Italy, the world’s eighth largest economy, elect a far-right government last week, with Giorgia Meloni likely to be the next prime minister. That’s part of a trend: Her victory came shortly after the Swedish election that resulted in a far-right party becoming the second-largest party in Parliament there.
To help you understand why Meloni won and what might lie ahead, I spoke with Jason Horowitz, The Times’s Rome bureau chief.
David: What is the main reason for Meloni’s victory?
Jason: The real secret to Meloni’s appeal isn’t any particular policy or vision. In Italy, every election is an election of change, and being the candidate of the protest vote is a powerful thing. Meloni is. The other major candidates are all part of Mario Draghi’s national unity government. She stayed in the opposition and sucked up the protest vote. She won with about 26 percent.
Meloni’s appeal is also largely based on grievances – complaints from workers left behind by globalization that she ideologically doubts.
David: How would you compare Meloni to Donald Trump?
Jason: Despite her past admiration for Trump and her closeness to the Republican Party – she spoke at CPAC – she is different. While Trump is the son of a real estate mogul, Meloni grew up in the left-wing working-class neighborhood of Garbatella – and became a post-Nazi right-wing youth activist. She has a raw Roman accent, which can be compared to an old Brooklyn accent. And as a woman she had to overcome a lot. All cried out in difficulty.
David: Meloni’s agenda also looks different from Trump’s. Did you propose specific economic policies to help the working class?
Jason: Her party’s main proposals are deep tax cuts, including for those on lower incomes. On top of that, she wants to increase pension payments and cut taxes for working mothers. She talks about low birth rate increase as a way of talking about how proud Italians are again – patriots, people of prosperity and replication. To help them multiply, she believes the government needs help.
However, Meloni’s background is not anti-rich. She won the working class vote – and the rich vote too. She is in alliance with Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister who has talked about tax cuts for 30 years, and other allies of entrepreneurs from northern Italy. All in all, Meloni’s proposals will blow a big hole in the budget.
David: Does that mean she also hasn’t suggested spending cuts?
Jason: She was on target a great economic benefit to cut – “reddito di cittadinanza,” or nationality income. It’s a benefit, introduced a few years ago, that pays hundreds of euros a month to people who don’t work. It has proven to be very popular in the troubled southern regions of Italy, but its critics, including Meloni, see it as a material that encourages laziness and crime.
Her opposition to the benefit probably cost her votes in the south. In contrast, the Five Star Movement, another seemingly dying anti-establishment party, defended its interests and performed well in the south.
David: In Italy, the proportion of the population born abroad has increased over the past few decades. Is that topic part of Meloni’s message?
Jason: While there has been no increase in late arrivals, immigration is now a highlight of Italian rights. Meloni spoke of replacing native Italians with illegal migrants. She talked about the invasion. I heard her tell workers that international bankers were promoting mass migration to undermine their rights by replacing them with cheap migrant labor.
Immigration has been in the populist ether here since 2014 or so, when Italy had waves of illegal migration landed on its shores. Italy’s centre-left leader at the time appealed to the European Union for help but did not receive it. Thus, it could be argued that Brussels has been instrumental in creating the populist wave that has spooked the country.
The left has failed to respond on the issue, and even more moderate or liberal governments in France and Spain are insisting on enforcement. Leftist parties are in a difficult situation in which they cannot give up on integration, because it is central to their values. But insisting it could hurt their electoral chances.
David: How much reason to worry that Meloni might rule in a way that is anti-democratic and tramples on human rights?
Jason: There is a feeling that even if she wanted to follow Viktor Orban’s path in Hungary, she couldn’t because Italy is very integrated into the European Union, and depends on hundreds of billions of euros in funds. She is also a consistent voice for democratic elections. (The Times’ Steven Erlanger Explains EU Fears.)
People are concerned about gay rights and perhaps abortion rights. She opposes same-sex marriage and oppose the adoption of children by same-sex couples, argued that only a married man and woman could give the best child. She herself is also an unmarried mother to a longtime boyfriend and says she is also not allowed to adopt.
Regarding abortion, Meloni has told me that she believes abortion should be safe, accessible and legal, but she wants to increase prevention. That has raised concerns that Meloni will make it harder to get an abortion in an already difficult country, where too many doctors oppose it.
For more: Meloni is a staunch supporter of Ukraine, but her coalition partners seem like advocates of Russia. What happens now??
A programming note from David: This is my last week before the book break. Starting this weekend, other Times journalists will be writing The Morning and I’ll be back to your inbox by the end of January.
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36 hours in New York City
How do you make the most of a weekend in New York City? The Times 36 Hour feature is back with recommendations: Start Friday with 400 years of history at the Museum of the City of New York in East Harlem, stop by Marie’s Crisis Café in the West Village on Saturday nights for drinks and snacks, and ends with a Sunday lunch at the famous Chinatown Golden Unicorn.
This is the first weekly 36 Hours feature in more than two years, since this pandemic shut down nearly all travel. Why New York? “It’s The New York Times!” Tacey Rychter, an editor of the Times travel newspaper said. “Why not start in the hometown of The Times, and in a place that has seen so much adversity and change over the past few years?”
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Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can contact the team at [email protected].