ROME — When Giorgia Meloni was standing for mayor of Rome in 2016, she faced a challenge experienced by many Italian women: Because she was pregnant, she was told to step aside.
Her one-time champion, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, suggested she focus on raising her child instead. “They asked me to stand back because a mother could not manage such an important role,” Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party, recalled in an email interview.
She went on to take 21 percent of the vote, performing nearly twice as well as the candidate backed by her former political mentor.
Fast forward four years and Meloni has become the first Italian woman to lead a major political party. Brothers of Italy — once confined to the far-right, post-fascist fringe — is the country’s fourth most popular party. It’s polling at 13 percent, within arm’s reach of the ruling anti-establishment 5Star Movement, which is at 14 percent, and even overtook them in one recent poll.
Meloni is also Italy’s second-most popular politician, with an approval rating of 46 percent, behind only Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and just ahead of Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, and Emma Bonino, the former European commissioner and one-time leader of the tiny Radical Party.
Italian voters, frustrated by the country’ long stagnation, are notoriously fickle and have shown themselves increasingly willing to consider radical alternatives to the centrists who have dominated politics for decades.
“She is the best and most capable in her party,” said Giovanna Reanda, political correspondent for the left-wing Radio Radicale and a critic of Meloni’s politics and policies. “She is a political animal, and without her the party would not be where it is.”
Were Italy to hold elections anytime soon, support for the Brothers of Italy would likely be enough to get Meloni into government — most likely in coalition with Salvini’s League, which is polling at 31 percent. A poll on Sunday suggested she was would even give Salvini some competition for the leadership of the center-right. Salvini remains in the lead with 50 percent to her 42 percent, with a third of League voters favouring Meloni over Salvini.
Despite her position so close to Italy’s glass ceiling, Meloni is pointedly not a feminist. She opposes the gender quotas that might help other women get ahead in politics; just about a third of her party’s MPs are women.
If Italian women are relegated to marginal roles, she believes it’s because they are held back by societal taboos. “They think they can’t compete with men, especially in politics,” she said.
Stunted by two decades of Berlusconi-dominated politics and media, an era of casual sexism and tawdry television game shows, Italy is plagued by an ingrained societal machismo.
“She never raised her head above the parapet until the right fragmented, then she found her space and defended it ferociously” — Giovanna Reanda, political correspondent for the left-wing Radio Radicale
To succeed in Italian politics, women have to be better than men, said Valeria Manieri, founder of Le Donne Contemporanee, which campaigns against gender discrimination. “Women have to deal with more attacks, must be more capable, better looking than any guy. Only when we can look natural and be as stupid as them will we have equality.”
When it comes to advancing women, the left is little better than the right, admits Radio Radicale’s Reanda. “Women are blocked at every level of the ladder, especially by the old guard who want to hold onto their comfortable positions,” she said.
Meloni’s position on the far-right wing of the spectrum has not stopped her from being subjected to the violent online attacks faced by many women in Italian politics.
She sometimes reposts messages she has received, including: “Let’s sink her with a nice rock tied to her neck,” “Fascist whore, you should be torn to pieces by dogs,” “Nazi fascist bitch, you will end like sewer rat Mussolini.”
“I’m a woman doing right-wing politics,” she said. “I’m used to receiving insults.”
Paradoxically, it was Berlusconi who first brought Meloni to the attention of the public, appointing her as his youth minister in 2008 when she was 29, making her the youngest person ever to hold a Cabinet position.
In addition to his bunga bunga sex parties, the prime minister was infamous for appointing ministers from the world of showbusiness, on the basis of looks rather than experience.
Meloni was not one of these. An activist from the age of 15, her political persona was forged at street level while bartending and working at Rome’s Porta Portese flea market to help make ends meet.
