Editor’s note: Francesco Galietti is the founder of Policy Sonar, a Rome-based political risk consultancy. He has held senior posts at Italian public institutions, including the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Galietti is a columnist at the Italian news magazine Panorama. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
I’m often asked what Giorgia Meloni – leader of the national conservative party Brothers of Italy, and likely the country’s next prime minister – really is up to.
What comparability should we see? Hungary, Poland, Brazil and even the United Kingdom (not to mention the United States under Donald Trump) are all countries where the “destra” or “right wing” is in power at least partly on the back of captured nationalist sentiment.
But the 45-year-old Meloni, who is the favorite to become Italy’s youngest and first female prime minister in Sunday’s election, does not fit neatly into definitions. Her meteoric rise is perhaps best described as a courageous balancing act.
On the one hand, Meloni has tried to brush away the post-fascist aura of her party, whose past includes political operators who themselves were fascist or felt nostalgic about Benito Mussolini. On the other hand, she has blown kisses to capital markets, pledging to adhere to the fiscal discipline and European Union budget rules of the outgoing prime minister and staunch Euro-Atlanticist, Mario Draghi.
Despite her young age, Meloni has been in politics for some time. In 2008, she received her baptism of fire, serving as Minister of Youth under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The cabinet position she held at the time was a relatively minor one, but the consensus was that Meloni was groomed for power.
At the time I was a young consigliere at the Italian Treasury, and I felt that there might be more to Meloni. She seemed as if she had literally devoted her life to politics; it seemed more of a vocation for her, a vocation, than a profession. As a result, she did not strike me as another protégé of a party leader who tried her hand at the government.
Years later, in 2021, Meloni’s autobiography was published. I rush to buy a copy. In vivid detail, the book explains how painful Meloni’s childhood was, and how important it was for her to become a party militant. Meloni’s father had abandoned her and her sister Arianna, and the right-wing Italian Social Movement filled this gap. (She later helped found the breakaway political movement Brothers of Italy).
Learning about Meloni’s upbringing, I thought my earlier impressions were somewhat confirmed: The trauma of a lost father set Meloni on a mission to seek a sense of purpose. Suddenly, Meloni looked like Bruce Wayne, who after the murder of his parents started on a journey to become Batman. And yet Batman is a vigilante trying to rid the streets of Gotham City of its many villains, while Meloni repeatedly flirted with the idea of becoming the mayor of her city, Rome, but never actually went for it.
In 2016, Meloni first threw her hat into the ring, but ultimately withdrew from the mayoral race. In 2021, Meloni did not step down again, instead supporting right-wing candidate Enrico Michetti, who lost to Roberto Gualtieri of the center-left Democratic Party. It is generally believed that if Meloni had even run in the 2021 race, the judge’s chance of success would have been very high. So why didn’t she go for it? After all, Rome is not like any other Italian municipality and enjoys global visibility like few other cities in the world. Did Meloni consciously decide to “sacrifice” Rome to play the long game?
There is little doubt that Meloni’s rise in polls reflects widespread discontent and protest votes, which we have seen in Italy since at least 2013. In fact, this was already the case with anti-establishment parties such as the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s League in recent years. Not unlike them, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has risen very quickly in the polls, from single digit levels to around 25%.
Meloni’s timing looks better than previous upstarts. In fact, if one considers the general conditions of the right of Italy these days, Berlusconi, who will be 86 next week, will not play in the sandbox for much longer. Moreover, Salvini’s limits are clear and his “pivot to Russia” attitude has made him politically radioactive, after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This means that Meloni can not only dream of becoming Italy’s first female prime minister – but also of consolidating Italy’s conservative bloc.
Both tasks will likely require keeping moderates on board and bringing in new ones. How serious is Meloni about all this? Meloni is still active with her nativist, anti-woke storytelling repertoire. She also sided with populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban earlier this month, when the European Parliament voted to recognize the “existence of a clear risk of a serious breach” by Hungary of the EU’s core values to speak
But Meloni is also not afraid to normalize her party, and she could follow the example of her former boss and mentor Gianfranco Fini. In 2003, Fini chose to normalize his party’s relations with Israel and paid a very symbolic visit there. Apparently this move was not well received by some of Fini’s supporters back in the day. And yet it changed the perception of the party for good.
Today, Meloni routinely describes Moscow’s invasion as an “unacceptable large-scale act of war by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine,” and advocates sending weapons to the government in Kiev. Indeed, with the wind in her sails, Meloni is sending messages from a larger audience, both to appeal to potential voters and to calm any critics. In fact, she knows that without a strong Atlanticist attitude it would be impossible for her party to govern the country these days. Meloni also seems to have a fluid dialogue with the outgoing Prime Minister and hugely respected former President of the European Central Bank, to the point where we have already seen insinuations that Draghi has become Meloni’s own “leadership coach” and guarantor .
Of course, as is often the case with Italian politicians who are touted for top jobs, Meloni is quite the charmer – so many are convinced that they have an “exclusive” dialogue with her. Draghi-ites are confident that, given the chaos surrounding Italy, they have Meloni’s ear, and that this will be the case for some time.
And yet, Steve Bannon, the global alt-right guru, also regularly chats with Meloni. In an effort to help Meloni tell her story, Bannon just rolled out an unprecedented Italian franchise of his “War Room” show. Inevitably, this warrants the question: Who is the real Meloni? Is she the responsible party leader who has been on an evolutionary path to turn Brothers of Italy into a post-populist party, or Viktor Orban’s friend in Rome? Time will tell.
In the meantime, the biggest test to understand if Meloni really wants to protect Draghi’s legacy will be the appointment of Italy’s next finance minister. Will she suggest someone from Draghi’s old guard for this job? All eyes are on Melon.