Italians will vote in next Sunday’s national elections after partisan infighting overthrew Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s unity government in July. That has ushered in a summer of fierce campaigning and lively debate, both on TV and in sidewalk cafes, while most Italians relax on the beach.
If the polls are correct, history could be made once the votes are counted. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, could well become the country’s first female prime minister since the country became a republic in 1946.
The 45-year-old neocon, who runs on the “God, Home and Family” platform, has her supporters dizzy and her enemies warning that Italy may be turning back to fascism.
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Brothers of Italy – named after the opening words of the country’s national anthem – has roots in the post-war fascist movement that hailed the legacy of dictator Benito Mussolini. The right-wing party won 4% of the vote in the last election in 2018, but could win nearly 25% this time, according to some pollsters.
Italy is a country where for decades the political paradigm has included right-wing parties with fascist sympathies and left-wing parties with communist and old Soviet Union sympathies. For much of the post-war period, the Christian Democrats dominated Italian politics, with their mix of Catholic-inspired social programs and centrist politics. The Italian Communist Party was the main opposition force in those years.
A political firestorm erupted in 1994 when a widespread bribe scandal wiped out many political parties, including the Christian Democrats. Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul and then owner of football club AC Milan, founded Forza Italy, a centre-right party. His coalition won the election. Italian politics was changed forever as right-wing parties, once marginalized, were able to win regional and national elections.
Forza Italy runs again for the majority of Parliament, joining forces with the brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League. All three parties have a populist streak, combining right-wing politics with a mix of traditional Christian values.
In Italy, Christians, who make up 84% of the population, are predominantly Catholic. Most come from across the political spectrum in a country where prime ministers come and go and parliamentary coalitions collapse at breakneck speed. Governments last about a year on average.
“Catholics have not declared their withdrawal from Italian politics: they still vote and are still elected, but not in an identifiable Catholic or Christian party,” noted Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University National Council elections 2018. “Among the many political parties running for parliamentary seats, none see themselves or market themselves as the political homeland for Catholics.”
Meloni’s upbringing and political rise
Catholics may be politically homeless, but that doesn’t mean they don’t vote. Meloni, for example, was born and raised in Rome in a working-class family. She grew up without her father, a tax accountant, who left the family when she was 11 years old. Four years later, Meloni, a shy teenager, found meaning in the Youth Front, a group associated with the post-war neo-fascist Italian social movement, then a small political party that grew in the Berlusconi years.
As populism swept much of the planet over the past decade, Meloni, who is Catholic, founded the Friars of Italy in 2012. Their platform was conservative on many political and social issues. The party became increasingly anti-immigrant. She also adopted many platforms found in the Republican Party in the United States, such as anti-abortion and staunch support for religious freedom in a country that is becoming increasingly secular.