A century after Mussolini seized power, Giorgia Meloni looks to steer Italy back toward nationalism

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Almost exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini staged his “March on Rome” mass demonstration, during which his National Fascist Party seized power, Italy appears likely to hand control of its government to Giorgia Meloni, another leader of the nationalist right.

Charismatic and driven, the 45-year-old Meloni, a parliamentarian, doesn’t hold a university degree, but as head of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), a far-right-wing party she formed a decade ago, the single mother has campaigned on a platform based on her belief in the virtues of God, motherhood and patriotism, while decrying immigration and LGBTQ rights. Polls show her and Brothers of Italy poised for victory in a Sept. 25 parliamentary election that will determine Italy’s next prime minister.

While many conservatives cheer her ascent — and the idea of the first woman to rule Italy — her candidacy has simultaneously raised concerns among Italians about racism and the future of abortion in the country as well as Italy’s role in the European Union.

Although she rejects being labeled “far-right” and “neo-fascist” by opponents and has toned down her attacks on the European Union, Meloni appeared at a June rally in support of Spain’s far-right Vox party and delivered remarks that renewed that criticism.

“The secular left and radical Islam are menacing our [European] roots,” she told the crowd, adding that no middle ground was possible.

Giorgia Meloni sits for an interview.
Giorgia Meloni, leader of Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia party, in Rome on Aug. 24. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

Yes to natural families! No to LGBT lobbies! Yes to sexual identity! No to gender ideology!” she yelled, whipping up supporters. “Yes to the universality of the cross, no to Islamist violence! Yes to secure borders, no to mass immigration!”

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who on Thursday was indicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges in New York, helped spur Meloni’s rise since 2018, when Brothers of Italy took a mere 4% of the vote in parliamentary elections — whereas current polls show the party in first place at 25%. Bannon spent much of 2018-19 in Europe attempting to form “the Movement,” an envisioned network of right-wing European populist parties. He not only advised Brothers of Italy and shared the spotlight with Meloni at rallies, but also brought her along on high-profile media interviews. Rome-based Benjamin Harnwell, international editor for Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, told Yahoo News that he recalls Bannon calling Meloni “a rock star” after their first meeting, saying “this woman is going to transform Italy,” though few gave that idea credence at the time.

David Broder, Europe editor of the left-wing journal Jacobin, has been sounding the alarm about Meloni since the government of Mario Draghi collapsed in July, prompting the September election. He foresees her plans to clamp down on immigration as just one problem area. “Meloni says that her party would introduce a naval blockade off of Africa in order to stop migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean,” he told Yahoo News. “This is a recipe for Italian naval vessels to deliberately sink migrant boats, which would kill potentially thousands of people. It’s also illegal under maritime law and EU law. So we can imagine the conflict that would result from that.”

Steve Bannon sits in court with his hands clasped in front of him.
Steve Bannon at his arraignment in New York on Sept. 8. (Steven Hirsch/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

One of Meloni’s most powerful critics is fashion designer and blogger Chiara Ferragni, who has cautioned about restrictions on abortion in Italy if Meloni’s party is elected. In August, Ferragni warned her 27 million Instagram followers that in Italy’s eastern region of Marche, which is governed by Brothers of Italy, abortion has already become “practically impossible.” Abortions there are now prohibited after seven weeks of pregnancy (versus the nine weeks stipulated by law), and the party is not allowing dispersal of abortion pills in clinics. Brothers of Italy is also pushing to allow anti-abortion protesters to enter abortion clinics. That is the kind of “policy that risks becoming national if the right wins the elections,” Ferragni wrote.

Meloni and Brothers of Italy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Meloni, who has expressed concern over Italy’s low birth rate, has countered that Brothers of Italy will implement “a full and integral application” of a 1978 abortion law that requires that pregnant women be fully counseled on alternatives to terminating a pregnancy.

Broder sees the party’s abortion politics as “heavily linked to the immigration issue.” Meloni, he pointed out, “says that the Italian people are at risk of extinction. And that giving citizenship to the children of immigrants is part of the ethnic substitution of the Italian population.”

Meloni drew more criticism last month after posting a video of an African asylum seeker raping a woman in a small town in broad daylight — a video promptly removed from Twitter. Yet even some who don’t support her say she’s running an impressive “Revive Italy” campaign, one in which she’s famously described herself as “a woman, a mother, a Christian.”

Abortion rights protesters hold up a banner reading: Abortion is a human right.
Demonstrators in Rome protest the end of abortion in the United States. (Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“She’s intelligent, she has acumen and she has the ability to communicate with the people,” Italian political commentator and co-founder of the Inter Press Service news agency Roberto Savio told Yahoo News. Her working-class background in Rome has endeared her to many, he added. Savio credits Meloni’s jump in popularity to Italy’s rising inflation and high youth unemployment as well as the fact that she is an unknown commodity in a country that has blown through six prime ministers in the past 10 years.

“You have a lot of people voting for Meloni because they say, ‘We tried with other parties, other politicians, and nothing worked. So let us try this one. Maybe she’ll surprise us,’” he said.

Nevertheless, Savio thinks that if she is elected, which looks very likely, Meloni won’t last long thanks to soaring costs of living, the European energy crisis, Italian bureaucracy and her relative lack of hands-on governing experience. “She’s never even been the mayor of a little village,” he pointed out.

Florence-based sociologist and professor Giovanna Campani, co-author of “The Rise of the Far Right in Europe,” shares similar concerns. “In France, the people who go into politics, they have a big academic training. Giorgia Meloni didn’t even go to university.” That works in her favor with some, she added, further burnishing the image that “she comes from the people.” On the other hand, Campani said, “I don’t have the impression that she did the work to really become an accomplished person” in a leadership role. Campani worries that with Italy led by Meloni, who is opposed to gay adoption and favors what she calls “natural motherhood,” life will turn tougher for those in the LGBTQ community and immigrants, for starters.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at a press conference.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gives his first international press conference in Budapest on April 6. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

Broder predicts that Italy may become more like Hungary under strongman Viktor Orbán, who Meloni considers a role model. “We’re more likely to see an erosion of democratic norms,” he said. He also worries that Meloni’s attitudes about immigration and non-white Europeans will be infectious. “It’s symbolic to have a country’s prime minister openly endorse racist ideas — obviously that’s going to filter through society as well.” He’s also uncomfortable with the fact that her party’s alliance with center-right parties the League (headed by anti-abortion, fervently anti-immigrant Matteo Salvini) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia could give the right a large enough majority in the upcoming elections to alter Italy’s constitution, which Meloni has expressed she hopes to do.

Even though Meloni herself has softened her former Euroskeptic views and openly supports Ukraine while condemning Russia, Broder said, once in power those commitments will probably weaken. “You can see lots of potential split lines within the [potential] majority already,” he said. The League’s Salvini is already questioning sanctions against Russia, he pointed out, and “a big majority of voters for both Brothers of Italy and the League want to end those sanctions. Ultimately, when what’s perceived to be the consequences of those sanctions, including the blowback against energy in Europe, begins to make itself more harshly felt, then Meloni’s [pro-Ukraine] position is going to become difficult to maintain.”

Thus, the future Meloni government may go the way of the six governments that preceded it. But, Broder cautions, “it could last for years.”