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Tuesday, July 2, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Far-right Meloni enjoys trust of Italians, but they expect results

On the streets of the G7 summit, Italians said Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni should be given a chance to tackle the country's problems. For now, Meloni's enjoying an extended honeymoon, but the electorate is watching and waiting.

FASANO, Italy (CN) — From across the street, Oronzo Turchiarulo watched and listened as left-wingers and peaceniks shouted and marched against their enemies: The Group of Seven — and everything it stands for — and Giorgia Meloni, Italy's neo-fascist prime minister who's suddenly at the vanguard of world politics.

It was a colorful bit of political theater at a remarkable time in Italy, with white-washed Fasano, a southern township Meloni chose to host the G7 summit, at the center of it all last week.

When it comes down to it, this crucial political moment where the far right controls Italy for the first time since Benito Mussolini has been made possible by Italians just like Turchiarulo — a disillusioned voter willing to give Meloni and her neo-fascist party, the Brothers of Italy, a chance at governing.

“I wanted to see how they'd do because with the left, at the end of the day, there really wasn't any progress,” Turchiarulo said. “Public debt continues to grow; social inequalities are still there.”

Prior to voting for Meloni in September 2022, the 62-year-old Turchiarulo said he'd always voted for parties on the left, most recently for the radical antiestablishment 5-Star Movement, a maverick party at the helm in Italy prior to the era of Meloni.

Based on a series of interviews with people from Fasano last Saturday, Turchiarulo appeared to represent a common thread: Italians see Meloni as a bold alternative and they're not fazed by her party's neo-fascist roots.

People in Fasano, Italy, watch protesters against the Group of Seven summit pass through their town on June 15, 2024. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

In September 2022, Meloni rocked European Union politics when her Brothers of Italy won the nation's parliamentary elections with about 26% of the vote. In Fasano, a city of roughly 38,000 people in Puglia, a candidate with the right-wing coalition won about 51% of the votes.

Since then, Meloni has deftly made herself a linchpin in Western politics by tacking to the center — and jettisoning previous pro-Russia and anti-EU stances — while consolidating her power in Italy through a right-wing coalition.

At the G7 summit, Meloni seemed to be not just on top of European politics but on the top of the world, with journalists and pundits scratching their heads over how she was the only leader in the club of the world's wealthiest democracies with a strong political position at home.

Meloni is making Italians proud.

“She's a woman with a lot of character, a strong woman,” said Leonardo Cervellera, a 42-year-old undertaker in Fasano. “I think she's doing well for Italy.”

In recent elections, Cervellera did not vote for Meloni, choosing instead to back the 5-Star Movement and the recently deceased Italian magnate Silvio Berlusconi's conservative Forza Italia.

“She reminds me a bit of Berlusconi,” Cervellera said. “I really liked Berlusconi and I see his way of getting things done in her.”

After becoming prime minister in 1994, Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for the better part of two decades through a brand of divisive populist right-wing free-market politics. In taking power, Berlusconi also broke a taboo barring neo-fascists from entering the national government, paving the way for Meloni's rise to the premiership.

Based on her job performance so far, Cervellera said he would likely vote for Meloni next time, especially if she looks out for the interests of the lower classes and maintains Italy's strong position on the world stage.

“Those who were in power before Meloni didn't do much good,” he said. “We wanted a change in Italy and to give someone else a chance and see if they can do any good.”

He wasn't concerned about her neo-fascist roots.

“I'm not afraid,” he said. “I don't like communists.”

Then he added: “Anyway, there really aren't communists or fascists anymore. They're all kind of in the center.”

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As he spoke outside his funeral home on the main square of Fasano, a small group of communists who had been allowed to hold a protest against the G7 were delivering speeches.

“Let's see what they do for real,” he said about the Meloni government. “Let's give them our trust; after all they've been in command of Italy for only a short time.”

Smiling, he added: “If it doesn't go well, then we'll make a new change.”

