After a year in office, Italy’s first woman PM is winning over detractors and bringing in some much-needed stability.
By Nichola Marie
Recently, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was named ‘Man of the Year’ by right-wing newspaper ‘Libero’. The article declared that Meloni had not only won “the war of the sexes” in Italy, but that she had “not only broken the glass ceiling, she dissolved it.” The opposition party and women’s rights activists in Italy were not as enthusiastic, believing as they do that the PM has not done enough to protect women from violence and also seeing the article as an affirmation of male superiority. Written by Mario Sechi, ‘Libero’s’ Rome Bureau Chief, who once led Meloni’s public relations team, the article pointed out, “In our society of weak thinking, we have recognised strong ideas. In excessive diversity, we have reversed gender. In times of war, we have chosen someone who has shown she knows how to fight.” Sechi declared, “Giorgia Meloni for ‘Libero’ is ‘Man of the Year’ because above everything she has cancelled the war of the sexes by winning it, by thinking differently, being divergent, overcoming the arrogance of men and the defeatism of women.”
Popular On Indian Soil
While the debate rages, Meloni’s fans in India are presumably vigorously nodding in agreement. She is, after all, quite a favourite on Indian soil, where she is a frequent visitor. Earlier in December, she posted an ‘internet-breaking’ selfie with her Indian counterpart PM Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the COP28 climate summit in Dubai. “Good friends at COP28. #Melodi,” she wrote in the post, her mash-up of their respective names creating a buzz. Meloni had come to Delhi in September to attend the G20 summit. Of their meeting on the sidelines of the summit, PM Modi had posted on social platform X, “I had excellent meeting with PM @GiorgiaMeloni. Our talks covered sectors such as trade, commerce, defence, emerging technologies and more. India and Italy will keep working together for global prosperity.” She had also come to India earlier in March, on a two-day visit to participate as the chief guest at the 8th Raisina Dialogue 2023, also holding bilateral talks with PM Modi at the Hyderabad House in the capital. Addressing a joint press briefing after the meet, she had offered her congratulations to PM Modi on being a major leader, and “the most loved one of all (leaders) around the world.”
The Astonishing Journey
Italy’s first woman Prime Minister, is, after all, very much a populist, ‘people’s person’ herself. Hailing from humble roots, she was just a child when her father left her family. Raised in the working-class neighborhood of Garbatella, central Rome, by her mother, at age 15 she joined the Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano; MSI), a right-wing party founded by supporters of former fascist leader Benito Mussolini, which later rebranded itself as the National Alliance (Alleanza Nazionale). During her teen years, she publicly praised Mussolini, and was a part of post-fascist political circles. She went on to hold leadership positions in Youth Action, the party’s student wing, before getting elected president of the group in 2004.
Elected as a councillor to the provincial government of Rome in 1998, she held the position until 2002. At this point, her prospects received a boost due to the return to power of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. The National Alliance party served as a coalition partner in many Berlusconi governments in the 2000s. In 2006, she was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian Parliament. In 2007, when the National Alliance and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia cemented their coalition under the banner of the People of Freedom (Popolo della Libertà; PdL), and the PdL won the elections held in 2008, Meloni was assigned the youth portfolio in Berlusconi’s cabinet. She was just 31, the youngest minister in post-war Italian political history. In 2010, National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini split with the PdL, and, amidst corruption scandals and economic turmoil, Berlusconi’s government collapsed in 2011. However, Meloni retained her parliamentary seat.
Meloni and fellow National Alliance veterans Ignazio La Russa and Guido Crosetto founded the Brothers of Italy party in 2012. It was populist, broadly opposed to immigration, and rejected the supremacy of European Union laws. Two years later, she was elected leader of the party.
Gradually, Brothers of Italy improved its performance, as Meloni grabbed attention with her speech in Rome, wherein she declared, “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian. And you can’t take that away from me!” Her growing influence resulted in her being named President of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a Euro skeptic bloc within the European Parliament.
