A politician on the far right is likely to become Italy's first woman leader.
Giorgia Meloni's incredible rise is changing not only the politics of her country but also the way it talks about politics.
The front-runner to be the next prime minister of Italy has shot up almost out of nowhere.
Her party was on the outside until recently. She was ignored for years by Italy's political class, which was mostly made up of men. She is a single mother with a strong Roman accent. She is always casual and direct, pointing to the sky and criticizing "woke ideology" and "cancel culture" with her hands.
Giorgia Meloni's rise is amazing in any way you look at it. If everything goes as planned, she could become Italy's first woman leader in a few weeks. She has also set a standard for a far-right politician in Western Europe. She has reached a level of power that her counterparts in Germany and France haven't been able to reach, and she has done this even though the things that were driving nationalism on the continent, like a backlash against immigration and skepticism about the EU, have died down.
But Meloni has a unique look and has found a unique way to be successful in politics.
During the war in Europe, she has avoided the mistakes that other nationalists have made. She is a big fan of NATO and doesn't like Russian President Vladimir Putin at all. She has promised not to upset Italy's stability or its ties to the Atlantic. She says the country won't become more ruled by the government.
Italy's tone, on the other hand, will change for sure. Meloni criticizes the "globalist" left and the "LGBT lobby." She tells stories about crimes committed by immigrants. She has said that "everything we stand for, from Christian values to gender norms, is under attack." Some of her positions, like her opposition to gay adoptions, don't go over very well with Italian voters, but she points to them as proof that she cares more about her beliefs than about being popular.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Meloni said, "In a political world where everyone says one thing and does another, our [party's] system of values is pretty clear." "You might like it or you might not, but we're not lying."
If Meloni, who is 45 years old, wins, she will have a hard job: running a country that has been in a long-term economic downturn for a generation and is wary of her power.
People on the left have sounded the alarm, saying that Meloni could push Italy into Europe's illiberal bloc, along with Hungary and Poland, which fights against diversity and agitates against Brussels. Her opponents say that her ideas sometimes go too far. They point to things Meloni has said in the past, like a speech he gave in 2017, in which he said that large-scale illegal immigration to Italy was "planned and deliberate," done by powerful forces he didn't name to bring in low-wage labor and push Italians out. Meloni said at the time, echoing the "great replacement" theory of the far right, "It's called ethnic substitution."
On the other hand, her allies say that Meloni has serious plans that her predecessors didn't have and that her main goal is to fix Italy's economic problems. Her stump speech is dramatic, but it's mostly about how to get people to invest more and cut back on welfare. Her party's new platform has 25 ideas, such as extending high-speed rail lines and getting university research going faster. In interviews with The Post, voters who liked Meloni often said that they liked her because they thought she was honest and made sense.
Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia party, whose name comes from the national anthem and means "Brothers of Italy," is the most popular in the country right now. About a quarter of voters back this party. It has a deal with other right-wing parties to form a coalition, which gives it a huge advantage over a split and weak left. The right-wing bloc has said that the job of prime minister should go to the leader of the party with the most votes. Still, Sergio Mattarella, the president, has the last word on who gets the mandate after the general election on September 25.
Meloni said in her interview with the Post that Italy has a lot of problems. She talked about how the price of energy and raw materials is going up, no one knows if the pandemic will come back, and Italy's huge public debt, which keeps the country just a few wrong moves away from a crisis. Italy has had 11 different governments in the last 20 years for a reason.
"I can't say that my hands aren't shaking when I think about such a big responsibility," she said. "Because we'd be in charge of Italy during what might be one of the most complicated times in history."
A smart way to run a campaign
Meloni's rise is in part due to Matteo Salvini's falling popularity, who was also on the far right.
A few years ago, Salvini was seen as Italy's political powerhouse. He held loud rallies, banned immigrant ships from docking, and promised to put "Italians first," just like former president Donald Trump.
In 2018 and 2019, when Salvini was interior minister, he dominated the national conversation. His party, the League, had become so popular that Salvini thought he could take over as prime minister. But his plan didn't work. When he broke up his government coalition to force new elections, other parties worked together to keep him from being able to do anything. He fell into the other team. He tried to stand out in new ways and contradicted himself by taking different positions. In the end, Salvini got his party back into government by supporting Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank and the personification of the European establishment.
Giovanni Orsina, who runs the school of government at Rome's Luiss Guido Carli University, said that Salvini had won the lottery. "Then he dropped it, and Meloni picked it up."
Even people who don't agree with Meloni's politics have to admit that she knows how to plan.
As Salvini fell, she made connections with similar parties in Europe, like Spain's Vox and Poland's Law and Justice party, and she traveled to the US to speak to Republicans.
