Italy’s first female prime minister: Giorgia “Mussoloni?”

On Sunday, Sept. 25, the Italian right-wing party “Brothers of Italy” won a clear majority in Parliament. This places party leader Giorgia Meloni as the next Prime Minister. She would become the first woman to win Prime Minister as well as the most right-wing Italian leader since Benito Mussolini in 1945. According to a speech she gave in Spain earlier this year, her main priorities are “Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology… no to Islamist violence, yes to secure borders, no to mass migration… no to big international finance… no to the bureaucrats of Brussels!”

All of these points are reminiscent of the growing trend of right-wing populism in Europe. France, Sweden, and Poland are just a few other examples of this shift. In recent years democracy has also lost its grasp on Hungary, with the country becoming more and more autocratic under the rule of Viktor Orbán, with whom Meloni has a close relationship.

That said, Meloni’s election doesn’t come out of nowhere. The Brothers of Italy party has been slowly gaining traction over the years, and part of their appeal comes from addressing problems that Italy has been suffering under for decades. One of the most pressing is the overall decline in the native Italian population. According to Carlo Cottarelli, an Italian economist and former director of the IMF, young people are leaving because “The Italian economy is not growing. The Italian per capita income is the same as it was 20 years ago. In terms of economic growth, this past decade has been the worst since 1861.” This leads to young people seeing little reason to stick around, especially when neighboring countries are performing so well. Additionally, Italy is tied with Japan for the world’s lowest birth rate. These two factors combined lead to an increase in immigration to keep up with the demands of the Italian economy, a policy towards which many in Italy have hostile feelings.

In fact, anti-immigration policies have made up a large part of Meloni’s political framework, and it’s entirely possible that it led to her election. The Overseas Development Institute, a think tank aiming to combat global inequality, has done a number of studies on Italian immigration polls. They found that, during the pre-COVID-19 era, Italians saw immigration as the second most important issue facing their country. While that has since declined, those with explicitly positive views on immigration haven’t increased in number. They also found that Italians consistently overestimate the number of non-EU immigrants in their country—24.6% instead of 7%—the highest rate in Europe. Before COVID-19, ODI also found that more than half of Italians believed that more immigrants would increase the risk of terorism in their country, and just under half believed that refugees were more likely to commit crimes.

Clearly Meloni’s rise to Prime Minister was not a fluke. She won a democratic election because she was expressing the same views as a plurality of the people in Italy, and she is just the latest in a trend of far-right leaders winning elections in Europe. What Meloni represents is not an undemocratic takeover, but rather a very democratic triumph of populist opinions. Extremist rhetoric is almost always based on populist talking points meant to demonize the ruling classes while appealing to the common man, many of whom genuinely agree with the opinions expressed by these leaders. While it may feel like authoritarians are taking over, the bitter reality is that there’s nothing more democratic than a populist.

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