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Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s next leader: No modern-day version of ‘The Hobbit’

Far-Right party Brothers of Italy's leader Giorgia Meloni shows a placard reading in Italian "Thank you Italy" at her party's electoral headquarters in Rome, early Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.
(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Far-Right party Brothers of Italy’s leader Giorgia Meloni shows a placard reading in Italian “Thank you Italy” at her party’s electoral headquarters in Rome, early Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Italians voted in a national election that might yield the nation’s first government led by the far right since the end of World War II. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Will Giorgia Meloni — leader of Italy’s far-right party, Fratelli d’Italia, absolute winner of the Sept. 25 Italian elections, and presumably the next prime minister — be a danger to democracy in Rome? 

The answer is no. She is not a version of Hungary’s Viktor OrbanBrazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or even Marine Le Pen, the French extreme-right leader who has been friendly to Vladimir Putin. But rather than describing her as “post-fascist,” evoking Mussolini’s cruel totalitarianism, as some in the Italian and international press have done, I would call her “post-Trumpian.” To be sure, she is close to America’s Republican Party and spoke to some of its gatherings in the U.S. She even engaged with Trump adviser Steve Bannon when he was in Italy, proselytizing for his absurd agenda — but when asked to underwrite his manifesto, she publicly refused to do so.  

More importantly, contrary to her fellow right coalition members — Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, and Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia — she made clear she will support European unity on sanctions against Russia for the war in Ukraine and disapproves of Putin. Her choice, she said, is in no uncertain terms Transatlantic. She said that changes in the European bureaucracy would be welcome, and the jury is out about her reservations over a European Union sovereignty prevailing over individual member states, but she has never talked about exiting the euro or the EU. 

She also is young (45), energetic, from a lower-class background, comfortable in her skin, and gifted with an impressive instinctive intelligence. She understands that not only does she have the opportunity to make history by becoming Italy’s first female prime minister but she can aim at another legacy: to build a lasting right coalition with her as the main leader, now that Berlusconi is fading and Salvini may soon be stripped of his party’s leadership. 

I am told she understands the weight of both opportunities and is working hard to avoid squandering them. 

Should we trust her? Time will tell — but we should give her the opportunity to prove herself.  

Her first challenge is to form a credible government, with seasoned techno-politicians heading the key ministries of Economy, Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security and Defense. There is plenty of time for her to organize a viable nomination process before the new parliament convenes around Oct. 13-14. Within days, Meloni and her coalition members should compromise on a new House speaker and Senate president. Then Italy’s president will start consultations about the new parliamentary majority and assign an exploratory mandate to Meloni, asking her to form a new government as prime minister — a daunting challenge, given Italy’s rampant inflation, rising interest rates, slowing economy, increasing national debt, and an energy crisis that will worsen this winter and possibly cause public unrest. 

On the plus side, Italy just got another 21 billion euros ($20.5 billion) from the European Recovery Fund, after former Prime Minister Mario Draghi reached 45 objectives set by the EU. Another 155 billion euros ($151.7 billion) are in the pipeline once other deadlines are met. That money is badly needed to sustain the economy. 

The key for her, at this juncture, is pragmatism and to waste no time in building a government with key ministers of impeccable credentials. She also knows the Republic’s president, Sergio Mattarella, has veto power if he feels certain ministerial candidates pose a risk to maintaining Italy’s international treaties. After the last elections in 2018, a record 89 days was needed to form a new government as Mattarella repeatedly stopped ministerial candidates who he felt posed a risk for Italy’s permanence in the Euro. 

Meloni understands all of this and sent out a clear message, hoping to attract ministers who would give credibility to her government. For the Treasury, she has approached Fabio Panetta, a former director general of the Bank of Italy and a member of the executive committee of the European Central Bank (ECB); such a technical choice would take her critics on the left by surprise, along with her fellow coalition members, who would hope to reserve key ministries for themselves, and his appointment would send a strong signal internationally. Yet Panetta has a problem: Informed sources tell me that Draghi himself — often in private conversation with Meloni — has expressed some concerns as, now more than ever, Italy needs an Italian on the ECB’s board and the vacancy left by Panetta may not go to another Italian. 

