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Italy's election: Far-right Giorgia Meloni's populist appeal

September 20, 2022

Charismatic right-wing populist Giorgia Meloni is reaching for power in Italy, scoring points with simple messages and nationalist slogans. Her party's fascist legacy has progressives worried.

Giorgia Meloni at the campaign event in Cagliari
Giorgia Meloni speaks to her supporters at the campagin event in Cagliari earlier this monthImage: Alexandra von Nahmen/DW

A video of the candidate runs in a loop on a screen next to the stage. Smiling nonstop and shaking hands, Giorgia Meloni's voice booms over the Piazza del Carmine as it fills with people. They have come to Cagliari, Sardinia's largest city, to hear the politician with the best chance of becoming Italy's next prime minister and the first woman to hold the post. Polls ahead of the September 25 general election have shown her as the favorite for the role.

Mercedes Usai arrived well ahead of the event, which took place on September 2, to nab a seat as close to the stage as possible. She is standing in the front row, her eyes shining. "I believe in Giorgia! I trust in her strength," the 49-year-old says. Usai is a member of the right-wing nationalist Brothers of Italy ("Fratelli d'Italia"), which Meloni leads. Usai says she firmly believes Italy is at a turning point — one in favor of workers, students and Italian business. Meloni has promised always to put Italians first.

A successful strategy

"I work for a private company cleaning a court in Cagliari. I also work as a substitute teacher at an elementary school," Usai says. It takes two jobs "to survive" because making ends meet is becoming more difficult. She barely manages to pay the mortgage on her house, she adds.

Party member Meredes Usai at the campaign event in Cagliari
Party member Meredes Usai says she needs to jobs to pay her billsImage: Adriaan De Loore/DW

Many who attend similar campaign events by Meloni across Italy tell similar stories. Rising energy prices and inflation are weighing on them. They fear for their jobs. No one here trusts the country's political class. Meloni's previous strategy of rejecting any participation in government and remaining true to being the only opposition party through three different governments now seems to have paid off. Dissatisfied with all the other parties, many Italians seem prepared to vote for her.

Bashing political opponents

Suddenly, the music gets louder. Backstage, police assemble. Meloni has arrived, stepping onto the stage dressed in all white. "Good evening," she calls out to the crowd. The 45-year-old makes a scrappy impression. Though sarcastic at times, her messages are always clear.

Her campaign events seem to follow the same formula: Meloni speaks freely for about an hour, bashing her political opponents who would portray her as a monster and a racist. She accuses the European Union of incompetence, regulating the daily lives of Europeans down to the smallest detail but failing to tackle the energy crisis. Big capital and the liberal elites — though she does not go into specifics — are "responsible" for everything going wrong in Italy, especially with immigration and refugee policy.

Anti-immigration message

"Have you seen the pictures of Ukrainian refugees? Women and children who are fleeing the war," Meloni likes to say during her appearances. But the people who come to Italy via the Mediterranean are mostly men, she says. What's going wrong, Meloni asks, and immediately answers the question herself: "If it's only men who are arriving, maybe they're not fleeing war, at least not unless they left women and children to fight, an idea that I reject."

Supporters of Giorgia Meloni gathered in Cagliari
Supporters of Giorgia Meloni gathered in Cagliari. There is a widespread distrust of the political class in ItalyImage: Alexandra von Nahmen/DW

During the election campaign, Meloni circulated a video purporting to show the alleged rape of a Ukrainian woman by an African. For her, this was proof of the precarious security situation in Italy. When she received heavy criticism in response, Meloni went on the counterattack and accused the left of only showing solidarity with women who are raped if the attacker was Italian.

Unfazed by controversy

Meloni clearly doesn't shy away from controversy, though she has endeavored to appear moderate during the campaign. Fratelli d'Italia is no longer pushing for Italy to leave the EU and is now stressing the party's solidarity with Ukraine. In an address to international media, Meloni also tried to distance herself from the party's fascist legacy, insisting that fascism has been history to the Italian right for decades.

But Paolo Berizzi isn't buying it. Under police protection for his work, he has been researching the phenomenon of neo-fascism in Italy as a reporter for the daily La Repubblica for years. Fratelli d'Italia is still infiltrated by supporters of former dictator Benito Mussolini, Berizzi says. He believes that it's no coincidence the tricolor flame, commonly considered a neo-fascist symbol in Italy, was chosen as the party's logo. Within the party, there are "many examples, including leading party figures, who are closely linked to the fascist past," he says. There are parliamentarians and even people in Meloni's inner circle who have repeatedly used fascist slogans on social media, he adds.

Progressives fear a backslide

Meanwhile, Meloni's campaign appearance in Cagliari is abruptly interrupted. An activist storms onto the stage and unfurls a rainbow flag. "Let him speak," Meloni shouts to the police officers trying to take the man away. "I want a right to marriage and a right to adoption," the protester demands. "It's OK. You want many things. Everyone wants something," Meloni replies.

Italy’s far right gets into formation

It's hard to say whether the incident is real or staged. But other protesters continue to gather near the stage, including some LGBTQ activists. They say they are afraid of Meloni, whom they call a post-fascist.

"Our fear here is that we would go back in time and instead of going forward in terms of rights, in terms of other types of progressive mindsets, we would go back to an era that we fear, we dread the most," one activist says.

Delighted supporters, worried demonstrators

None of this seems to bother Meloni's supporters near the stage. Mercedes Usai, who is still holding out in the first row, seems to soak up the politician's every word. After the event ends, she stays in the square for a long time to take selfies with her friends.

"Giorgia made us all happy here with her appearance," she says.

But does it bother her that the demonstrators called Meloni a fascist? Usai shakes her head vigorously and says, "If they call us fascists, then I say, like Giorgia Meloni, I don't care!"

The candidate herself doesn't want to answer such questions this evening. "Are you going to remove neo-fascists from your party?" reporters ask. But Meloni steps wordlessly into her car, accompanied by chants of "Giorgia, Giorgia" from her supporters.

This article was originally written in German.

von Nahmen Alexandra Kommentarbild App
Alexandra von Nahmen DW’s Brussels Bureau Chief, focusing on trans-Atlantic relations, security policy, counterterrorism