Italian youth respond to life under Meloni: ‘We will become their worst nightmare. We will fight with our teeth and nails for our rights’

Students occupy schools as others rally for abortion rights and gay rights, fearful of the new prime minister’s far-right agenda

Young people who oppose and fear the beliefs of Italy’s incoming prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, did not wait for her to form her government to take to the streets.

On Monday morning, as the election results revealed her right-wing coalition would win a majority of seats in parliament, the students of the left-leaning Manzoni high school in Milan gathered in the gym and hung up a banner declaring the school to be under occupation.

In a statement, the student protesters told press they had been forced to take action because of the “the political and social situation outside our school”, the “climate emergency”, and “the victory of a party that historically remains tied to fascist symbols and rhetoric”.

That was a reference to the slogans and flame logo of Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, a symbol that is regarded as representing its continuity with Italy’s post-fascist tradition, seeming to carrying the flame since the death of the father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, in 1945.

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Ms Meloni casts immigration as deliberate plot. In the style of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, she has accused the Jewish businessmen George Soros of orchestrating political events, and inveighs against the “LGBT lobby” and “gender ideology”.

But with an electoral platform that insisted she would not roll back any existing rights but merely prevent what she views as liberal excesses going any further, Ms Meloni softened her message to appeal to a broader electorate while bringing her hardline base along.

She promised not to touch Italy’s existing law allowing same-sex civil unions, for example, but said she would oppose the extension of adoption rights.

‘Emboldened’

Marialuce Giardini (24), who works in the arts sector near Milan, recalled conversations with gay friends in the run-up to election about their futures, wondering whether they would be “recognised as a family” by society if they ever settled down.

“Personally, I am concerned not so much about the government itself, but about the reaction of people who support certain beliefs, that the supporters of the extreme right will feel emboldened to do certain things,” Ms Giardini said. “Of that, I would be afraid.”

Ms Meloni, now set to be Italy’s first female prime minister, is the face of the party and the campaign, and her persona is key to how the party detoxified its associations with fascism

Brothers of Italy emerged from the election as the most popular party in Italy on about 26 per cent support, a dramatic rise for a party that won 4 per cent in 2018 and 2 per cent in its first election outing five years previously.

Ms Meloni, now set to be Italy’s first woman prime minister, is the face of the party and the campaign, and her persona is key to how the party detoxified its associations with fascism and swept up the support of Italy’s right-wing voters.

She has a manner that levels with people: speaking to them one-to-one across the screen on Instagram and TikTok, persuading them in her down-to-earth, gravelly tones that she is not the extreme figure the left-wing insists she is, that her ideas are merely common sense.

In this way, Ms Meloni managed to win votes away from other right-wing parties and also from the disaffected electorate of the Five Star Movement, the anti-establishment party whose explosive rise was the story of the 2013 election and which has splintered and foundered since.

Exit polling indicates a relatively consistent result across ages and economic background. Support for the Brothers of Italy was more pronounced among self-employed people and those aged 35 to 54. Pensioners tended to support traditional centre-left and centre-right parties a little more than the upstarts, while young people tended towards smaller parties and the Greens.

But Brothers of Italy was the most popular right across a highly fragmented electorate, which picked the centre-left Democratic Party as its second choice on 19 per cent, and the Five Star Movement on 15.5 per cent.

Pre-announced coalitions

Under an electoral reform introduced in 2017 with the aim of producing more stable parliamentary majorities, parties are encouraged to run as pre-announced coalitions. If one wins over 40 per cent of the vote, they are rewarded with an outright majority in both houses of parliament.

Ms Meloni ran with the right-wing League and Forza Italia parties of Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi. Collectively they won 44 per cent, sending them home and dry.

Omar Neffati (27) stayed up with his friends until 6:30am on Monday watching live coverage of the results.

“I saw the discouragement and bewilderment in their eyes,” he recalls.

Neffati had gone along with his friends to the polling station earlier that day and waited outside while they voted, unable to cast a ballot himself.

‘I would pay gold to be able to vote. It makes me angry that so many people who have the right don’t use it, and I who want it so much cannot’

He was born in Tunisia and arrived in Italy when he was six months old, and now campaigns to be granted citizenship in the Italians Without Citizenship group.

What upset him most was the historically low turnout in the election. It was 64 per cent – a collapse for Italy, which had turnout above 90 per cent in the 1970s and above 80 per cent until 2008.

“I would pay gold to be able to vote. It makes me angry that so many people who have the right don’t use it, and I who want it so much cannot,” he said.

‘There is fear’

Over the years, Neffati has seen Brothers of Italy and its coalition partners vote against legislation that would grant him rights, and for measures that put up barriers, such as the increase to the cost of applying for citizenship when the League’s Matteo Salvini was interior minister.

“There is fear,” he said. “They are taking all our dreams. But we will become their worst nightmare. We will fight with our teeth and nails for our rights.”

By Wednesday he was marching. He was among thousands who filled Piazza dell’Esquilino in central Rome at a demonstration called by feminist groups to defend abortion rights, with simultaneous rallies also held in Turin and Milan.

Campaigners warn that abortion access is already obstructed by the roughly 70 per cent of gynaecologists in the country who have declared themselves conscientious objectors

Mostly young and woman, the crowd held up placards declaring the right to choose, many making reference to recent protests in Iran over the death of a woman who was arrested for wearing an insufficiently modest hijab. “Mahsa Amini was murdered,” one home-made placard read.

Ms Meloni has insisted she does not want to touch Italy’s Law 194, which legalised abortion in 1978, and merely wants to help women have the option to keep children from crisis pregnancies.

But campaigners warn that abortion access is already obstructed by the roughly 70 per cent of gynaecologists in the country who have declared themselves conscientious objectors, and that societal attitudes are all-important in keeping it available.

“If the doctor has the right to choose why don’t I?” one placard read.

On Wednesday another high school was occupied, this time in Rome. The students complained that a girl had been hit by a piece of the ceiling that fell down due to the disrepair of the school building, and demanded action – “even if we are not optimistic of being heard by the new government”, one fifth year student told local media.

School principals cautioned against demonstrations in a bid to head off a repeat of the wave of occupations that took place last winter, while local media carried reports of a potential “hot autumn” of protest.

Premature

But Giulio Maccarrone, a 20-year-old law student from Pisa, believes protests before Ms Meloni has even formed her government are premature.

“Obviously, to avoid a financial disaster she avoids projecting a neo-fascist image outside of Italy,” he said. “I hope that the actual policies will be more moderate than the ideas that the party has from its origins.”

What he is watching carefully is who Ms Meloni nominates to be foreign minister – a crucial signal of whether the new government, which will include open admirers of Russian president Vladimir Putin, will break with Western support of Ukraine.

In his university, “we’re all extremely supportive to Ukraine”, Maccarrone said.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times