Leading candidates in Italy’s election on Sunday to elect a new parliament and decide who will govern the country include some familiar and some lesser-known names. They range from three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to far-right opposition leader Giorgio Meloni, who is leading in the polls and intends to become Italy’s first woman to hold the premiership.
Here are the key players in the September 25 election:
Having remained high in voter polls for weeks, Meloni could become Italy’s first far-right prime minister since the end of World War II, as well as its first female leader. Support for her fraternal party in Italy has risen sharply since the 2018 vote, when polls were just over 4 percent.
In the expiring legislature, Meloni has refused to let the party she co-founded in 2012 join any coalition governments, including the pandemic coalition under outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
Meloni, 45, will also be one of Italy’s youngest prime ministers. She sees the EU as too bureaucratic, but says she won’t push for any “Italexit” — pulling countries out of a common euro currency — and portrays herself as a staunch supporter of NATO. She opposes what she calls an LGBT “lobby” and promotes what she calls “Christian identity” in Europe.
But in stark contrast to her Italian right-wing leaders – anti-immigration Matteo Salvini and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who both openly admire Russian President Vladimir Putin – May Loney supports military aid to Ukraine.
She has been dogged by arguments that she has not made a clear break with her party’s neo-fascist roots.
Letta, the 56-year-old leader of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, is Meloni’s main rival.
After failing to secure a clear majority in the 2013 general election, Letta was prime minister in a coalition that included the centre-right. But he lost the premiership just 10 months later when fellow ambitious Democrat Matteo Renzi managed to get himself in office.
Burned by the dismissal, Letta went to teach at the prestigious Sciences Po in Paris. He returned to Italy in March 2021 to return to power due to the infighting that has long plagued the Democratic Party.
When the populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing parliament, helped to dismantle Draghi’s government this summer, Letta’s efforts to build a solid center-left electoral coalition to challenge Meloni and his allies were thwarted.
Coalition leader Salvini, 49, was the undisputed face of Italy’s right-wing leadership until Georgia Meloni’s far-right party took off.
His party originated in the industrial north of Italy. Surprisingly, he struck a deal with the Five Star Movement in 2018, even after mocking populist forces. A little over a year later, he deftly ousted five-star leader Giuseppe Conte from the Premier League so he could take over on his own. But Conte deftly overcame Salvini and struck a deal with the Democrats to form a coalition government that would turn the coalition into opposition.
As interior minister in Conte’s first government, Salvini took a tough stance on migrants, especially those arriving on smuggling boats launched from Libya by the tens of thousands. During his tenure, migrants rescued by humanitarian boats were held in overcrowded boats for days or weeks because he refused to allow them to disembark quickly. Prosecutors in Sicily charged him with a policy of kidnapping him. He was acquitted 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, which he named Forza Italia after stadium football cheers. With his 86th birthday on Sept. 29, and Forza Italia’s declining popularity in recent years, the former three-term prime minister is not seeking a fourth term, but a Senate seat. The Senate fired him nearly a decade ago for tax fraud convictions for his media empire.
Berlusconi has promised moderate influence over the two larger parties in the right-wing coalition — Meloni and Salvini.
Berlusconi’s last term as prime minister came to an abrupt end in 2011, when financial markets lost confidence in the billionaire media mogul’s ability to manage his country’s finances during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.
Conte, a 58-year-old lawyer specializing in mediation, moved from the populist, Eurosceptic Five Star Movement he now leads to shock Italy’s establishment by becoming the largest party in parliament with nearly 33 percent of the vote. Coming out of political obscurity, became prime minister in 2018. When neither the then five-star leader Luigi Di Maio nor right-wing leader Matteo Salvini made concessions on who would become prime minister, Conte got This job.
Conte’s government collapsed some 15 months later when Salvini made a botched move to claim the premiership for himself. But Conte was smarter than Salvini, forming a new government that replaced the coalition with the centre-left Democrats.
In the early days of his second term as prime minister, Italy became the first country in the West to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Conte has imposed one of the strictest coronavirus lockdown measures in the world. But in January 2021, 16 months after Conte’s second government, it collapsed after former prime minister Matteo Renzi pulled his small centrist party from the coalition .
Colleen Barry is from Milan.