswell of popular support for Brothers of Italy, which won a mere 4.3 per cent in 2018′s parliamentary elections but is now favoured by about a quarter of the fractured electorate. She also kept the party outside Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s national unity government, allowing it to monopolise the opposition space.
“She appears to many voters as being the only leader left to be tested,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, founding partner of YouTrend, a polling agency. “It’s not so much of an ideological appeal. It’s the appeal of the unknown, the outsider — somebody who didn’t rule the country and so still has some credibility.”
Born in Rome, Meloni started life in a posh residential neighbourhood. But after her accountant father abandoned the family for the Canary Islands, Meloni’s mother moved with her two young daughters to Garbatella, where Meloni’s grandfather had a government flat through his job in the naval ministry.
In her autobiography I Am Giorgia, Meloni said she was inspired to join the MSI’s Youth Front after the 1992 murder of the anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino and the simultaneous implosion of Italy’s postwar establishment in the huge Tangentopoli corruption scandal that embroiled thousands of politicians and officials.
Long shunned by voters and mainstream parties, the MSI was relatively unscathed by the scandal. Its leaders subsequently sought to distance the movement from its fascist origins, dissolving the party to create the arch-conservative National Alliance, which joined Berlusconi’s ruling coalition in 1994.
Meloni, who drew attention for her fiery speeches and loyalty to her “second family” in the rightwing youth movement, was elected to parliament in 2006. In 2008, aged 31, she was appointed by Berlusconi to run the youth portfolio, becoming Italy’s youngest ever minister.
When the tycoon’s last government collapsed in 2011, Meloni teamed up with two older politicians, including Forza Italia’s Guido Crosetto, who was then under-secretary of defence, to create Brothers of Italy as a new pole for Italian conservatism.
Today, Meloni rails at the threats to Italy’s national sovereignty and traditional values. Her recent targets have included “woke ideology destroying the foundations of the natural family” and illegal immigrants “undercutting the salaries of our own workers and, in many instances, engaging in crimes”.
She is president of the European Conservatives and Reformists party, which works closely with parties such as Spain’s Vox and Poland’s Law and Justice in the European Parliament.
“We live in a time in which everything we stand for is under attack,” she told the American Conservative Union earlier this year. “The only way of being rebels is to preserve what we are ... to be conservative.”
But Crosetto insists she is more than just a rabble-rouser. “In still male chauvinist societies, women have to fight more than men. They have to be stronger and more determined,” he said. “Sometimes they even have to raise their voice more than a man.”
Crosetto, now president of the Federation of Italian Aerospace, Defence and Security Companies, said Meloni was also a tireless worker, who poured over reading material and carefully weighed her words. “She studies, she prepares, she works 14 hours a day,” he said.
She has also changed her tone on some issues. In 2019, she slammed the EU’s “anti-democratic drift”, calling Brussels bureaucrats agents of “nihilistic global elites driven by international finance”.
But with Italy now the intended beneficiary of €200bn in EU coronavirus recovery funds, Meloni has muted her criticism and expressed staunch support for Ukraine and Italy’s wider role in the Nato alliance. Unlike her coalition allies, she has been unambiguously critical of President Vladimir Putin since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.
Meloni has relied on a tight-knit inner circle: one of her closest advisers is her brother-in-law, Francesco Lollobrigida, while her sister, Arianna, is also deeply involved. But Meloni is said to be searching for experienced, credible technocrats to run key ministries and navigate multiple economic and strategic challenges.
“She will have to create the strongest and most credible government Italy has ever had if she wants to govern,” Crosetto said.
For all its disappointment over the early collapse of Draghi’s government, Italy’s business community appears sanguine about Meloni, betting that she will want to prove she can deliver economically, lest she falls from favour, as other populists before her.
“She will have to govern a complex country like Italy at a complex moment,” said Emma Marcegaglia, former president of business association Confindustria. “She understands the difficulty of this moment — and that this is her big chance.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022