Other names circulating include former ECB board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, former Treasury minister Domenico Siniscalco and even the current economic minister in the Draghi government, Daniele Franco. Because of time constraints, Meloni will almost certainly sign as her first budget law the one already prepared by Franco and Draghi. 

As foreign minister candidates, I hear the names of Antonio Tajani of Forza Italia, a former president of the European Parliament with strong connections in Brussels, and Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, a former ambassador to Washington and foreign minister in the Monti government. 

For Homeland Security she may consider highly respected Matteo Piandosi, the prefect in Rome with a stellar career in the Italian police force. 

Should Meloni stick to this plan, she will have no trouble forming a new government with a few key independent positions, immediately passing her first huge political test, reassuring both the international community and the markets. The depth of her challenge, should the economic situation worsen dramatically, is of course unknown. 

Building up her political leadership within the right coalition is rather more complex but equally central. It should happen in two steps: First, assuring that her Parliament majority coalition will hold and be loyal to her policies; second, convincing domestic and international skeptics that she is less of a J.R.R. Tolkien fanatic and more one of Giuseppe Prezzolini, an Italian conservative who opposed Mussolini. 

On the first, Meloni will have to deal with Salvini, who was very hard on her during a harsh campaign but now is lying low because of his abysmal election results. He and his party plunged from 33.4 percent in the European elections of 2019 to 8.9 percent last Sunday. By comparison, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia jumped from 6.46 percent in 2019 to 26 percent; Berlusconi’s Forza Italia went from 8.7 in 2019 to 8.4 percent this time. 

Meloni knows well she could be the next one ousted if she does not produce results. 

The best scenario for her (and for Italy) is that the League will replace Salvini as party leader with one of the more moderate governors of the country’s northwest — Gov. Luca Zaia of Veneto (Europe’s richest region), or Gov. Massimiliano Fedriga of Friuli Venezia Giulia — or even Giancarlo Giorgetti, a pro-American, pro-market-economy party leader and Industry minister in the Draghi government. All three oppose Salvini’s anti-Europe/pro-Putin choices. In their hands, the League would be much more in sync with Meloni. As for Berlusconi (85), the longest-serving leader in the West, he “owns” his party — but a good portion of his followers know their political future may not go beyond this past election. They could switch to Meloni’s party or to the new Center party of Carlo Calenda and Matteo Renzi, who got 7.7 percent of Sunday’s vote. 

One League figure, Roberto Maroni, already asked Salvini to resign from leadership. 

Meloni’s second step would be to expand a platform of the right closer to George W Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” than to Donald Trump’s extremism. But critics rightly worry what she will do — not so much with gay rights or abortion, both now well-established in Italy, but with evolving civil rights like naturalizing immigrant children born in Italy. 

And then there are … well, those hobbits. 

A New York Times story described her youthful passion for hobbits and how even now she considers “The Lord of the Rings” a “sacred text” and Tolkien a prophet of conservatism. But she also is inspired by Prezzolini, the conservative who opposed Mussolini and left Italy in 1929 and settled at New York’s Columbia University, where he led Casa Italiana, became a U.S. citizen, wrote “Conservative Manifesto” and returned to Italy only in the early 1960s before dying in 1982 at age 100. 

Prezzolini’s conservatism was visible in opening remarks of the latest Fratelli d’Italia party gathering, while Tolkien was never mentioned.

So far, Meloni has moved very comfortably in her new leadership role. She now needs to convince the 74 percent of Italians who did not vote for her that she is a viable leader to navigate the tumultuous waters ahead. 

Mario Calvo-Platero is a U.S.-based columnist for the Italian daily, La Repubblica. He previously was U.S. editor of the Italian financial daily, il Sole 24 Ore, covering the White House; he interviewed all U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, founded the real-time information digital platform, EMC Inc., and hosted “America24,” a national Italian radio broadcast from the U.S. Follow him on Twitter @MarioPlatero.

Tags Donald Trump European Union Italy Italy populism Mario Draghi Politics of the United States Sergio Mattarella Silvio Berlusconi Steve Bannon

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