As the right-wing coalition tops Italian elections, far-right leader of the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, is set to become Italy's next prime minister. Both her autobiography and the just concluded campaign help fill in the holes in someone whose roots are in Italy's post-fascist political parties.
ROME — After Sunday’s national election results, Italy is set to have its first ever woman prime minister. But Giorgia Meloni has been drawing extra attention both inside and outside of the country because of her ideology, not her gender.
Her far-right pedigree in a country that invented fascism a century ago has had commentators rummaging through the past of Meloni and her colleagues in the Brothers of Italy party in search of references to Benito Mussolini.
But even as her victory speech spoke of uniting the country, it is far more useful to listen to what she herself has said since entering politics to understand the vision the 45-year-old lifelong politician has for Italy’s future.
Meloni led a careful campaign, generally keeping a low profile as her support solidified and Brothers of Italy became the leading choice among the right-wing parties. One exception was at a June rally of the Spanish right-wing party Vox, when she declared: “Yes to the traditional family, no to the LGBT lobbies”. But in general there were few clear signs of ideological excess in her campaign.
Her recent moderate turn remains however significant if one considers that the European Union may in the coming months limit the possibility for the new government to deviate from the line pursued by outgoing Prime Minister Draghi. The electorate of Brothers of Italy won’t not like the pro-European line, which could mean that traditional right-wing themes like anti- immigration and challenges to abortion rights, could be the ideal ground for compensating for any discontent.
Abortion, LBGTQ, Immigration
Perhaps in these gray areas is where the kind of Italy envisioned by the right will begin to take shape in reality.
During a debate, while talking about the law on abortion, Meloni stated: “We have never asked to abolish it, not even to amend it, but only to implement it in its entirety, including by ensuring support for women who choose to carry on their pregnancy.”
On the other hand, the electoral program of Brothers of Italy clearly states its commitment to “protect human life from its inception.” And Meloni addresses the issue in her autobiography: “Each one of us, from the moment of conception forever, is the bearer of a unique and unrepeatable genetic code. This, like it or not, has something sacred about it”.
It is therefore clear what could happen to the right to abortion that has been guaranteed since 1978. Emma Bonino, the leader of the center-left party +Europa and a long-standing pro-choice activist, has warned that the law could be challenged not “in a transparent way, through an amendment proposal,” but “in a more subtle way,” for instance by continuing not to implement it fully.
In the kind of Italy imagined by the right-wing leader, this manifesto of love does not apply to everyone.
La Stampa journalist Francesca Schianchi explained that Italy has an extremely high percentage of “conscientious objectors” among medical staff, who have the right to refuse to perform abortions. This makes it “very difficult for women to exercise their right to abortion, and the guidelines on the use of the RU-486 pill are not followed everywhere,” writes Schianchi. “Then perhaps ‘fully implementing’ the law also means removing those obstacles.”
The first point in the program of Brothers of Italy is precisely devoted to increasing the birth rate and supporting families, considered as “the founding element of society and what makes ‘a Nation truly sovereign and spiritually strong’ (Pope John Paul II)”. Hence the motto “God, homeland and family” recently claimed by Meloni as “the most beautiful manifesto of love that spans the centuries.”
But in the kind of Italy imagined by the right-wing leader, this manifesto of love does not apply to everyone: Her program firmly reiterates the “prohibition of same-sex adoption.” Interestingly, this is stated not in the section devoted to family policies, but in the one devoted to “the protection of the freedom and the dignity of every person,” as if to put a symbolic distance from the traditional family.
A crowd of supporters listen to Giorgia Meloni in Palermo on Sept. 20, 2022.
Maybe not fascism, but populism
Another core issue is the form of government, which the right-wing wants to reform toward a presidential system, where the President of the Republic is elected directly by the population and coincides with the head of the government. Italy is currently a parliamentary Republic, where the prime minister is not elected directly by the citizens. The founding fathers wanted it that way because Italy was recovering from 20 years of fascist dictatorship and they wanted to avoid another strongman. For this reason too, Giorgia Meloni’s project has raised concerns.
However, more than 70 years after Italy’s post-War Constitution took effect, the constant criticism based on Brothers of Italy’s political roots in the post-fascist Italian Social Movement party is unconvincing.
What instead is more troubling is the anti-parliament vein that runs through the current right-wing’s ideology. “A free and mature people," Meloni states in her autobiography, "choose and elect their rulers without allowing the Palace to distort their will.” What Meloni calls “the Palace” is the parliament, the body that, according to the Constitution, represents directly the will of the people.
Thus, with the rejection of any political relationship other than the direct bond between the people and its leader, anti-parliamentarism has a notable ring of populism.
The right-wing declares government stability as its primary goal. The fact is, in the severely distressed conditions in which the current political system finds itself — with a parliament already deprived by the government of its legislative function, and with the increasingly strong tendency to identify parties with leaders — the stability ensured by the direct election of the head of state risks translating into an unmitigated domination of the majority, or worse, of its leader.
A closed country
Beyond such key issues as the family and the presidential reform, other elements of Meloni’s recent campaign offer a peek at the the kind of Italy that she has in mind. Tougher sentencing for convicted criminals is another favorite topic, along with a new prison construction plan and increase in police personnel. More prisons, in short. More walls.
This program well depict the vision of the country that permeates the right-wing propaganda: that of a closed country, focused on its own fears and structurally defensive. A country that, in order to reinforce its identity, seems to require reassurances that are as solid as the walls of a prison cell, and which can at the same time acquire a significant symbolic dimension. About her home during the years when she was a minister — from 2008 to 2011, in the last Berlusconi’s government —, Meloni recalls: “I used to spend my days dodging pitfalls, facing problems, debating, fighting. But in there, once I closed the door, I felt safe, finally peaceful, free. That’s how you fully understand the value of walls and borders”.
Her autobiography — which should be read as a true political manifesto — is punctuated with a strong tone of recrimination, as were some of her campaign experiences. “I am often trivialized or ghettoized by the intelligentsia because of what I say, regardless of how and why I say it.”
And later in the memoire: “I am proud not to be like them, who like to debate about people and their misfortunes from the comfort of their villas, sipping Champagne in bare feet and wearing long white linen dresses.”
I take great care not to please those people
And still on the subject of her left-wing critics: “I take great care not to please those people. Their hostility is like the North Star for me, confirming that I’m following the right course.”
Meloni concludes: “They will accuse me of being fascist all my life, but I don’t care, because in any case Italians don’t believe this nonsense anymore.”
She may not be entirely wrong, and certainly the propaganda against her has also been fueled by many fantasies, sometimes even ridiculous, about a possible return of fascism should she become prime minister.
In order to understand what is the Italy she imagines, it is sufficient to listen to what Meloni and her party say and do today. The point is not fascism, but rather a different Italy to come. “Someone unwisely makes comparisons with regimes from the past,” observed the center-left former Prime Minister Romano Prodi. “The challenge of a mature democracy is much more complex than it used to be, it is a question of alliances, friendships, values. From this point of view, the risk still exists.”
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