When the leaders of Italy’s rightwing parties staged an anti-government protest in Rome this week, Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migration League, was joined by the 43-year-old woman who is his ally but also now his main challenger on the right: Giorgia Meloni.
Ms Meloni, who wore the same Tricolore face mask as Mr Salvini on the march, has in recent weeks emerged as a threat to the League leader’s once-unquestioned dominance of Italian nationalism.
A poll published last week by Corriere della Sera, the Italian broadsheet, showed that Ms Meloni’s party’s popularity had risen to 16.2 per cent of respondents who expressed a preference, up from the 6.5 per cent share of the vote it received in last year’s European elections. Mr Salvini’s League came in at 24.3 per cent, down from 34.3 per cent in last year’s vote.
A former waitress who has been involved in rightwing politics since her teens, Ms Meloni first came to prominence as a youth minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s administration.
“It is certainly her moment right now,” said Giovanni Orsina, a professor of politics at Rome’s Luiss university. “What we are seeing is that the percentage who vote for rightwing parties is roughly the same as last year but that Meloni is taking share from the League.”
With more than 33,000 deaths, Italy has been devastated by the coronavirus crisis and Mr Salvini, whose party runs Lombardy, has been put on the back foot. Less flamboyant than Mr Salvini, Ms Meloni’s conservatism has resonated more with voters, analysts said.
She has criticised the left-leaning pro-EU Italian government for its slow response and the EU for its delay in coming up with co-ordinated action.
“When the coronavirus was just an Italian problem it didn’t interest anyone in the European Union. When we had the first red zones in Lombardy, Ursula von der Leyen [European Commission president] was with Greta Thunberg. They only did things when the virus arrived in Germany,” she told the Financial Times prior to the EU’s recent announcement of a stimulus plan.
She remains critical of the European response. “Some of the largest speculative financial attacks against Italy have come from inside the European Union,” she said. “I think the views of Italians about Europe have changed significantly over this crisis.”
Ms Meloni is rare in Italian politics for being both young, aged 43, and also female in a landscape where until recently being a male aged over 60 was the norm. Born in Rome in 1977 she grew up in a single-parent family and worked while a teenager as a waitress, bartender and nanny to support her mother. On Sundays she worked at Rome’s Porta Portese flea market.
Ms Meloni, who is a staunch advocate of conservative family values and has had her views widely parodied by liberal critics, had a child outside of marriage in 2016 with her long-term partner.
The evolution of Italy’s post-fascist politics, its place within the Italian right, and her place within it, are complex. The Brothers of Italy under Ms Meloni is staunchly anti-migration in a similar fashion to Mr Salvini, is also critical of the European Union, and is socially conservative on issues such as gay marriage and the structure of the Italian family.
From left, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini © Remo Casilli/Reuters
Ms Meloni’s strategy is to challenge Mr Salvini for the support of conservative but centrist voters. She has long distanced herself from any direct association with fascism.
“Salvini is a national populist, Meloni is more a national conservative,” said Mr Orsina. “Salvini comes from the tradition of the League, which began as a protest party and had a provocative communication style. Meloni’s political style is more conservative than this.
“On immigration they are very similar, but the League is much more focused on business interests in the north. Meloni’s party comes from a post-fascist tradition more focused on the Italian working class, in the centre and south of Italy.”
Ms Meloni cut her political teeth working in the youth wing of the National Alliance party, which grew out of the Italian Social Movement party (MSI) that was founded in 1946 by supporters of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi appointed Ms Meloni, then a member of the National Alliance, which was in a coalition with his Forza Italia, as Italy’s youth minister when she was 29. She later co-founded Brothers of Italy.
Up until last year, her party was a small part of Italy’s rightwing coalition, formed of the League and Mr Berlusconi’s party, and consistently polled in the low to mid single digits.
Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham, said: “Arguably the voters that Meloni is taking from Salvini were naturally hers all along. Salvini was the one who transformed his party from a regionalist party to a nationalist one. She is now winning back the voters who were voting for the earlier post-fascist parties in the past.”
Italian politics is notoriously volatile, and experts caution about drawing conclusions about Ms Meloni’s ability to wrest control of the country’s political right away from Mr Salvini at this early stage in a deep recession, but her growing momentum is obvious.
“I don’t think anyone is expecting her to become prime minister at this stage,” said Mr Albertazzi. “But if she continues like this its certainly not impossible. And if she does, I expect her to project a far more moderate image than many would expect.”