She told Italians that her party would always be in the opposition because it was a matter of principle. The Brothers of Italy would only join a government if they were elected, not through secret deals. She also tried to show that if her party believed in a cause, it could still do good things.
Meloni told The Post that he agrees with Draghi on how to handle some of the effects of the Ukraine war, even though the prime minister's coalition is split.
Meloni said, "When help was needed, we were there to give it."
Especially when it comes to her views on Europe, she has changed more than France's Marine Le Pen, another Western European nationalist who ran for power earlier this year. While Le Pen's platform had ideas that would have put her in conflict with Brussels, like putting national law above E.U. law, she didn't win the election. Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, said that Meloni's bill does not follow the law.
Scazzieri said, "This kind of cleaning up and Europeanizing has gone a lot further with Meloni than with Le Pen."
Meloni's problem now is that she needs Salvini, whose party is part of the right-wing coalition, to get into government. Salvini, who once wore a T-shirt with Putin's face on it while visiting Red Square, has said on the campaign trail that the West should rethink its sanctions against Russia, saying that the measures hurt Europe and don't change the Kremlin's calculations.
Analysts say that the possibility of competition and rivalry between Meloni and Salvini is already a reason to wonder how long any coalition led by Meloni will last. In theory, Salvini could make things harder for Meloni even before she gets the top job by suggesting that the party leaders step back and choose someone else.
In an interview with The Post, Enrico Letta, the leader of Italy's center-left party and Meloni's main opponent on social media, said that Italy is not experiencing a sudden rise of the far right. In the 2019 European elections, Salvini's party, the League, got 34% of the vote. Meloni's party won 6% of the vote. About two-fifths of Italians still support the far-right parties, but Meloni has taken away a lot of Salvini's support.
Letta said, "It's not a wave; it's her." "Because she is young and new, a lot of people are putting their money on her."
He said that her honeymoon would "end soon," and that the inevitable compromises would hurt her reputation.
Meloni and those close to her said that she didn't take any short cuts when building up her party.
She said, "We took the longer way." "Italians know now that we're a very trustworthy party,"
Well-prepared for a fight or a standoff
Meloni says that she learned how important it is to have enemies when she was young.
Her childhood on the outskirts of Rome was hard. Her father left her and sailed to the Canary Islands, leaving her behind. Her mother, who was on the right and wrote romance books, brought her up. By accident, she burned down the family home while playing with candles. And she was picked on because she was fat. In her autobiography, she talks about how people called her a "fatso" when she was trying to play volleyball. She cut back on food and lost weight.
Meloni wrote, "After all these years, I'm thankful to those rednecks."
Meloni still talks about her enemies all the time, sometimes with a smile. On Facebook, she shares news headlines that make her doubtful or angry. On the campaign trail, she says that the left is obsessed with trashing her and is doing "everything to stop us." Even in a video she released last month rejecting any party ties with Italy's fascist past, she said that suggestions to the contrary were "inspired by the powerful media circuit of the left."
Italy has had many different kinds of leaders, like Silvio Berlusconi, who ran the country like a play. Six years ago, he told a pregnant Meloni that she couldn't run for mayor of Rome because "a mother can't be mayor."
Meloni is not the first person to enjoy fighting in politics. But some Italians worry that she will make the country even more divided and loosen some of the rules that keep people in line. Edith Bruck, a Holocaust survivor and poet who lives in Rome and is friends with Pope Francis, noticed Meloni's shorthand way of introducing herself as a woman, a mother, an Italian, and a Christian.
"What do you think that means?
" Bruck said. "That she is neither Jewish nor Muslim? All of this goes back to the idea that Europe is Christian and that people who are not Christians are dangerous.
Meloni's friends don't see it the same way. Giovanbattista Fazzolari, a Brothers of Italy senator who has known Meloni since she was a teenager, said Meloni would represent the whole country, but there could be "extremely hard" clashes with established powers that she thinks aren't working "for the good of the nation."
Meloni has had to deal with mostly supportive crowds and the occasional protest group that yelled "fascists" at her supporters while she was campaigning. Even when she went off script, she used that as proof that she was ready for the job.
A young man with a rainbow flag got past security and got onstage during a speech on the island of Sardinia. Meloni cut him off as he was talking about how he wanted same-sex marriage to be legal.
She said, "You and I don't agree." "I want the right to have different political ideas. It's a free country."
She said that civil unions are already legal in Italy, so "you can do what you want."
The fight ended without violence. She asked the crowd to cheer, and Meloni used social media to share a video clip of the moment.
As the man was leaving the stage, she said, "I admire the courage it takes for people to stand up for what they believe in."