Italy’s new agriculture minister is truly of the people—and she’s kryptonite for populists

Actual school of hard knocks.
Actual school of hard knocks.
Image: Reuters/Ciro de Luca
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Italy has a new government. This in itself is not especially remarkable—in 73 years of democratic history, this is the 66th government. But it is something for the way it came about: After a crisis of the coalition government between the far-right party Lega and anti-establishment-turned-establishment Five Star Movement, Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini was ready for an election, hoping Lega would emerge as the country’s first party.

But things didn’t go as he expected: After long negotiations, president Sergio Mattarella assigned prime minister Giuseppe Conte with the creation of a second government, in coalition with the center-left Democratic Party. The government was sworn in Thursday (Sept. 5), to the great disappointment of former home minister Salvini—after all, he went from being arguably the most powerful member of the government to having no role in the executive.

His maneuver failed, and Salvini is understandably angry. So are his supporters, who have been channeling their anger and verbal aggression especially toward one of the new ministers: 61-year-old former laborer and union representative, agriculture minister Teresa Bellanova.

On the day of the swearing in, Bellanova was the target of a slew of sexist insults focusing on her appearance, as well as her choice of outfit for the occasion (a bright blue dress), and her size. These comments weren’t just made by random social media users, but by renowned commentators and politicians.

The minister reacted to the critics with grace: First, she shared on Twitter that her choice of dress was a reflection of her mood (electric blue). Then, she posted another portrait of herself on her second day, with different attire, humorously asking whether she should keep wearing what she likes, since it stirs such interest.

It’s not particularly surprising: Italy is often quite backward when it comes to its treatment of women and their image. Only weeks ago, as per summer tradition, the pages of gossip magazines were full of assessments of female politicians’ beach bodies, complete with bikini photos.

The attack on female politicians of all shapes and political beliefs is commonplace, particularly from the right wing. Laura Boldrini, the former speaker of the house, was relentlessly targeted with misogynistic attacks and violent threats for taking on Salvini. Former minister Cecile Kyenge was targeted with terrible racist insults (link in Italian) about her appearance. Senior politician Rosy Bindi’s appearance has been insulted (link in Italian) by a list of politicians, including Silvio Berlusconi.

The inherent misogyny of the far right isn’t news. After all, fascism is centered around the cult of the male and celebrates the oppression of women. But there is something else about Bellanova that seems to be rubbing populists the wrong way: her career.

Bellanova holds only a middle school degree: Born in a poor family in Puglia, in the south of Italy, she started working as an agriculture laborer at age 15. Activism and politics were an early passion: She joined the union and fought against the so-called caporalato, a system in which gangs manage the supply of workers to southern farms, many of whom now immigrants, and keep them in slave-like conditions through threats of violence or deportation.

She rose through the ranks of the union and was eventually elected to parliament in 2006. She is, in short, the opposite of the “elite” that populists blame for the destruction of society. In fact, she might pose a threat exactly because of that.

After years of relentless campaigning against the entitlement of career politicians and the so-called casta (the caste), Italians might actually find themselves rather warm toward characters like Bellanova: someone whose expertise is undoubtable (a former laborer and longtime union activists is sure to be aware of the issues surrounding agriculture) and was acquired without pre-existing privilege.

Her kind of expertise might unwittingly answer to the populist demand for change in leadership by representing a new model of non-elitist competence. Compare her career with Salvini’s: He was born in a well-to-do family, was an undergraduate student of history for eight years before dropping out without a degree, and has never had a job outside politics. It seems possible that those who were moved by Italy’s most recent strongman’s everyman qualities will end up charmed by a woman who truly is one of the people.