Just five years ago, Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist origins, barely scraped 4% of the vote. It now leads in opinion polls, en its leader Giorgia Meloni’s rabble-rousing speeches have filled squares up and down Italy before local elections beginning on Sunday.
Italians will elect mayors and councillors in roughly 1,000 towns and cities, including Genoa, Palermo, Verona, Parma and a host of provincial capitals, in a vote that will test the strength of political parties before national elections next year.
Meloni is seeking to confirm her position as leader of a rightwing alliance, comprising Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, that is poised to run in the 2023 ballot. If it wins, she could become Italy’s first female prime minister.
In the days before the local elections, which are being held across two rounds, Meloni travelled to Viterbo, in the Lazio region, to close the campaign of the Brothers of Italië mayoral candidate Laura Allegrini. The medieval walled town is symbolic for the party: it is where Giorgio Almirante, the founder of the neofascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), closed his election campaigns, and where Meloni was elected president of the youth wing of National Alliance, the party that emerged from MSI before morphing into Brothers of Italy in 2004.
The 45-year-old’s speech to the crowd of about 1,000 people in Piazza del Comune began with the championing of women. “We are the party against pink quotas yet we are the only ones with the courage to put women in top positions," sy het gese, before repeating her hardline positions on immigration from Africa and adoption of children by same-sex couples, while making swipes against the left and the government headed by the prime minister, Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief.
Those who had flocked to see her were a mix of young, old, ardent Brothers of Italy supporters and those who admire Meloni but who are weighing up their options, for the vote on Sunday and for the longer-term.
“Politics in Italy is broken, lots of talk but the results are the same,” said Rita. “But Meloni has good ideas and is consistent in the things she says. Now we need to see what she can do.”
Enza Calisti, who was waving a Brothers of Italy flag, was in no doubt: “She is the only one who knows how to do politics, and is the most honest.” Simona Mengoni said she admired Meloni for her courage. “She is not afraid to fight for what she believes in. I like Salvini too, but I want Meloni to be prime minister.”
Umberto Garbini, 28, had travelled to the rally from the nearby Umbrian town of Orvieto, where he is a councillor for Brothers of Italy. “The party invests in young people and welcomes those with new ideas who can bring added value. These elections are important as the results will be like a mirror of what could happen next year," hy het gesê.
Meloni’s growing influence has caused intense competition with her coalition partner Salvini, whose League party, which is part of Draghi’s broad alliance, has been steadily declining in opinion surveys. The pair attempted to put on a united front at a rally in Verona, where their parties are running together, on Thursday night. “I guarantee that this is not the end of Romeo and Juliet,” Meloni said.
Their warm embrace came a few days after Salvini, fearful of Brothers of Italy gaining ground in the League’s northern territories, accused Meloni of dividing the alliance by choosing to run alone in several municipalities.
Francesco Giubilei, the author of the book Giorgia Meloni: The Revolution of the Conservatives, gesê: “These are only local elections but they are important for several reasons. They are the main political event before national elections, and several key cities and towns are involved. If Brothers of Italy proves its support at the ballot box too, it will carry a heavier weight in the coalition, even more so if it wins in the places where it is running alone.”
Brothers of Italy was the only party that stayed out of Draghi’s government, a position Meloni has used to her advantage while at the same time having constructive dialogue with the prime minister amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She is pro-Nato and supportive of Italy sending arms to the war-torn country – in contrast to the League – and of increased spending on defence.
In terms of the left, the Democratic party is slightly behind Brothers of Italy in polls, but it is divided over forming coalitions with the waning Five Star Movement. Steeds, the party is “the pillar of the system”, according to Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, and even though Meloni’s star is rising, a large portion of Italian voters will be hoping for another broad alliance after the next general elections, whether led by Draghi or not.
“Because of the international and economic situation, nobody wants a big change,” Diletti said.