“I am a woman, I am a mother, I am a Christian!” Georgia Meloni’s battle cry, repeated in countless public appearances, contains the essence of her political success.

After men like the conservative Silvio Berlusconi with their macho demeanor attracted voters and thus dominated Italian politics, Meloni’s electoral success is also based on the emphasis on her femininity.

She becomes the leader of a new coalition government, with the honeymoon between the partners seemingly over again. Conservative Silvio Berlusconi has dismissed the leader of the “Brothers of Italy” as “paternalistic, domineering, arrogant and insulting” because of the ongoing dispute over high government offices. During the election campaign, however, Georgia Meloni managed to project a very different picture.

On the one hand, the party leader was elected by many Catholics because of her vision of the traditional Christian family. The unmarried mother of a daughter combines this ideal with the rejection of abortion and LGBT rights.

Incidentally, similar conservative ideals of good mothers and wives date back to Italy in the 1930s under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini.

The votes of many self-employed also contributed to Georgia Meloni’s electoral success. They value her as a combative climber from the lower class who understands the concerns of small shopkeepers and businesspeople. Georgia Meloni’s success with the “Brothers of Italy” is a special feature: she is one of the co-founders, has been at the helm for ten years and led them from a splinter party into the government.

Apart from Meloni’s singular success, however, this election was a setback for women in Italian politics: Among the members of parliament, their share fell from around 35 to 31 percent.

So, in the case of right-wing extremist or populist parties, is it a matter of making a fundamentally aggressive message appear “softer” by a female party leader or top candidate? Sociologist Katrine Fangen from the University of Oslo believes there is some truth in this stereotype.

“Many right-wing populist parties have had top politicians for a long time, that’s nothing new. But it can definitely be a strategic decision to target women who can identify more with a female leader,” she explained in an interview with the Norwegian magazine Framtide.

“Right-wing populist parties are still predominantly elected by men, but the difference is not as great as in the past. About 40 percent of the far-right electorate internationally are women.”

The right-wing parties in Europe are very different, in France and the Netherlands, for example, they also write equality and sometimes even LGBT rights on their flags.

Sociologist Dorit Geva from the Central European University in Vienna also sees the role model of Marine Le Pen in France as part of a new strategy in right-wing populist parties. “It’s a trend that Le Pen started about ten years ago. It gradually softened the image of the party [then Front National] because one of its repulsive aspects was its macho image.”

Le Pen had inherited a party from her father that was a rallying point for ex-military and Algerian ex-fighters. Meloni, on the other hand, has shaped the image and orientation of the “Brothers of Italy” largely on his own in recent years and gave them a leap of over 20 percent in the voters’ favour. “She understood her own attraction and power,” emphasizes Dorit Geva.

In France, on the other hand, the female gender of Marine Le Pen was a central aspect of the political message in the last two election campaigns. “It’s about care and protection, about a maternal image, combined with the politics of the welfare state.” This softened the harsh image of the “Law and Order” party.

“What we are seeing is a new variant of the extreme right that is profiling itself as a protector of citizens, which was not the case with these parties in the past.” Meloni, for example, emphasizes that mothers need more social support because their own mother was a single parent. Le Pen, on the other hand, promises more welfare state, rent subsidies and higher wages and claims that migrants have been privileged so far.

“It’s a strategy to broaden their constituency. They dance between the two sides, talk about God, family and conservative values ​​without completely excluding the other side,” says Dorit Geva.

The sociologist explains that these parties are now moving into the centre-right bloc, without it being clear which campaign slogans will lead to measures in political practice.

In Eastern European countries, such as Poland’s ruling PiS party or Hungary’s Fidesz, men have continued to rule. But Pawel Zerka from the political think tank Council on Foreign Relations believes that it’s not so much a question of geographical divisions as the different origins of the right-wing populist parties.

“In Western Europe they often emerged as anti-elite, anti-migrant, Euro-sceptic or post-fascist formations. In Eastern Europe there were no established parties because of the democratization process. As a result, the largest parties considered populist or nationalist are now former conservatives that have slid further to the right.”

Zerka believes that they, too, must increasingly appeal to the female electorate. “Otherwise they can easily – and mostly rightly – be seen as misogynistic.” Women then voted less for these parties, which is called the gender gap in voting behavior.

“It was like that with Donald Trump in the US, Eric Zemmour in France, Konfederacja in Poland and Vox in Spain. Interestingly, there is no gender gap for Marine Le Pen or the Italian brothers.”

It also doesn’t exist for the governing party PiS in Poland, because interim Prime Minister Beata Szydlo focused the party on socio-economic issues, on job security, child allowances and the like.

“That helped Marine le Pen in detoxifying her party and it seems to have helped PiS in the 2015 elections.” Hardliner and clandestine party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski would not have succeeded, says Pawel Zerkas.

The case of Georgia Melonis electoral success is different. She was able to position herself as an alternative to the other parties in the Draghi government and Matteo Salvini’s Lega has lost its appeal. Now we have to wait and see what Meloni’s social policy will look like.

“Your party attracts women as much as it does men. Gender doesn’t matter, unlike age or education – despite her traditional aspirations and fascist roots.” According to Pawel Zerka, Meloni may have learned from Marine Le Pen, but her political future depends on the particular Italian circumstances.

Author: Barbara Wesel

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The original of this post “Female Far-Right Leaders: A Recipe for Success?” comes from Deutsche Welle.