Across the square, Mimmo Galeota, a 76-year-old cosmetics store owner, was similarly impressed by Meloni, even though he had not yet voted for her.

“You've got to say she's performing well,” he said. “She comes across as having a cohesive government, which means she's able to keep the political forces united — and this means Italy looks good at the European level. We have a kind of authority.”

He doesn't hold a specific political creed and judges governments on what they get done, he said. But he too felt inclined to vote for Meloni in the next round.

“She's sunny and she's smart,” he added. “A woman with a strong personality.”

Meanwhile, for Stefano Palmisano, a 76-year-old Fasano pensioner who votes for left-wing parties, Meloni's arrival in power is a symptom of widespread discontent.

“When democracy isn't able to satisfy people's demands, then the people will revolt by going in other directions,” he said.

But he doubted Meloni will do much to solve the frustration. “Her government is promising lots of things, but I don't see anything new.”

However, he said Italy must be wary about how far to the right this government will push the country.

“They have some neo-fascist tendencies, but I can't say yet whether they are or not fascists. Let's see what happens over time,” he said.

Among those less politically engaged, there was strong skepticism in Fasano about how much Meloni will improve living conditions.

This slice of the electorate — disinclined to vote — has been growing at an alarming rate across Italy for years. Only 49.9% of eligible voters cast ballots in the recent elections for the European Parliament, the lowest turnout on record in Italy's post-war history.

A man in Fasano, Italy, looks out a window at a march against the Group of Seven summit on June 15, 2024. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service)

One such person was Giovanni Pinto, a 61-year-old construction worker. The only time he voted was in the 1980s, after he'd turned 18. He cast a ballot for the Communist Party.

“They promise you the sea, the mountain and the sky,” Pinto said, “but then they don't keep their promises.”

He stood with a neighbor watching the raucous G7 protesters march by their street in the old city center.

He complained that government after government has been a failure. Italy is notorious for its succession of governments, almost 70 since the end of World War II, and in recent decades Italian governments, like others in the EU, have had their powers clipped by Brussels, particularly when it comes fiscal and monetary policies.

“They make us pay taxes and more taxes,” Pinto lamented. “They made us close down our hospital here and now to go for a doctor's visit you have to drive 50 kilometers.”

He shook his head. “A new hospital has been under construction for seven, eight years. Every year, we hold a new inauguration, but it doesn't ever open. The schools are falling apart; earthquake victims [elsewhere in Italy] are still living in shacks.”

For him, Meloni, like prime ministers before her, seems to care more about foreign affairs than the needs of Italians. He said this even though Meloni has made putting “Italians first” at the center of her far-right nationalistic platform.

“For Italians, there isn't any money, but for those outside the country there is,” he said. “We have to help Ukraine, but who's going to help us? For the past two years, Ukraine's been eating up money. And now Meloni is sending money to Africa.”

This was in reference to plans Meloni is pushing to build up infrastructure projects in North Africa with the aim of stopping the flow of migrants into Italy by boosting African economies. Along with other far-right leaders, Meloni has railed against irregular immigration and promised to halt the flow of migrants.

“At the end of the day, she won't do anything,” Pinto predicted.

Teresa, a 57-year-old field worker from Fasano, didn't vote in the recent European elections out of frustration and a sense of disillusionment.

“Lots of people didn't go vote,” she said, standing with a couple of neighbors as they watched from afar the G7 protesters march through town. “None of them inspired me, so I didn't go. It all stays the same, it's pointless.”

She wasn't expecting much from Meloni either.

“If only she did something different,” she said. “I'm not seeing anything. But we'll see.”

Her friend chimed in: “We need money to live. A little more money.”

“Brava!” Teresa said. “If they'd only give us a bit of help.”

Turchiarulo, the Meloni convert, said his verdict of the government will be based on what it's able to achieve.

“For the average person, whether it's a Meloni government or a government with a different politics, what matters in the end is what gets done,” he said. “People have to get by each and every day and they don't need slogans or promises, but concrete deeds.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Economy, Elections, Government, International, Politics

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