She was the leader of the youth movement of the post-fascist National Alliance, and then, after a political merger, performed the same role for Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party. In 1998, she founded Atreju, an annual summer festival for right-wing teens or “young patriots.” Under her leadership, this annual festival still thrives, with recent speakers including U.S. President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
In 2012, after the Italian right fractured under the strain of the financial crisis and in the wake of Berlusconi’s sex scandals, Meloni and other members of the National Alliance founded Brothers of Italy, which takes its name from the first line of the Italian national anthem.
Her timing was perfect, said Reanda. “She never raised her head above the parapet until the right fragmented, then she found her space and defended it ferociously.”
‘I am Giorgia’
Meloni’s recent success in the polls is largely attributable to two factors: message discipline and communication, according to pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco of You Trend.
“We always say the same things and we always keep our promises,” said Meloni. “We are like a well-planted tree with deep roots at a time when other parties are leaves blowing in the wind, changing position.’”
Having a child out of wedlock might seem like a contradiction for a person who attends conservative Catholic conferences. (Meloni announced her pregnancy in late 2015 at a “family day,” anti-LGBTQ rights demonstration in which she declared her opposition to same-sex unions.)
But since her daughter was born in 2017, Meloni’s appeal has increased among ordinary women. Social media clips of her with her cat and daughter have helped position her further into the Italian mainstream.
Meloni has said she “is at peace with fascism,” and by extension her party’s past, although she has distanced the party from Benito Mussolini’s racial laws of 1938-1943.
“She speaks two languages: the lexicon of women housewives and workers and the language of men,” said Federico Mollicone, Meloni’s one-time mentor, now a member of parliament with Brothers of Italy.
One breakthrough came last fall when left-wing dance music DJs remixed a fiery speech made by Meloni attacking the LGBTQ movement, in which she yelled: “I am Giorgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Christian.” The stunt backfired spectacularly when the clip went viral.
“They sought to ridicule her but instead they amplified her message,” said Mollicone. “Kids were dancing to it in discos. It would have cost us €1 million to have got the same message across.”
Under Meloni’s leadership, the Brothers of Italy have carved out a beachhead on the far right of the Italian political spectrum — with hard-line stances against migration and LGBTQ rights and a Trumpian economic plan: investment in infrastructure and low taxes.
She has also proven to be a skilled vector for transmitting far-right politics into the mainstream. She has said she “is at peace with fascism,” and by extension her party’s past, although she has distanced the party from Benito Mussolini’s racial laws of 1938-1943.
But she has also tried to capitalize on fascist nostalgia by including the dictator’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren in her party lists.
The first fruits of Meloni’s newfound electoral strength will likely come during regional elections this spring, when she may be able to push Salvini, with whom she often campaigns in an electoral alliance, to put more of her party’s candidates at the top of the lists.
Then there’s the question of what comes next. Meloni’s strategy has been to position her party as the true right, confirming her commitment to far-right policies, while simultaneously offering a softer message to attract those who might otherwise be turned off by her links to fascism.
Brothers of Italy officials say this approach has the potential to carry the party as high as 20 percent in the polls — putting it in the top echelons of the country’s politics.
Italian voters, frustrated by the country’s long stagnation, are notoriously fickle and have shown themselves increasingly willing to consider radical alternatives to the centrists who have dominated politics for decades.
If the government collapses in the near future, leading to fresh elections, her growing popularity is likely to be converted into real political power, as a coalition partner in what would be the most far-right government in Italy since Mussolini.
While avoiding overt criticism of Salvini, Meloni has been able to capitalize on recent political errors her ally has made, presenting herself as a more credible and less hotheaded alternative for prime minister.
Increasingly, she has been reaching out to other populist politicians on the right in Europe and beyond, including Orbán and Trump, to boost her credentials as a potential stateswoman on the world stage.
It’s still unlikely that Meloni will be Italy’s first female prime minister. But she has shown her ability to play the long game and await her moment. If she gets a shot at the country’s top job, Salvini won’t be able to count on her to step aside.