The main contenders in Italy’s general election on Sunday to elect a new parliament and determine who will rule the country next include some familiar names and some lesser known. They range from three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to far-right opposition leader Giorgia Meloni, who is ahead in opinion polls and is aiming to become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Here are the main players in the September 25 election:
Already riding high in opinion polls for weeks, Meloni could become Italy’s first far-right prime minister since the end of World War II and its first female leader. Her Brothers from Italy party has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity since the 2018 vote, when it won just over 4%.
In the current legislature, Meloni has refused to let her party, which she co-founded in 2012, join any coalition government, including the pandemic unity government under outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
At 45, Meloni would also be one of Italy’s youngest prime ministers. She claims that the European Union is too bureaucratic, but has said that she will not stand for any “Italexit” – pulling the country out of the common euro currency – and presents herself as a staunch supporter of NATO. She rallies against what she calls LGBT “lobbies” and promotes what she says is “Europe’s Christian identity.”
But in stark contrast to his fellow leaders on Italy’s right — the anti-migrant Matteo Salvini and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin — Meloni supports military aid to Ukraine.
They are persecuting her with claims that she did not make an unequivocal break with the neo-fascist roots of her party.
Letta, the 56-year-old leader of the Democratic Party, Italy’s main centre-left force, is Melonia’s main electoral rival.
Letta served as prime minister in a coalition that includes center-right forces after 2013 elections failed to produce a clear majority. But he lost the premiership after barely 10 months when an ambitious fellow Democrat, Matteo Renzi, maneuvered to take the post for himself.
Burned by the trial, Letta went to Paris to teach at the prestigious Sciences Po university. With infighting chronically plaguing the Democrats, he returned to Italy to retake the reins of the party in March 2021.
Letta was thwarted in his bid to build a solid centre-left electoral alliance to oppose Meloni and her allies when the populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing Parliament, helped topple Draghi’s government this summer.
Salvini, the 49-year-old leader of the League party, was the undisputed face of Italy’s right-wing leadership until Giorgio Meloni’s far-right party took off.
His party has its roots in the industrial north of Italy. In a surprise move, he struck a deal in 2018 to govern with the 5-Star Movement, even after mocking populist forces. A little more than a year later, he maneuvered to oust 5-star leader Giuseppe Conte from the prime ministership, so he could take office himself. But Conte outwitted Salvini and cut his own deal with the Democratic Party, forming a coalition government that left the League in opposition.
As interior minister in Conte’s first government, Salvini pushed his hard line against migrants, particularly those who arrive in the tens of thousands in smugglers’ boats launched from Libya. During his tenure, migrants rescued by aid ships were held for days or weeks on overcrowded ships because he refused to disembark them quickly. Prosecutors in Sicily charged him with kidnapping because of his politics. He was found not guilty in one case; another trial in Palermo is still ongoing.
Berlusconi was a pioneer of populist politics in Italy in the 1990s when he founded his party and named it Forza Italia after the soccer fans at the stadium. With his 86th birthday on September 29 and Forza Italia’s popularity dwindling in recent years, the former three-term prime minister is not seeking a fourth term but is hoping for a seat in the Senate. Nearly a decade ago, the Senate expelled him over a tax fraud conviction stemming from his media empire.
Berlusconi promises to exert a moderating influence on the two largest parties in the right-wing alliance: those of Meloni and Salvini.
Berlusconi’s last term as prime minister ended abruptly in 2011 when financial markets lost confidence that the billionaire media mogul could manage his country’s finances during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.
A lawyer specializing in mediation, Conte, now 58, was plucked from political obscurity to become prime minister in 2018 after the populist, eurosceptic 5 Star Movement he led stunned the Italian establishment by winning nearly 33% of the vote to become the largest party in Parliament. When neither then-5-star leader Luigi Di Maio nor right-wing leader Matteo Salvini budged on who would become prime minister, Conte got the job.
About 15 months later, Conte’s government fell when Salvini made the wrong move to claim the prime ministership for himself. But Conte outwitted Salvini by forming a new government that replaced the League with the center-left Democratic Party.
At the start of his second term as prime minister, Italy became the first nation in the West to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Conte introduced one of the strictest quarantine measures due to the corona virus in the world. But in January 2021, 16 months after Conte’s second government collapsed, after Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, withdrew his small centrist party from the coalition.
Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.