June 10, 2023

The main candidates in Italy’s general election on Sunday will elect a new parliament and decide who will rule the country next, with some familiar names and some less familiar names. They range from three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi to right-wing opposition leader Giorgia Meloni, who is leading in opinion polls and is aiming to become Italy’s first female prime minister.

Here are the major players in the September 25 election:

Georgia Meloney

Riding high in polls for weeks now, Meloni could become Italy’s first far-right prime minister and its first female leader since the end of World War II. His Brothers of Italy party has grown in popularity since the polls in 2018, when it got just over 4% of the vote.

In the now-expired legislature, Meloni refused to join any coalition government, including his party, which he co-founded in 2012, under outgoing premier Mario Draghi.

At 45, Meloni will be one of Italy’s youngest premiers. He has claimed the European Union is too bureaucratic but has said he will not pull the country out of an “italexit” – the shared euro currency – and has portrayed himself as a staunch supporter of Nato. He rallies against what he calls the LGBT “lobby” and promotes what he calls Europe’s “Christian identity.”

But unlike his fellow leaders on Italy’s right – anti-immigrant Matteo Salvini and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, both of whom have publicly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin – Meloni has supported military aid for Ukraine.

He has been dogged by controversy that he did not make an unequivocal break with his party’s neo-fascist roots.


Enrico Letta

Letta, the 56-year-old leader of Italy’s main center-left Democratic Party, is Meloni’s main electoral rival.

Leta served as prime minister in a coalition with center-right forces after failing to win a clear majority in the 2013 elections. But he lost the premiership just 10 months later when an ambitious fellow Democrat, Matteo Renzi, maneuvered to take the office for himself.

Burnt by the expulsion, Leta went to teach at the prestigious Sciences Po University in Paris. With the Democrats chronically plagued by infighting, he returned to Italy in March 2021 to take back the reins of the party.

When the populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing parliament, helped bring down Draghi’s government this summer, Leta failed to build a solid center-left electoral coalition to challenge Meloni and his allies.


Matteo Salvini

Salvini, the 49-year-old leader of the League party, was the unchallenged face of right-wing leadership in Italy until Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party was shut down.

His team has its roots in the industrial north of Italy. In a surprise move, he cut a deal in 2018 to govern with the 5-Star Movement, even after mocking populist power. Just over a year later, he engineered 5-star leader Giuseppe Conte’s removal from the Premiership, so he could take office for himself. But Conte overruled 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 arriving by the thousands on smugglers’ boats from Libya. During his rule, migrants rescued by humanitarian ships were kept on overcrowded ships for days or weeks because he refused to let them disembark quickly. Prosecutors in Sicily charged him with kidnapping for his policies. He was acquitted in one case; Another trial is still underway in Palermo.


Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi pioneered populist politics in Italy in the 1990s when he formed his own party and named it Forza Italia after the stadium football cheer. With his 86th birthday on September 29 and Forza Italia’s popularity shrinking in recent years, the former three-term premier is not seeking a fourth term but is hoping for a Senate seat. Nearly a decade ago, he was impeached by the Senate on a tax fraud charge stemming from his media empire.

Berlusconi has promised to exert a moderating influence on the two major parties in the right-wing coalition: Meloni and Salvini.

Berlusconi’s last premiership ended abruptly in 2011 when financial markets lost confidence that the billionaire media magnate could manage his country’s finances during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.


Giuseppe Conte

A lawyer specializing in mediation, Conte, now 58, stepped away from political obscurity to become premier in 2018, after the populist, Eurosceptic 5-Star Movement shocked Italy’s establishment by winning nearly 33% of the vote to now become the largest party in parliament. When neither then-5-star leader Luigi Di Maio nor right-wing leader Matteo Salvini bothered to become premier, Conte got the job.

About 15 months later, Conte’s government collapsed when Salvini made a nasty move to take the premiership for himself. But Conte overcame Salvini by forming a new government that replaced the League with the center-left Democratic Party.

Early in his second term as premier, Italy became the first country in the West to be condemned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Conte has implemented one of the strictest coronavirus lockdowns in the world. But it collapsed in January 2021, 16 months into Conte’s second government, after former prime minister Matteo Renzi pushed his small centrist party out of the coalition.


Colin Barry contributed from Milan.

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