ROME — For Giorgia Meloni, the road to respectability runs through Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Over the last year and a half, the Italian far-right leader has clawed her way to first place in the polls by relentlessly hammering Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government. As leader of the Brothers of Italy, the only major political party in opposition, she has criticized the former European Central Bank chief on everything from the use of COVID certificates to reforms of competition law to who should have the right to run beachside businesses.
But on the hottest political topic of the day — military support for Ukraine — she’s been far more supportive of Draghi than many leaders in his fractious coalition. Meloni has described Moscow’s invasion as an “unacceptable large scale act of war by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine” and advocates sending weapons to the government in Kyiv.
“While there is quite a large constituency on the right critical of NATO and sympathetic to Russia’s position, [Meloni] has chosen to look ahead and send a clear message,” said Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey. “She wants to signal that she is a responsible right-winger that the world can do business with.”
Meloni’s hard line on Putin is relatively new. As recently as 2018, she celebrated the Russian president’s election victory as representing “the unequivocal will of the Russian people.” And it comes as Italy gears up for parliamentary elections less than a year from now.
As head of the largest party in Italy’s right-wing coalition, which is on track to receive some 45 percent of the vote, Meloni is in pole position to lead the next government.
Having built her rise on a reputation as a right-wing culture warrior on issues like immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, her support of NATO and Ukraine offers her a chance to position herself as somebody less radical — a moderate on one of the most important issues of the day.
The decision to back Draghi’s line on the issue “destroyed the stereotypes about us, which don’t correspond to reality,” said Federico Mollicone, a senior Brothers of Italy lawmaker.
“She is coherent,” Mollicone added. “She is not an instant leader, she does not follow social media trends.”
Meloni’s toughness on Russia comes as her biggest rivals on the populist spectrum struggle to distinguish themselves from the rest of Draghi’s awkward coalition.
Half of Italians are opposed to sending arms to Ukraine, polls suggest. On Tuesday, the anti-establishment 5Star Movement split over the issue. Luigi Di Maio, a former party leader and the current foreign minister, led a breakaway after criticizing the 5Stars’ current leader, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, for having called for a halt to weapons exports to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the far-right League party is shriveling in the polls, after its leader Matteo Salvini has flipflopped on the war. Despite having an agreement of cooperation with Putin’s United Russia, he initially voted in favor of sending arms to Ukraine but more recently tried — and failed — to embark on a peace mission to Moscow.
“Meloni owes a lot of her results to Salvini,” said Laura Boldrini, a lawmaker from the center-left Democratic Party. “He has changed position on many issues and this incoherence has given her an advantage. She should thank him every day.”
The gamble the Brothers of Italy are taking is that, while supporting military aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia could have a short-term political cost, it will build credibility in the longer term.
“Our position on international politics shows that Brothers of Italy has a serious and credible profile internationally, instead of making electoral calculations or using such a serious issue as the war in Ukraine to put the government in trouble,” said Raffaele Fitto, a Brothers of Italy’s MEP who co-chairs the group of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR.)
“We could have done that,” he added. “We didn’t because we know very clearly what should be the profile of a serious party running to rule the country.”
A few years ago, it would have been virtually unthinkable that the Brothers of Italy would have a chance of leading the next government. The party traces its origins to the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), and retains its logo. During the last parliamentary election, in 2018, it occupied the fringe right of the political spectrum and took in just 4 percent of the vote.
More recently, the Brothers of Italy has benefited from being virtually the country’s sole opposition party.
Its support in the polls is now 22 percent, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, making it the most popular party in the country, just ahead of the Democratic Party. With guaranteed TV airtime and untainted by the compromises of government, the party has been able to sweep up support from all those unhappy with what’s happening in Italy.
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In municipal elections a week ago, the party overtook the League in 22 of 26 provincial and regional capitals, including in some of the League’s northern strongholds.
“[Meloni’s] more reasonable position on foreign policy, compared to that of Salvini, is certainly one of the things that are helping her to gain ground,” said Lia Quartapelle, foreign policy spokesman for the leftist Democrats.
If Meloni is going to have a chance of making it into the prime minister’s office, her challenge will be to move from radical to respectable in the minds of the voting public.
She continues to espouse radical stances on many issues. At a campaign event in Spain in support of the country’s far-right Vox party, she declared her opposition to what she called “LGBT lobbies” and immigration.
But she has taken efforts to moderate her image on the international stage. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, for example, she was one of the strongest voices calling for action against Russia.
In Brussels, as president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party, Meloni has become the face of Europe’s far-right abroad, gaining legitimacy by engaging with EU institutions and mainstream groups in the European Parliament, rather than rejecting EU integration as a whole.
Earlier this year, Meloni’s ECR backed the centrist MEP Roberta Metsola as head of the European Parliament, allowing it to name a vice-president, MEP Roberts Zīle.
“It has been an opportunity to move away from an annoying approach that led to a serious and unjustified exclusion of our group from institutional roles,” said Fitto, who described it as “realpolitik.” In December, the annual Atreju festival — an event for Italy’s right-wing youth founded by Meloni in 1998 — drew ministers and European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas as speakers.
Quartapelle described Meloni as “an extremist that disguises herself as a moderate.”
“I recognize that she has been very able,” she said. “She has a kind of professionalism that Salvini doesn’t. She can speak on a range of issues, not just immigration… and sometimes supports positions close to the government’s. This makes her seem like a more responsible leader.”
Andrea Delmastro Delle Vedove, an MP with the brothers of Italy, denied that Meloni her views are extreme: “Is she extremist because she defends identity of gender … and the universality of the cross. Then she is in good company with Pope Francis. Would you call him an extremist?”
For Albertazzi, Meloni is “constantly playing to two galleries.” She is trying to keep on board those in her party who thought fascism did good, by using codewords like honor and nation, he said, and taking extreme positions in the culture wars against gender politics and gay adoption.
But when it comes to economic policy, she is little removed from center-right parties such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, favoring a small state, tax cuts and support for small businesses.
Crucial to Meloni’s success is that she represents the traditional nationalist right better than Salvini, and that she has remained out of government, said Albertazzi. “It doesn’t mean she will be successful three or four years from now,” he added. “But this is her moment.”