“I am a woman, I am a mother, I am a Christian!” Giorgia Meloni has repeated these words in countless public appearances — and they seem to be the essence of her political success.
Following in the footsteps of men such as conservative politician Silvio Berlusconi, who attracted voters and dominated Italian politics with a decidedly macho attitude, Meloni’s electoral success can also be attributed to her emphasis on her femininity.
And now she has become the leader of Italy’s new coalition government — even if the honeymoon between its partners already seems to be over. In the wake of the ongoing dispute about who gets high-level cabinet posts, Berlusconi has dismissed the head of the Brothers of Italy as “patronizing, bossy, arrogant and offensive.”
But during the election campaign, Meloni succeeded in projecting a completely different image.
Triumph of the public image
Meloni was elected by many Catholics because of her vision of the traditional Christian family. Despite being an unmarried mother, her rejection of abortion and LGBT rights is attractive to those who aspire to this image.
There was similar conservative idealism of the good mother and wife in the 1930s when Benito Mussolini was the ruler of fascist Italy.
Many self-employed voters also cast their vote for Meloni. They appreciate the fact that she was able to rise from the working class and is familiar with the concerns of small shopkeepers and businesspeople.
But Giorgia Meloni’s success with the Brothers of Italy party is particular: She is one of its co-founders, has been at its helm for 10 years, and has now led what was once a fringe party into government.
Generally, however, this last election was a setback for women in Italian politics, with the share of female members of parliament falling from about 35% to 31%.
Women at the top — a strategy?
Are radical right-wing or populist parties installing women at the top of their hierarchies in an attempt to “soften” what is essentially an aggressive message?
Katrine Fangen, a sociologist at the University of Oslo, believes there is some truth to this: “Many right-wing populist parties have had female leaders for a long time, so it is not new but it may well have been a strategic decision to target women who might more strongly identify with a female leader,” she told the Norwegian Framtide magazine.
“Right-wing populist parties are still overwhelmingly voted for by men, but the difference is not as substantial as in the past,” she added. “About 40% of the global far-right electorate are women.”
She also noted how the various right-wing parties in Europe are different. In France and the Netherlands, for instance, they promote equality and, in some cases, even LGBT rights.
Marine Le Pen ‘softened the image of the party’
What Marine Le Pen has done in France is definitely part of a new strategy among right-wing populist parties, said Dorit Geva, a sociologist at the Vienna-based Central European University.
“It is a trend Marine Le Pen started about 10 years ago — she softened the image of the party [the former Front National], getting rid of the unappealing aspects and the macho image.” From her father, Le Pen inherited a party that attracted former French officers and veterans of the Algerian War.
Meloni, on the other hand, was able to define the image and direction of the Brothers of Italy on her own merit and to increase the party’s share of the votes by about 20%. “She understood her appeal and her power,” said Geva.
Geva added that the fact that Marine Le Pen is a woman had been a key aspect of the party’s political messaging in the past two elections in France. “The campaign message was about care and protection; a maternal image, tied into the politics of the welfare state,” she said, adding that this served to soften the harsh image of a “law and order” party.
“What we’re seeing is a new variant of the far right […] acknowledging the need to protect their citizens, the old far-right was not like that at all,” she explained, pointing out that Meloni had said that mothers needed more social support because her own had been a single parent.
Le Pen, for her part, had promised that there would be more social support, rent subsidies or higher wages, and claimed that migrants had been unfairly favored.
“Actually it’s a political strategy to expand their electoral base, dancing between the sides, talking about God and family but not excluding others,” continued Geva. She points out how this has played out into both parties now moving into center-right blocs.
In Central and Eastern Europe, men continue to rule the right-wing populist parties — this goes for Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) as well as for Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party.
Pawel Zerka, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, however, says the reason lies less in geographical divides than in the origins of the parties.
“In Western Europe, they often emerged as anti-elite, anti-migrant, euroskeptic and/or post-fascist formations. Meanwhile, In Eastern Europe you rarely had established political parties, because of fresh democratization,” he told DW.
“The biggest of the parties you would now consider populist or nationalist in that part of Europe are former mainstream conservative parties that have simply veered further right.”
He added that they might have to appeal more to women voters in the future as they could be “easily, and to a large extent justly, considered misogynist.”
“That’s the case of Donald Trump in the US, Eric Zemmour in France, Konfederajca in Poland, or Vox in Spain.”
In Poland, Zerka said, there had been less of a voting gender gap in recent elections because Beata Szydlo, who once served as deputy prime minister, had set the focus on socioeconomic issues, including job security and child benefits.
He pointed out that this approach had helped the party in the 2015 elections, just as in France it had helped Marine Le Pen to “detoxify” her party.
Giorgia Meloni’s case is different, however, as she had managed to position her party as an alternative to those of the Draghi coalition, and to Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega, which had lost its appeal.
Zerka said it remained to be seen what Meloni’s social policies would be: “Her party is polling just as well among women and men — gender didn’t matter as opposed to age and education, despite its traditionalist focus and fascist roots.”
She probably learned from Marine Le Pen, he said. But her political future depends on circumstances particular to Italy.
This article was originally written in German.