Determined, stubborn, sarcastic and with a shrewd knack of casting aside her enemies, a trait developed after being bullied over her weight as a child, Giorgia Meloni, 45, is on the verge of becoming Italy’s first female prime minister.
Her Brothers of Italy party, an offspring of fascism, is riding high in opinion polls, edging up even further in final polls to widen the gap with the centre-left Democratic party. The lead is forecast to give Meloni and her alliance, composed of Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, a comfortable victory in general elections on 25 September.
Born and raised in Garbatella, a working-class area of Rome, Meloni became involved in politics aged 15 after registering with Fronte della Gioventù, the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a party established by Giorgio Almirante, who was a minister in the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s government. It was 1992 and Meloni’s interest in politics was piqued by the collapse of Italy’s postwar political order, or the so-called First Republic, amid a series of scandals that exposed widespread corruption and mafia influence.
She wrote in her biography, Io Sono Giorgia – I am Giorgia – that she was instinctively drawn to MSI’s youth movement, where she said she found solidarity in a close-knit, if marginalised, community of militants often depicted as evil or violent, who dedicated all their time to politics as opposed to frequenting discos or shopping like their peers.
On the first day she visited MSI’s offices in Garbatella, she wrote that she found herself in a room full of men who were listening to a talk being given by Marco Marsilio, the Brothers of Italy president of Abruzzo, the first Italian region won by the party in 2019.
Three decades on, Marsilio still remembers her arrival. “I immediately noticed and appreciated her solid characteristics,” he told the Observer. “She’s determined, committed and has always kept her word. When she takes something on, she focuses deeply and sticks with it right until the end.”
Meloni honed her craft through student politics, distributing flyers in schools and putting up posters on the streets around Garbatella, all the while trying to gauge public sentiment by chatting to people at markets, something she said she still does today. In 2004, she was elected president of the youth wing of National Alliance, the party that emerged from MSI.
“Meloni is coherent, real and her [success] has never gone to her head,” said Giovanni Donzelli, a Brothers of Italy deputy who met Meloni in her teens when she went to Florence to help with campaigning for MSI’s youth contingent. “In public they say she laughs little and always seems angry. But in private, she is pleasant.”
Federico Mollicone, who has also known Meloni since her early years in politics, describes her as passionate, not angry. “Think of the coldness and distance of other politicians,” he said. “She is true to herself – when she is angry, you see it, and when she is joking she is very funny – she has a typical Roman sarcasm.”
Meloni’s rise in politics was facilitated by the arrival of Berlusconi, who swept to power for the first time in 1994 in coalition with the refashioned National Alliance and the Northern League [now the League]. The government only survived a year, but the alliance was back for a second term in 2001.
In 2006 she became the youngest ever deputy vice-president of the chamber of deputies. Berlusconi returned for his third stint as prime minister two years later, appointing Meloni as youth minister. National Alliance was dissolved in 2009 and she went on to found Brothers of Italy in 2012.
Meloni’s new party languished at about 4% in the 2018 general elections, but a small breakthrough came a year later, when the party performed better than expected in the European parliamentary elections. Since then, Meloni has worked to pull the party from the fringes by remoulding it as a conservative champion of patriotism. This approach helped take the group forward, an image further shaped by Meloni’s election as president of the European conservatives and reformists party in 2020. However, her hardline views on issues such as illegal immigration – she has called for the navy to turn migrants back to Africa – abortion, same-sex marriage and parenting remain.
The Brothers of Italy-led coalition is against Italian citizenship being granted at birth to children born in Italy to foreign parents, and wants to reduce access to welfare benefits for foreigners.
Meloni said she is pro-European, but, like Salvini, she shares a vision of Europe more in tune with that of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, arguing that EU policies should not supersede Italian ones.
Meloni has also tried to cleanse her party of its neofascist image. In August, she issued a video, spoken in English, French and Spanish, in which she said “fascism has been consigned to history”. However, she refused calls to remove MSI’s tricoloured flame from the Brothers of Italy logo and maintains the fascist motto, “God, family, fatherland”.
Meloni, an unmarried mother of one, does not describe herself as a feminist, instead saying she is against “pink quotas” and that roles should be achieved through merit, not gender. She illustrates this point by claiming hers is the only party that contains several women in leadership positions. But her opponents argue she has done little to promote the social and economic advancement of women. “She has done nothing to remove the obstacles that women face every day,” said Laura Boldrini, a Democratic party politician.
Boldrini pointed to Meloni and Salvini’s presence at the controversial World Congress of Families in Verona in 2019. “This congress is a powerful international lobby that wants to change laws on divorce, abortion and civil norms. The fact that Salvini and Meloni were there means they share a vision which sees the clock being turned back on women’s rights.”
Another explanation for Brothers of Italy’s rise is that it was the only party that stayed out of Mario Draghi’s coalition government, which collapsed in July after three key components, including the League and Forza Italia, snubbed a confidence vote.
“Meloni has had a structural advantage,” said Lorenzo De Sio, a politics lecturer at Rome’s Luiss University. “Of course she has remained coherent because she has been able to work calmly on her political project without paying the price of the politics of daily government.”
In the process, Meloni appears to have been able to attract voters with leftwing ideals. For example, De Sio conducted a survey on Brothers of Italy supporters and found that while many back rightwing policies such as limiting immigration, they want abortion rights to be protected and support euthanasia being legalised.
“From this point of view, Meloni has an electorate which isn’t ideologically extremist to the right,” he said.
Should Meloni become prime minister, hers would be the most rightwing government since the end of the second world war.
“Leadership is natural for Meloni, she constructed this path,” said Marsilio. “We haven’t just come from nothing, we come from a solid school of training and political tradition. Italians have been able to get to know and appreciate us. We can provide a guarantee that the others can’t.”