Preferring to remain in opposition in 2021 than join a unity government, Meloni carefully plotted her rise to greater heights. Preparing for the 2023 elections, she worked to distance the party from its fascist origins, also banning the so-called ‘Roman salute’ with its Nazi undertones, as well as fascism references. Continuing to improve her public profile at home and abroad, she also penned her autobiography released in May 2021 titled ‘Io sono Giorgia: le mie radici, le mie idee’ (‘I Am Giorgia: My Roots, My Ideas’). The following year she made headlines declaring, “Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby… no to gender ideology… no to the bureaucrats of Brussels!”
After the fragile coalition in power cracked and snap elections were held in 2022, Meloni became the candidate of choice of the right-wing parties. What followed was a stunning victory for Meloni, with the Brothers of Italy gaining 26% of the vote. Officially invited to form the government, she became Italy’s first female Prime Minister on October 22, 2022. This was also Italy’s first far-right government since World War II.
Change Comes In
‘The Guardian’, in an article in September 2023, assessing her impact after close to a year in office, declared, “Meloni, who initially depicted herself as the “underdog” who had fought against the odds to become Italy’s first female Prime Minister, has morphed into one of Europe’s most powerful politicians.” She is seen to have “struck a reassuring, pragmatic tone in the rest of Europe and beyond. She has been unwavering in her support for Ukraine, while positioning herself as an advocate of large deals in Africa, be it on energy or, more controversially, immigration.” Pointing out that the veil of shame over the country’s most hard-right government had lifted, the stability long missing from the political scene in Italy was being appreciated.
Changing her style to a large extent, Meloni appears “less aggressive and more like a soft rightwinger”.
Forging ties with world leaders, she has formed new bonds with the US’s Joe Biden, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, and the UK’s Rishi Sunak, besides developing more cordial relations with France’s Emmanuel Macron and working alongside the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Simultaneously, she has been deepening relations with far-right allies in Europe, including in Spain, and Budapest.
She has taken some hard decisions at home too, with the ruling coalition cutting benefits to low-income or unemployed people, enacting tough rules against NGO rescue ships as well as same-sex parents, and even extending the ban on surrogacy to criminalise Italians seeking the arrangement abroad.
In her book, Meloni described herself as an irascible, defensive child, whose determination to fend off enemies was spurred by a group of boys who would not allow her to participate in a game of beach volleyball because she was “too fat”.
According to Nicola Procaccini, now an MEP for Brothers of Italy and her deputy in the European Conservatives and Reformists party (ECR), she studies so hard, they jokingly call her the geek. “She applies herself totally to everything, there’s always a feeling as if it’s the night before an exam. This is the secret of her success. She is a person who has her feet firmly on the ground – she overcomes one challenge, but is always aware of the greater challenges to come.”
She is also known for treating her opponents fairly, and her ability to go beyond ideological fences to build frank, cordial and respectful relationships. On the flip side, she is seen to dodge media interrogation, preferring to communicate through videos, while journalists who are critical of the government have been targeted with legal action. Her challenges include a surge in refugee arrivals, a slowing economy, doubts in Brussels over Italy’s ability to competently spend its share of Covid recovery fund, and no clear strategy on handling the country’s climate crisis.
Meloni began a relationship with journalist Andrea Giambruno in 2015; the following year, she gave birth to their daughter, Ginevra. On October 20, 2023, she announced their split, as a result of his sexist and chauvinist off-air statements aired on a TV programme. In a strong message to her detractors, Meloni emphasised, “All those who hoped to weaken [her] by attacking [her] personal life should know that however much the drop may hope to dig out the stone, the stone remains stone and the drop is only water.”
Clearly, there is not much that can shake the impressive Giorgia Meloni.
Did you know…?
- A fan of fantasy fiction, particularly JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, she has said, “I think that Tolkien could say better than we can what conservatives believe in.” She is also fond of British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.
- Besides her native Italian, she speaks English, French and Spanish.
- Forbes ranked her as the fourth most powerful woman in the world in 2023; that’s three places up from her 2022 ranking.