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Far-right political leader Giorgia Meloni takes spotlight in Italy's general election

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a general election in Italy next month, and leading the polls is the far-right Brothers of Italy party. That means its leader, Giorgia Meloni, could be the country's first woman prime minister. She is a controversial figure. Meloni has a history of praising Benito Mussolini. She opposes gay marriage and adoption and aims to limit migration in what she calls the interests of national security. Cecilia Emma Sottilotta, assistant professor of international relations and global politics at the American University of Rome, joins us. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

CECILIA EMMA SOTTILOTTA: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Giorgia Meloni has been a name in far-right Italian politics for a couple of decades and was often considered to be on the fringes. What has brought her and her party into the spotlight now?

SOTTILOTTA: The reason why this happened is the dissatisfaction of the Italian public with mainstream parties. Whoever manages to sell themselves as somewhat anti-system gets more attention. In the case of Meloni, we must say that she's always been quite consistent. I mean, she was the only political leader who opposed the appointment of Mario Draghi as prime minister, for instance, right? So all the other parties were joining forces and supporting Draghi. She decided to remain in the opposition, right? So this is now something that is benefiting her politically speaking, because she can claim she really is an alternative for dissatisfied Italian voters.

SIMON: People in Italy, of course, will be casting votes for parties, not individuals. But is she popular?

SOTTILOTTA: This is part of the problem, the fact that Italians cannot really vote for people, so they cannot really hold political leaders accountable. And I think that boosts their popularity in the sense that, again, they would like to punish perhaps other political leaders, but they really can't. So I would say it's a mix of both. I think it's her moment under the spotlight because she hasn't been in power yet. At the same time, it's also a sort of a protest vote.

SIMON: Giorgia Meloni and the Brothers of Italy should gain some power in these elections. What do you think they could do?

SOTTILOTTA: So they came up with a pretty detailed program. I would say that it's a pretty regressive agenda when it comes to women's rights. Gay marriage, for instance, is something she's always opposed. They try to reassure their allies that they're going to be defending Euro-Atlantic values. But in any case, she would need to face a number of constraints, domestic constraints and international constraints. Remember that Italy sits on a huge pile of government debt. That's going to be a huge constraint. And they're promising a lot of things. They're promising, for instance, changes to the fiscal system, a so-called flat tax. But they are not really saying - and journalists in Italy are not really asking them - where are they going to take the money for it?

SIMON: Yeah, we should explain that the Brothers of Italy would be part of a coalition along with the Lega Party and former Prime Minister Berlusconi's Forza Italia. With all due respect, ruling coalitions in Italy often don't - aren't in it for the long term, are they?

SOTTILOTTA: No, they're not. You're totally right. Their alliance at this point is purely strategic, but it will help them get a lot of seats.

SIMON: And Italy faces a lot of problems - even more as the winter comes on, doesn't it?

SOTTILOTTA: The cost of living, you know, the energy crisis that we need to face are really looming problems. And it is surprising to realize that these issues are not really discussed during the campaign.

SIMON: Do you see Giorgia Meloni and the Brothers of Italy reflected in other countries in Western Europe and the EU at this particular point and other nationalist movements?

SOTTILOTTA: So there's something more to this than just, you know, a right-wing party becoming prominent in Italy. Giorgia Meloni herself has excellent relations with far-right parties across Europe - for instance, Vox in Spain. She's also part of a European network of like-minded parties. For instance, another member is the PiS party in Poland, right? So yes, I think it's a larger sort of phenomenon.

SIMON: Cecilia Emma Sottilotta is assistant professor of international relations and global politics at the American University of Rome. Thank you so much for being with us.

SOTTILOTTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 27, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Giorgia Meloni's first name as Giogira.
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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.