On Sunday, as Italians went to the polls, Giorgia Meloni, the far-right firebrand aspiring to be Italy’s first female prime minister, created a social media storm with a TikTok video that cleverly skirted a ban on election day campaigning.
The Brothers of Italy leader, whose last name means “melons”, which is also Italian slang for breasts, held two large pieces of the fruit in front of her chest, then whispered conspiratorially “Sept 25 — I said everything” and winked.
Such adroit, provocative use of social media has helped Meloni drive her decade-old, arch-conservative Brothers of Italy from the country’s political margins to a decisive general election victory in this weekend’s snap poll.
The party, whose ideological roots lie in postwar neo-fascism, won 26 per cent of the popular vote, up from 4 per cent in 2018 — and far ahead of its main rival, the centre-left Democratic party, which secured 19 per cent.
With their vote, Italians have propelled to power a far-right, anti-globalisation rabble-rouser — who has previously criticised Brussels in inflammatory terms — just as the bloc is trying to maintain a united stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She will take the helm from Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former European Central Bank president and passionate EU advocate, whose credibility restored both investors’ and Brussels’ confidence in Rome’s ability to undertake growth-enhancing reforms.
“It’s a shocking moment,” Luigi Scazzieri, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said of the party’s meteoric rise. “It’s the reflection of the electorate that feels like it has tried everything else now turning to the solution that is more radical and new.”
“It’s this huge contrast with Draghi that makes it very hard for people to understand,” Scazzieri added, saying that it reflects “a country that really feels that things are going in the wrong direction” after two decades of economic stagnation.
Giovanni Orsina, director of the LUISS School of Government in Rome, said the result reflected “a restructuring of the rightwing in Italy”, which used to coalesce around media tycoon’s Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia, and later Matteo Salvini’s League. Those two parties helped Meloni’s rightwing coalition win 44 per cent of the vote.
Many conservative voters now view the more ideological Meloni as Italy’s most credible conservative leader, helping Brothers of Italy to make deep inroads into traditional League strongholds.
“This is pure rightwing national conservatism,” Orsina said, adding that the lowest-ever turnout of just 63 per cent indicated it was “not too strong a mandate”.
Though she has won voters’ confidence Meloni will face a stern test as pressure builds on Italy’s economy. She has recently pledged continuity with Draghi’s key policies, including implementation of the EU-funded €200bn Covid recovery plan and maintaining sanctions against Russia. But analysts say she remains a wildcard with a capacity for unconventional surprises that could lead to friction with Brussels.
“We don’t really know who the real Giorgia Meloni is,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of the advisory firm Teneo. “Ambiguity has been her winning card so far, but it is much easier to keep this ambiguous position when you are campaigning than when you are in power.”
Brothers of Italy lacks qualified candidates for important jobs, though Meloni is widely thought to be seeking outsiders to fill key positions, including the finance ministry. Time is tight; Italy must present a new budget to the parliament and the EU for approval by the end of the year, though the process of forming the government could take several weeks.
European capitals, Washington and international markets will all be watching closely, with the collapse of the British pound — following the new government’s tax-cutting Budget — illustrating the high stakes and swift market punishment for perceived missteps. The yield for 10-year Italian debt added 0.27 percentage points to 4.6 per cent on Monday, the highest gap with German borrowing costs since May 2020.
“Everything said in the election campaign and manifesto has already been forgotten,” Piccoli said. “The focus is going to be the economy, and the budget is going to be the first test. Her room for manoeuvre is very constrained by the very weak external backdrop.”
While analysts say Meloni will initially seek to avoid open conflict with Brussels, Piccoli said frictions could increase over time. “If the winter is more difficult than we think and her popularity starts going down, we’ll see if she goes back to her inner instincts or tries to preserve some kind of balanced approach.”
Enrico Letta, the Democratic party leader and former prime minister who announced that he would stand down following his party’s poor performance, called the right-wing coalition’s victory “a sad day for Italy and for Europe”.
While Meloni’s victory was welcomed by Hungary’s rightwing populist prime minister Viktor Orbán and French far-right politician Marine Le Pen, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office sent out an icy statement. “The Italian people have made a democratic and sovereign choice. We respect it. As neighbours and friends, we must continue to work together. It is as Europeans that we will overcome our shared challenges,’ the Élysée Palace said.
However, Orsina said the EU would have to reconcile itself to Meloni’s ascent and its wider implications for the bloc, where national conservative parties are gaining ground.
“Italy — a founding member of the European Community — will be led by a national conservative party,” he added. “This opens up a more general game. Europe needs to understand what to do with the strengthening of the national conservative positions, which are no longer anti-European Union.”
But he said the prospect of Italy attempting to leave the EU was zero. “Italy must work with Europe and Europe must work with Italy. There is no alternative. They will sit around the table and they will hammer out compromises.”