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Italy election: In Rome's progressive neighbourhood, Meloni's victory causes anger and concern

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By Aleksandar Brezar
A reworked election poster featuring Fratelli d'Italia's Giorgia Meloni and cats seen in Pigneto, 26 September 2022
A reworked election poster featuring Fratelli d'Italia's Giorgia Meloni and cats seen in Pigneto, 26 September 2022   -   Copyright  Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar   -  

Located just outside the ancient Aurelian Walls that surround the historic part of central Rome, the neighbourhood of Pigneto is widely considered the most progressive part of the Italian capital.

On Sunday, far-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party won by a clear margin, and she is likely to become Italy’s first female prime minister.

The day after the elections, Pigneto’s streets, coated by the constant, drizzling rain, seemed emptier than usual. Bars and restaurants took longer to open, and the general vibe was that of defeat.

Sipping coffee at Libreria Tuba, a local feminist bookstore, Maria Grazia, 39, was not one to hide her disappointment.

Born in Pigneto, she voted on Sunday despite polling having widely predicted Meloni’s victory. She feels Italy’s conservative, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ+ political forces have steadily grown stronger for decades. Meloni is simply their newest figurehead.

“It’s not a surprise for us. It’s not strange. This has been the situation with Italian politicians for a long time,” Maria Grazia told Euronews. “But we can fight against it.”

“It won’t be easy (for the far-right) because we are a big community, and we aren’t alone.”

'She doesn't represent me in any way'

Meloni’s meteoric rise — and attempted rebranding — saw her transition from a radical young activist of the MSI, a neo-fascist party founded in 1946 by the former chief of staff for Benito Mussolini, into a seemingly more palatable mainstream conservative.

Yet her victory is particularly painful for Pigneto locals.

Here, the streets are peppered with images and biographies of the neighbourhood’s Partisan rebels, who played a significant role in liberating Rome from fascists in World War II. Many of them paid the price of freedom with their lives and the lives of their families, yet they are never mentioned by Meloni when she insists Italy should be proud of its history.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, the avant-garde left-wing director known for highlighting social issues, is treated akin to a saint in this neighbourhood, with murals and plaques dedicated to him being omnipresent.

Over the years, the once working-class area became increasingly more attractive to forward-thinking, alternative and younger crowds while also welcoming the LGBTQ+ community with open arms.

Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar
A mural to Partisan fighters in the Pigneto neighbourhood in Rome, 26 September 2022Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar

Having Meloni in power together with her coalition partners, Lega’s anti-immigrant illiberal Matteo Salvini and Forza Italia’s octogenarian right-wing mainstay Silvio Berlusconi, has made people who lean away from conservative ideas both worried and angry.

Others are not buying the image Meloni promotes of a daughter raised by a single mother who grew up in the southern part of Rome — Garbatella is another working-class neighbourhood not unlike Pigneto — yet managed to pull herself up by the bootstraps and reach the very top of national politics.

“I’m mad,” Liliana, 37, told Euronews. “I’m really upset because she doesn’t represent me in any way.”

“She’s not a friend to women. She doesn’t even have minimal consideration for women despite being a woman herself.”

Although communities like Pigneto might not be in her crosshairs, Meloni’s talk of a “natural family” and her vocal opposition to immigration from Africa led to her being accused of racism and xenophobia.

Having a proponent of the Great Replacement — a white nationalist conspiracy theory that purports secret globalist forces want to replace white Europeans with perceived outsiders — as the country’s leader will likely make life harder for Italians that are already marginalised.

For people in Pigneto, these fears are both problematic and overblown. Of the nearly 59 million citizens of Italy, 95% are ethnic Italians. The other 5% consist of mostly Europeans, with some 1.5% originating from Africa.

“In my opinion, she is going to do absolutely nothing (in places like Pigneto) because she doesn’t know much about us,” Liliana said.

“But she will make it more difficult for the LGBTQ+ community and minorities in Italy.”

Better than bunga-bunga

Meloni also opposes abortion, euthanasia, and any laws that recognise same-sex marriage or penalise homophobia and hate speech, such as the 1993 Mancino law prohibiting inciting racial or ethnic hatred — which she and other far-right figures in the country have vowed to repeal.

Although she claimed “there is no homophobia in Italy” in 2020, on other occasions she stated that “she would rather not have a gay child” and slammed the decision to feature a gay couple in the popular Disney animated film, Frozen II, exclaiming, “Take your hands off of children” in a social media post in 2018.

But will Meloni be as much of a hardliner as prime minister as she was in the opposition?

Gustav Hofer, a correspondent for French outlet Arte and documentary filmmaker, told Euronews that although most of her electorate is not expecting her to be extremely radical while in power, Meloni will eventually have to satisfy her most far-right supporters, who are also the most ardent and loyal among her voters.

“At the beginning, she will try to give herself a moderate image and to communicate to those outside Italy that she’s not that bad, not that dangerous as she’s been pictured,” Hofer said.

“But little by little, probably, she will also have to satisfy a part of her electorate. I’m not saying 26% of Italians became fascist overnight, but definitely some 5% of those who voted for her, who have been sticking with her over the years, they expect her to do something to that effect.”

Hofer, a long-time Pigneto resident who has authored a series of documentary features on human rights issues in Italy, still thinks that a historically low turnout of 64% means Meloni did not manage to draw new voters in or expand the far-right voting pool.

Instead, she took over voters who previously supported other conservative and right-wing figures like Salvini and Berlusconi. They see her as an untainted choice among her peers, one who yet has to make the mistakes they made.

Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar
A lone man walks his dog on an empty street in the Pigneto neighbourhood of Rome, 26 September 2022Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar

Berlusconi, who has been a mainstay in Italian politics since the early 1990s, was in many ways the forebearer of the likes of Salvini and Meloni. Meloni was the youth minister in his government’s mandate from 2008 to 2011.

However, years of scandals and accusations of mismanaging the country’s budget and increasing Italy’s ever-present debt — to allegations of Berlusconi’s involvement in organising the so-called “Bunga Bunga” parties where extortion and child prostitution took place — forced him into the position of second fiddle in the current coalition.

With the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin falling in places in Europe where he had a right-wing fanbase, both Berlusconi and Salvini — who maintained friendly relations with the Russian leader — also paid the price of being too close to the man who instigated the continent’s worst conflict since World War II.

All of this made the 45-year-old Meloni a much more appealing choice.

“The thing is, I don’t see this as a big win for the right-wing wave in Italy — the wave was already on the right, and she didn’t get new votes for her movement,” Hofer said.

“So it’s almost we’re in a post-populist situation where even the populist narrative does not resound with a large part of the society anymore, but she still got a majority in the parliament and a majority in the country.”

Yet conservatives went out and voted, while more progressive voters did not. According to Hofer, this was the result of the left alienating its voters by failing to promise anything other than being the opposite or better option to their opponents.

“Their only programme was, ‘We are opposing the rise of fascism’. But that doesn’t really interest people who are having a hard time paying their bills, or who said, ‘If you wanted to make things better for us, why haven’t you done it because you’ve been in charge for a very long time,” Hofer explained.

In the end, the right-wing pounced on the opportunity created by the progressives being in disarray, especially their failure to present a unified front in the run-up to the September election.

“They totally lost their identity and they haven’t even tried during this election campaign.”

“One would have hoped they’d use this period to give themselves a real progressive profile, but they failed in doing this their only programme was ‘We are not Meloni and we are different’. And that wasn’t enough to inspire Italian voters,” Hofer concluded.