Giorgia Meloni's greatest challenge won't be to break the glass ceiling

If she becomes Italy’s first female prime minister, she will have a chance to shake up how the country is governed

Giorgia Meloni, centre, with alliance partners Silvio Berlusconi, right, and Matteo Salvini in Rome last October. Reuters
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Untypical summer fare has filled the Italian TV screens this August alongside the improbable comic stunt shows.

There are staid politicians addressing panels of experts on shows with titles such as La Corsa al Voto (The race to the vote), covering the late September general election. On successive evenings, the public heard views from the leading lights of the political scene, including former prime minister Giuseppe Conte and outgoing foreign minister Luigi Di Maio. The pair are former comrades in the Five Star movement that topped the poll in the 2018 election but has since collapsed in a spectacular feud.

If the polls are correct, Giorgia Meloni looks almost certain to be the poll topper in the upcoming vote. And unlike Mr Di Maio last time, she already has an electoral pact with partners that says she would be prime minister if she wins.

Ms Meloni brings with her the taint of fascism. The party she leads, called Brothers of Italy, is a straight line descendent of Benito Mussolini’s forces. Those sympathisers have not managed to come anywhere close to the levers of power in post-Second World War Italy. So it is a big deal that the surveys have the movement at 25 per cent with only a few short weeks until the ballots are cast.

Riding shotgun with the far-right leader is Lega Nord's Matteo Salvini, the rabble-rousing, pro-Russia former interior minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the equally Moscow-tainted former prime minister.

In Italy, so many men of high and low stature have essentially manufactured the same outcomes

Ever the opportunist Mr Berlusconi is appealing for votes on the basis that his centre-right party would be a moderating influence on his prospective partners in government. The hinge of Italy’s future, then, becomes what would Ms Meloni do if her quest pays off.

For most observers of the European political scene, the same fearful questions that surrounded the rise of Marine Le Pen in France now centre on Ms Meloni. How can a far-right movement linked to evil be allowed to control the state? Can Ms Meloni be taken at face value when she says that the direction she sets is not the one that critics allege?

There are signs that the proposition represented by Ms Meloni does not conform with the received wisdom. Ms Meloni appears, for example, to be more polished and self-possessed than Ms Le Pen. The seminal truth about the French politician is that she inherited the National Front from her father Jean Marie Le Pen.

The key moment in Ms Le Pen’s career to date remains when she issued a manifesto in 2017 that included a garbled promise to exit the euro. It was an epic misjudgement. That is not a trap that Ms Meloni is poised to fall into, particularly as Rome is lined up to be the biggest beneficiary of the EU’s latest stimulus package.

Another difference is the manner in which Ms Meloni addresses the narrative around her party. As she prepared a video this week for Italy’s foreign press, she shot versions in the English, French and Spanish languages. Pointedly, perhaps, she said in a tweet that German was the major lingua she did not dare to take on.

The address amounted to an extensive rebuttal of the left-wing talking points that she feels defines the press coverage her party generates in the foreign (and across much of the Italy’s) media. Describing as nonsense, she dismissed allegations that a new government would be a danger to European history and the euro. "The Italian right has handed fascism over to history for decades now, unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws,” she said as she depicted her party as a pillar of European Conservative movements.

Critics on the left dismiss her plan to use the navy to stop migrant boats at sea near the North African coast as illegal.

Italy is unusual among the large European states in having an informal pressure valve in its politics. At a time of great stress, international figures who have served in appointee roles emerge as prime ministers. Mario Draghi, the current Prime Minister, is an example of this, having served as head of the European Central Bank. A decade before, it was Mario Monti, a distinguished former European commissioner, who led Italy through the global financial crisis. Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission, also returned from the high international councils to serve as prime minister as the strains of near bankruptcy loomed.

There are many countries who wish they could be as lucky to draw on such talents. It is undeniable, however, that the real business of politics is to win elections and provide stable leadership.

Ms Meloni has a chance to rewrite the Italian political script by proving that she is a singular woman who can shake up how the country is governed. There is something of an open goal for her to do so, given that so many men of high and low stature have essentially manufactured the same outcomes.

This means not just laying off the nasty stuff, such as targeting migrants, but offering a sense of purpose. Redefining Italy has, after all, been far too big a challenge for all the men who came before.

Published: August 15, 2022, 7:00 AM