Few knew who she was 10 years ago – Giorgia Meloni, a former youth minister in the scandal-ridden government of Silvio Berlusconi, who later created his own party, the ultranationalist Fratelli d’Italia (Fdl).
But today the FdI is considered Italy’s most popular with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) at 21% each.
The 45-year-old, from Rome, is seen as Italy’s first potential female prime minister in the upcoming election.
And she’s a celebrity, with a viral video about her on YouTube seen by 11 million viewers and a bestselling autobiography released last year.
For Guido Crosetto, co-founder of FdI, voters feel they can trust Meloni because she has: “coherence, reliability, rigor. She does not speak in slogans or on the basis polls”.
“We [the FdI party] well in the polls because our party stays consistent with its ideas,” Crosetto said.
“For example, the party accepted the government’s proposal to send arms to Ukraine and voted accordingly,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is “an enemy of Europe and the West”, Crosetto added, underlining his party’s clearly pro-NATO line.
“She [Meloni] rose through the ranks; she has a lot of experience,” also said Andrea Ceron, associate professor of political science at the University of Milan.
Meloni was only 15 when she became involved with the Italian Social Movement (MSI) youth organization, founded after World War II by neo-fascists and veterans of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic ( a puppet state of Nazi Germany).
The popularity of the FdI is part of a broader shift to the right in Italian politics in recent times.
Until 2019, the polls were dominated by Matteo Salvini’s far-right and sovereignist League party, now at 15%.
But the FdI won some of Salvini’s votes and even made inroads in northeastern Italy, the League’s stronghold since the 1990s.
Putin and NATO aside, the Fratelli are focused on the Italian economy and northern Italian businessmen interviewed by EUobserver said they liked Meloni’s anti-tax and anti-bureaucratic style .
“There is too much paperwork, whether imposed by Rome or Venice [the regional capital]. Maybe Meloni realized that,” said a trade source in Vicenza, a city in northeastern Italy.
FdI voters are no longer just civil servants and government employees, but also entrepreneurs and professionals from medium-sized towns in northern Italy, hostile both to the (real or supposed) statism of the center- left and to the League which, according to many, talks a lot and delivers little.
“For us, the priority is the economic, industrial, manufacturing and financial survival of Italy,” said the FdI’s Crosetto.
And even some of those on the center-left have come to like key FDI figures, like Adolfo Urso, a high-ranking MP who was ravaged by pro-Russian social media accounts because of his pro-Russian comments. Ukrainians.
However, the FdI is a resolutely right-wing party.
Its literature contains slogans such as “Italy and the Italians first” and aims to protect the Italian identity from Islamization, while calling for the greatest plan of support for the family and the birth of the history of Italy.
Some elements of the party have not let go of their MSI roots.
And for years Italian media have reported that some activists and local party leaders performed the Roman salute or displayed fascist memorabilia.
Crosetto denied that FdI was xenophobic.
But he admitted he had a “very hard line” on immigration from Africa. “In 20 years, Africa could have a larger population than China. Everyone in Europe should probably be wondering how Africa will survive population growth,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the party will be able to retain its political appeal as Italy heads into elections next year.
“Some of the people Meloni surrounds himself with are prone to goofs,” said Ceron of the University of Milan.
Convincing moderate voters to switch to a party with radical roots is “not an easy gamble”, Ceron added. “Meloni is trying, though,” Ceron said.
Divisions within Italy’s right-wing bloc could also be an obstacle on Meloni’s path to glory, said Antonella Seddone, associate professor of political science at the University of Turin.
“The real weakness of the FdI lies in its relationship with its allies, the League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia,” Seddone said.
“FdI is obliged to dialogue with the League, which will not easily give way to it, and with Berlusconi, who continues to favor the relationship with the League,” she said.