Leader Profile: Fascist, Fleeting, or Both? Italy’s First Female Prime Minister

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Jeff Zeberlein

Every issue, the SAIS Observer presents a World Leader Profile of someone you have probably heard of but may know little about. Pictured: Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first female prime minister, formed a new right-wing government with the help of Silvio Berlusconi (left) and Matteo Salvini (right).

Is Giorgia Meloni a fascist? That depends on who you ask. Nevertheless, her recent ascension to Prime Minister of Italy has brought the dreaded f-word back into the headlines of newspapers around the world, and many in her center-right coalition government have indeed flirted with the idea non grata

For many Italians, Meloni’s policies are extreme. The LBGTQIA+ community is worried about the new government’s hostility toward what it calls “gender ideology” and the “LBGT lobby.” Meloni is against abortion and promotes the ideals of what she views as a “traditional family.” She rails against immigration and has even advocated for a naval blockade of Northern Africa to prevent migrants from entering Italy. 

Meloni’s firebrand rhetorical style focuses on retaining Italian identity, which she claims is threatened by the influx of immigrants and deference to the EU. Her version of identity politics rides the increasingly common populist waves across Europe, even reminiscent of modern social conservatism in the United States. Yet Meloni vehemently rejects the fascist label, instead identifying herself as a simple “woman, mother, [and] Christian.” 

For many, however, her identity is inextricably linked to her party and its past. Unlike Germany, Italy never officially dissolved its fascist parties after World War II. In 1946, supporters of the assassinated Benito Mussolini founded the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI; Italian Social Movement) to carry on this ideology. Over time the party’s ideology went out of fashion, leading to its dissolution in 1994. Party members and leaders rebranded with other defunct right-wing parties to form the Alleanza Nationale (AN; National Alliance), which Meloni joined in 1996After winning her first election in 2006 to the Italian Parliament, her party eventually merged with Forza Italia (FI; Forward Italy), the center-right party led by Silvio Berlusconi.

Politicians and parties come and go frequently in Italy, but Berlusconi is one controversial figure who has retained a grip on power for decades. The conservative media tycoon was prime minister on three separate occasions spanning nine years and, now in his mid-80s, is old enough to have listened to Mussolini on the radio as a child. Indeed, Berlusconi is no stranger to the fascist label, with his mafioso air and affinity for authoritarians. He appointed Meloni as Minister of Youth in 2008, establishing her as the youngest-ever minister in Italy’s modern government and launching her into the public eye. 

But in 2012, Meloni split with Berlusconi to form a party of her own — Fratelli d’Italia (FdI; Brothers of Italy), which won only 2% of voters in the 2013 general election. 

Meloni left the government to become party president in 2014 and led government opposition movements while building the brand and reputation of the FdI. Still, the needle didn’t move much, and in 2019 her party gained only 4.4% of the vote. However, as former Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition fell apart, being on the outside of government paid off. The FdI gained popularity as Meloni galvanized populist discontent with liberal social policies and excessive government spending and attacked liberals for turning Italians into perfect “consumer slaves.”

When Draghi resigned in July of this year, it was clear that Meloni would be a frontrunner in the snap elections held in the fall. She absorbed former supporters of Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League) party, the most prominent conservative party formerly part of the Draghi coalition. Meloni’s competitors, Salvini and Berlusconi, were also hurt by their reputations as fans of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meloni widened her support by moderating her views. She took a softer stance against the EU and NATO, indicating that Italy will not turn its back on its multilateral obligations. She promised to govern Italy for “all Italians.” Though her cabinet primarily includes members of the right-wing parties, she chose to portray a message of unity and solidarity across Italy and Europe. 

Many view these overtures with skepticism; has Meloni truly changed her views or just her politics?

Meloni has immense challenges to overcome as Italy’s first female prime minister. She must tackle a looming energy crisis in Europe as winter arrives. Her relatively inexperienced cabinet will need to manage the country’s bloated debt and stave off recession forecasts. And she must contend against her own cabinet of rivals from the Forza Italia and Lega parties, including Matteo Salvini himself.  

Whether Meloni will be successful is a matter of perspective. For a country whose post-WWII governments have lasted an average of 1.1 years, another snap election next year would not be surprising. While accusations about fascism and the constant churning of new governments and leaders might cause whiplash for citizens of other democracies, for many Italians, this is politics as usual. 

 [AS1]Used the English name w/ translation earlier in the article

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