The main candidates in Sunday’s Italian general election to elect a new parliament and decide who will rule the country next include some familiar names and some lesser-known ones. They range from three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to far-right opposition leader Giorgia Meloni, who is leading in opinion polls and intent on becoming Italy’s first woman prime minister.
Here are the key players in the September 25 elections:
Meloni has been ranked number one in voter polls for weeks now, and she could become Italy’s first far-right female prime minister since the end of World War II, and its first ever female leader. Her party, Brothers of Italy, has enjoyed a massive surge in popularity since the vote in 2018, when it just exceeded 4%.
In the now-defunct legislature, Meloni refused to join her party, which she co-founded in 2012, into any coalition government, including the pandemic unity government headed by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
At the age of 45, Meloni will also be one of the youngest prime ministers in Italy. She maintains that the EU is too bureaucratic, but has said she will not push for any “Italexit” – that is, withdraw the country from the common euro currency – and portray itself as a staunch supporter of NATO. She has rallied against what she calls LGBT “lobbyists” and promotes what she says is “Christian identity” in Europe.
But in sharp contrast to fellow leaders on the Italian right – anti-immigrant Matteo Salvini and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin – Meloni supports military aid to Ukraine.
She is dogged by claims that she has not broken unequivocally with the neo-fascist roots of her party.
Letta, 56, the leader of the Democratic Party, the main center-left force in Italy, is Meloni’s main contender in the election.
Letta served as prime minister in a coalition of center-right forces after the 2013 elections failed to achieve a clear majority. But he lost the premiership just 10 months later when he maneuvered his ambitious fellow Democrat, Matteo Renzi, to take the job for himself.
Burnt out by her overthrow, Lita went to teach in Paris at the prestigious University of Sciences Po. With infighting chronically plaguing the Democrats, he returned to Italy to retake the reins of the party in March 2021.
Letta’s quest to build a powerful center-left electoral coalition to challenge Meloni and her allies was thwarted when the populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing parliament, helped bring down the Draghi government this summer.
Salvini, the 49-year-old League leader, was the undisputed face of Italy’s right-wing leaders until the launch of the far-right Giorgia Meloni party.
His party has roots in industrial northern Italy. In a surprising move, he struck a deal in 2018 to rule with the 5-Star Movement, even after deriding populist forces. A little over a year later, he maneuvered to oust five-star leader Giuseppe Conte from the premiership, so he could take the job for himself. But Conte outmaneuvered Salvini and made his own accord with the Democratic Party, forming a coalition government that left the League in opposition.
As interior minister in Conte’s first government, Salvini stressed his tough stance against migrants, especially those arriving in the tens of thousands in smugglers’ boats that set off from Libya. During his tenure, migrants rescued by humanitarian aid ships were held for days or weeks on overcrowded ships because he refused to let them disembark quickly. Prosecutors in Sicily had indicted him for kidnapping because of his policy. He was proven innocent in one case. Another trial in Palermo is still ongoing.
Berlusconi pioneered populist politics in Italy in the 1990s when he formed his own party and named it Forza Italia after cheering football on the field. With his 86th birthday on September 29, and Forza Italia’s popularity waning in recent years, the former three-term prime minister is not running for a fourth term but is instead hoping for a seat in the Senate. Nearly a decade ago, the Senate fired him for his conviction of tax fraud stemming from his media empire.
Berlusconi promises to exert moderate influence on the two largest parties in the right-wing coalition: Meloni and Salvini.
Berlusconi’s last presidency ended abruptly in 2011 when financial markets lost faith that the billionaire media mogul could manage his country’s finances during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.
Conte, the lawyer specializing in mediation, now 58, was pulled out of political obscurity to become prime minister in 2018 after the Eurosceptic 5-Star Movement he now heads stunned the Italian establishment by sweeping nearly 33% of the vote to become the largest party in Parliament. . When then-five-star leader Luigi Di Maio and right-wing leader Matteo Salvini did not budge on who would become prime minister, Conte got the job.
After about 15 months, Conte’s government collapsed when Salvini took the failed step of taking over as prime minister for himself. But Conte shrewdly beat Salvini by forming a new government that replaced the centre-left Democratic League.
Early in his second term as prime minister, Italy became the first country in the West to be criticized by the COVID-19 pandemic. Conte has imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world due to the coronavirus. But in January 2021, 16 months into Conte’s second government, it collapsed after Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, wrested his small centrist party from the coalition.
Colin Barry contributed from Milan.