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Far-right Meloni sworn in as Italy’s first woman prime minister

Italy’s first female prime minister is also the first leader of a founding nation of the European Union from a party with a neo-fascist history.  

(CN) — After a meteoric rise to the top of Italian politics, far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, the head of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party, was sworn in over the weekend as Italy's first female prime minister.

For many Italians, it was a bizarre and disturbing chain of events to watch the leader of a party with roots in Italy's post-war fascist movements take over at Palazzo Chigi, the seat of government in Rome.

Even though Meloni and her party are grounded in admiration for Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship, in recent years she's softened her image and most recently vowed support for the European Union project, NATO, Ukraine and the war against Russia. She downplays her party’s links to fascism and instead portrays herself as can-do conservative.

“Here is the government team that will serve Italy with pride and a sense of responsibility,” Meloni said, posting on social media a photograph of her cabinet after it was sworn in. “Now straight down to work.”

Her pledges to uphold the Euro-Atlantic liberal democratic order — positions seemingly at odds with her lifelong denouncements against this same establishment — have allowed Europe's political heavyweights, the White House and financial institutions welcome Meloni's ascent to Palazzo Chigi.

The rise of far-right Euro-skeptic parties across Europe has overshadowed EU politics for years and threatened to unravel the bloc. Anti-EU sentiment was a primary driver behind the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc following a majority of Britons voting to leave the EU in a historic 2016 referendum.   

“Italy is a vital NATO ally and close partner as our nations together address shared global challenges,” Biden said in a statement.  “I congratulate Giorgia Meloni on becoming the new prime minister of Italy.”

“I count on and look forward to constructive cooperation with the new government on the challenges we face together,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter. On Monday, von der Leyen said she’d had a “good first call” with Meloni.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were also quick to offer congratulations. Macron, who happened to be in Rome to meet Pope St. Francis and attend a Roman Catholic charity’s conference, was the first European leader to congratulate Meloni in person.

Far-right leaders, such as French politician Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, likewise offered support.

“Patriots are coming to power everywhere in Europe and with them this Europe of nations that we wish for,” Le Pen tweeted.

Still, there are deep reservations about this new Italian government both outside Italy and inside a country that is struggling to regain its economic footing after two decades of decline and stagnation.

In an interview with Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, Giuseppe Conte, a former prime minister and leader of the 5-Star Movement, a left-wing anti-establishment party now in the opposition, warned that Meloni may seek to make Italy an “illiberal democracy” and follow the examples set by Poland and Hungary. Far-right nationalist governments are in power in both Budapest and Warsaw, and they are at loggerheads with Brussels over bitter disputes about whether EU laws or national laws have primacy.  

“If Meloni implements conservative policies, we will respond with a normal, resolute opposition strategy,” Conte said. “But if she pursues reactionary positions and seeks an alliance with Viktor Orban, her friends in the Polish government, or the right-wing extremist Spanish party Vox, then we will have to mobilize all of our powers.

“There can be no illiberal course for my country,” Conte continued. “If necessary, we will position my party as a bulwark against Meloni. Italy is a strong democracy. We must prevent it from leaving Europe’s political center.”

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The modern Italian constitution and state were forged by anti-fascist forces that defeated Benito Mussolini's dictatorship and helped the Allies drive German troops out of Italy during World War II.

Thus, to see a political party with roots in Italy's post-fascist movements is very disconcerting for many Italians; adding to the dismay, Meloni’s rise to power coincides almost to the day when Mussolini's “black shirts” marched on Rome 100 years ago at the end of October and staged a coup d'etat that established fascism as a new form of government. Adolf Hitler was inspired by Mussolini and mimicked him on his own way to seizing power in Germany.

Meloni's Brothers of Italy party won about 26% of the vote in September elections, the most of any party. The center-left Democratic Party came in second with about 19% of the vote and the 5-Star Movement third with about 15%. The 5-Stars and the Democratic Party refused to join forces, which opened the door for Meloni and other right-wing parties to form a government.  

In 2018, Meloni’s party won only about 4% of the national vote, but since then Meloni has positioned herself as the country's leading right-wing voice and taken on the aura of a rebel as the Brothers of Italy became the only major party not to join a technocratic government led by former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi.

Meloni will be ruling in a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party and Italian business magnate Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia group.

Domestically, this right-wing coalition is expected to advocate for pro-business policies, promote Italian families to have more children, seek to curb abortion rights, put up barriers to the flow of migrants from North Africa across the Mediterranean, and push for big infrastructure projects, such as new oil and gas developments and the building of a mammoth bridge across the Strait of Messina to connect mainland Italy to Sicily.  

On foreign affairs, Meloni has in the past aligned herself with nationalist politicians who want to limit the power of EU laws and rules. She’s also talked about the need to put Italy’s interests before those of the EU, for instance on energy policy.

Before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Meloni spoke warmly about Russian President Vladimir Putin, as did many others on the far right in Europe and America. Putin is admired by many on the hard right for his mix of conservatism, traditionalism, militarism, anti-liberalism and religiosity.        

But facing pressure to side with NATO and Ukraine against Russia, Meloni has insisted her government will tow the line set down by Washington and Brussels against the Kremlin. Still, there are doubts about Italy’s commitment to the war because there are strong pro-Putin members inside the ruling coalition, with Berlusconi chief among them. Berlusconi rocked Italian politics recently with two videos in which he blamed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for pushing Putin into invading.

Already, it is clear that Meloni’s government is keen on pursuing a direction in line with a far-right creed.

Last week, the new right-wing coalition elected Ignazio La Russa as the president of the Senate, Italy’s second-highest office.

With a father who served in Mussolini’s fascist government, La Russa, 75, has been active in post-fascist parties for decades and helped found the Brothers of Italy along with Meloni. His middle name is Benito and he’s opened his apartment to journalists to show off busts, medals and photographs of Mussolini, who was known as “the Duce.”

“We are all heirs of the Duce,” La Russa said during the election campaign.

“This election means we've overcome a long-held prejudices against the right” in Italian politics, La Russa said in an interview on RAI, the Italian public broadcaster.

He served as defense minister under Berlusconi’s last government between 2008 and 2011. Meloni also held a cabinet position during that government as the youth minister. At 31, she became the youngest member ever to serve in an Italian cabinet.    

Meanwhile, the head of lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, is Lorenzo Fontana from the League. Fontana, 42, is an ultraconservative arch-Catholic who’s called himself a “crusader” against abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriages and civil unions, “pro-LGBT” sex education and stepchild adoption.

Along with many others in his party, Fontana wants to stop the flow of African and Asian immigrants and refugees seeking refuge and work in the EU. He’s claimed they pose a threat to Italy by erasing “Italian people along with their communities and traditions.”

Meloni’s neo-fascist aims also are visible in changes to the names of certain ministries. The Ministry of Economic Development is now called the “Ministry of Business and Made in Italy,” presumably a name change meant to promote Italian-made products. Likewise, the Agriculture Ministry has been given the task to promote Italy’s “sovereignty over food.” Meanwhile, the Ministry of the Family is now also the department in charge of “natality,” or birth promotion. The Ministry of the Family will be led by Eugenia Roccella, an anti-abortion advocate opposed to artificial insemination.   

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

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