Meloni firmly holds the reins in Rome
In 76 years, Italy's current government is the 68th since World War II. How long Italy's first female prime minister will remain in office is not something you'd better bet on: With an average term of office of about 1.5 years, frequent changes of government are the rule rather than the exception in Italy. Only time will tell whether Giorgia Meloni will succeed in fulfilling her five-year mandate after her clear election victory last September. In any case, she has passed her baptism of fire as head of government on the political stage; so far, she has not made any major blunders. Voter approval of her work so far is high. Meloni cultivates a media-friendly leadership style and a modern, serious appearance. She presents herself as authoritative and close to the people and, thanks to her rhetorical eloquence, manages to find the right language for the respective target group.
The idea that Giorgia Meloni, as leader of the far-right party "Brothers of Italy" (Fratelli d'Italia) and head of government of Europe's third-largest economy, could place herself at the head of the right-wing populist camp critical of the EU triggered worry lines in large parts of the EU. But having arrived in the reality of government responsibility, Meloni has so far guided her country's political fortunes in a far less confrontational manner than feared. Meloni's political flair includes the fact that she is said to have repeatedly sought the advice of her predecessor Mario Draghi since the beginning of her presidency. Cooperation with head of state Sergio Mattarella has also run smoothly so far; for example, the president did not veto a single item on her cabinet list.
Meloni's realpolitik course
Meloni has sought to fill key ministries with experts, some of whom are still from the Draghi cabinet. The appointment of Antonio Tajani (Forza Italia) as foreign minister initiated a clearly pro-European course for the right-wing coalition. Tajani is a former president of the EU Parliament and former vice president of the European People's Party. Meloni herself is also striking friendly, cooperative tones toward Europe so far. Demonstratively, her first trip abroad took her to Brussels, where she assured Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of her willingness to cooperate and Italy's role as a reliable partner for EU domestic and foreign policy measures during her inaugural visit. Meloni is aware of Italy's economic constraints, such as its immense public debt. To continue accessing the aid money from the EU recovery fund of around 209 billion euros, Meloni's government is largely continuing the reforms already initiated by Draghi. For example, it recently began implementing a comprehensive tax reform aimed at boosting economic growth with lower taxes to curb the escalating national debt.
In short, Meloni's course so far is more “Realpolitik” than her controversial election campaign last year suggested.
Part of Meloni's political versatility is that she has massively moderated her tone after years of right-wing populist bluster. But is there possibly no threat of radical change, but rather a creeping curtailment of civil rights and liberties when she calls for the promotion of the traditional family, for example? Meloni takes ultraconservative, traditionalist positions, much like Family Minister Eugenia Roccella on issues such as abortion, artificial insemination, euthanasia, LGBTI rights and same-sex partnerships. So, the question remains: What does Giorgia Meloni actually stand for in the long term?
Coalition partners are weak and the opposition is divided
If Meloni has his way, the "Brothers of Italy" could grow from a far-right micro-party into a conservative people's party. Polls currently put the party at 30 to 32 percent. To maintain this broad popularity and establish itself in the right-wing party spectrum, the hitherto strictly right-wing nationalist party would have to become more moderate overall. At any rate, Meloni need not fear the field of her opponents at present; her coalition partners are weak and the opposition is divided. The right-wing populist Lega party, with the declining star of its party secretary and minister for infrastructure, Matteo Salvini, has continued to lose voter support since the elections, as has the gradually imploding Forza Italia ("Forward Italy") led by the aging Silvio Berlusconi. At the same time, the social democratic Partito Democratico under the new leadership of Elly Schlein is experiencing a shift to the left and is moving closer to the left-wing populist Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle/ M5S) for a possible alliance.
Ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (Italia Viva, "Living Italy") and his former Economy Minister Carlo Calenda (Azione, "Action") wanted to create a viable liberal alternative with the "Terzo Polo" ("Third Pole"), which was launched at short notice. Against the background of the lack of influence of the highly fragmented liberal actors in Italy, the alliance of the two parties was a promising approach on the way to a united liberal party. But the unification project was over as quickly as it had begun: After a public "cockfight" between Calenda and Renzi, the merger collapsed a few days ago. The elections last September had shown that there was a demand for liberal politics in Italy: The liberal forces, which had positioned themselves for a united Europe, the rule of law, sustainable economic growth and against populism and further national debt, ran on different lists and scored a success with a good 10 percent. This trend was also confirmed in the regional elections in February in Lombardy and Lazio, with a good result of just under five percent for the liberal alliance. As a result of the polarization in Italy's party landscape between left and right, there is a lot of potential for a liberal force that could provide a political home for bourgeois-liberal voters in the middle of the political spectrum. The question remains as to when a party will succeed in occupying this space sustainably.
Rahel Zibner is project manager for Spain, Italy and Portugal at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Madrid.