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A shaky economy has forced Italy’s far-right prime minister to scale back her populist agenda

When she was elected Italy's first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni inherited an economy with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 144 per cent. A year later, the economy remains the biggest impediment to the populist reforms she campaigned on.

Giorgia Meloni has had to temper some of the social and economic reforms she campaigned on

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni reacts on the day of the informal meeting of European heads of state or government takes place in Granada, Spain October 6, 2023.

An exposé on Giorgia Meloni's longtime partner caught on tape sexually harassing female colleagues was likely not the news Italy's prime minister hoped would mark her one-year anniversary in power.

But Meloni, who began her mandate a year ago Sunday, pounced on the disclosure with the same firmness she's displayed during her ascent from the leader of an outlying far-right party to Italy's first female prime minister.

After the audio was released, Meloni announced she was splitting from Andrea Giambruno, a TV presenter with whom she shares a daughter. She made no reference to his behaviour but sent a message to her critics:

"P.S. For all those who hoped to weaken me by striking me at home, remember: as much as the drop can hope to break the rock, the rock remains rock and the drop is only water," she wrote on X.

While Meloni's choice of metaphor betrays a misunderstanding of geology, it does reflect the rock-hard resolve and restraint she's shown in biding her time through a turbulent decade of Italian politics to rise from the far-right fringes and claim centre stage.

A divided left-wing opposition has helped. Its two leaders, the relative newcomer, Democratic Party president Elly Schein, and Giuseppe Conte, head of the populist Five Star Movement, have been unable to put aside differences and mount a joint opposition capable of appealing to voters beyond the Italian left's historic 35 per cent base.

Elly Schlein, center, the new leader of the Democratic Party talks during the question time at the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian Parliament's lower house, in Rome, Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

Regular street protests that have long marked the Italian left have all but disappeared, further evidence of the general political fatigue that came into sharp focus with record-low turnout in the national election last year that ushered in Meloni.

"Usually, Italian politics are somewhat comical," said Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of government at Luiss University in Rome. "But by Italian standards, we're in a moment of unusual stability."

Stability, though, can be another word for stagnation.

Italian Police push back students demonstrating against the presence of Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, in Turin, northern Italy, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023

Debt-laden economy is vulnerable

Meloni inherited an economy with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 144 per cent. That has come down a few points over the past year thanks to some GDP growth, but with the threat of the conflict in the Middle East expanding, inflation, oil prices and the cost of imports could all go up – no small peril for a country with a gargantuan debt.

"Any danger for the Meloni government will come from the economy," said Italian economist Valentina Meliciani, director of the Luiss School of European Political Economy in Rome.

Italy has received billions of euros in pandemic-recovery funds from the European Union. The money comes with a timeline and conditions on how to spend it.

Because of those constraints, and the country's debt, Meloni has little choice but to stick to the economic plans laid out by her predecessor, former EU Central Bank head Mario Draghi.

That has calmed markets but given her virtually no wiggle room. When she has tried to introduce populist measures, such as a last-minute tax on extra bank profits and a loosening of the limit on cash transactions, they've backfired.

"Her promises to reform previous policies have all been postponed," said Meliciani.

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Spending on future generations falls short of need

Even with the EU funds, spending on future generations has been underwhelming, say economists, with the need to reduce the deficit trumping all else.

The downward slide in the birth rate, with fewer births than deaths almost every year in the past three decades, is the elephant in the room, with no clear plan to counter Italy's "demographic winter" by introducing supports for working mothers or boosting immigration.

At the same time, under Meloni, the Italian parliament approved a bill criminalizing people who go abroad to have children via surrogacy and forced local authorities to stop registering the children of same-sex couples to both parents.

Two men kissing while holding a flag at a Pride parade in Rome.

"It's been like this for years — not enough money and cutbacks to education," said Giovanni Cocco, 27, who is doing a second Master's degree in environmental studies in Rome while working part time as a bicycle courier.

Twenty per cent of 15-29-year-olds in Italy are neither in school nor employed, a proportion second only to Romania within the EU.

Moves to curb migration criticized

But what concerns Cocco as much as the bleak outlook for young people here is what he sees as "the solidification" of the previous government's moves to criminalize migration.

Italy has extended to 18 months its right to keep migrants in detention centres while awaiting repatriation unless they can pay the equivalent of more than $7,000 Cdn – a form of extortion, say critics.

In April, it passed a law requiring asylum seekers to live in migrant centres while their claims are decided – a process that can take up to two years — with no access to legal help or language lessons.

An Italian Coast Guard boat carries migrants as tourists on a nearby boat watch near the port of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Sept. 18, 2023.

Meloni also pushed for a much-criticized EU deal with Tunisia, which in exchange for financial support will block mostly sub-Saharan African migrants from crossing to Italy. She is hoping to strike more such deals with other countries.

"To me, this so-called stability is pacification, voices being shut down," said Cocco.

The press, too, has been in Meloni's crosshairs. She sued for libel the anti-Mafia journalist Roberto Saviano, who called her and her government "bastards" over their migration policy. He was handed a suspended fine of 1,000 euros, or $1,450 Cdn, earlier this month, a decision that alarmed free speech advocates.

Supporters admire a Meloni 'always on the move'

But for some, Meloni has exceeded expectations.

"She's the most passionate politician Italy has had in years," said Jole Angelini, who works at a cellphone company call centre outside Rome. "She has paid her dues, and she knows what she's doing."

Like many observers, Angelini says Meloni has tempered her far-right tendencies since becoming leader, something Angelini says does not surprise her.

Angelini first became a fan of Meloni a decade ago, shortly after Meloni founded her Brothers of Italy party in late 2012 and had set up a cultural centre in Rome for young party activists, organizing reading groups and political activities.

"My son had been going down a very frightening path of hard-right extremism," said Angelini, "and when he joined Meloni's party, it brought him closer to the political mainstream. For us, she saved him."

People wave flags as Right-wing party Brothers of Italy's leader Giorgia Meloni addresses a rally to starts her political campaign ahead of Sept. 25 general elections, in Ancona, Italy, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

Angelini dismisses some of Meloni's inflammatory pre-election statements as campaign propaganda. But she agrees with the government passing a law to criminalize surrogacy and its decision to cancel the guaranteed income for families below the poverty threshold, a measure brought in by the former Five Star populist government.

"I know too many people who quit their jobs to receive the guaranteed income but who continue to work under the table," she said.

She also admires what Meloni has done to promote Italy abroad.

It's an impression that Enzo Moavero-Milanesi, a two-time former foreign minister under previous coalition and technocrat governments, says is widespread.

"Meloni is seen as having her finger on the pulse more, because she's a politician, not a technocrat," he said, referring to former prime minister Mario Draghi support.

"And she's always on the move, which gives the impression she's doing a lot. But whether that produces results is still to be seen."

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, right, speaks with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, center, and Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, June 29, 2023.

Her chances of forging a far-right coalition in Europe, for one, seem less likely now than they did a year ago.

She's diverged from her political ally Viktor Orban of Hungary on Ukraine and watched as fellow nationalist parties were weakened in Poland and Spain.

"In Europe, the only chance for Meloni to survive is to become more moderate," said Orsina.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Megan Williams has been covering all things Italian, from politics and the Vatican, to food and culture, to the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean, for more than two decades. Based in Rome, Megan has also told stories from other parts of Europe and the world and won many international prizes for her reporting, including a James Beard Award. Her radio documentaries can be heard on Ideas and The Current. Megan is also a regular guest host on CBC national radio shows.

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