Lega Nord Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi, Giorgia Meloni
The far-right coalition that is poised to take control of Italy under presumptive Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, right. Photo credit: © ANSA via ZUMA Press

Far-right “Christian mother” and Mussolini sympathizer Giorgia Meloni is poised to take power in Italy during national elections on Sunday using a familiar formula.

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A century after Benito Mussolini’s black-shirted fascists marched on Rome to seize control of Italy, the far-right is poised to regain power in the country democratically.

Giorgia Meloni, a 45-year-old native of Rome and the co-founder of the “post-fascist” party Brothers of Italy — who has openly praised Il Duce while demonizing immigrants and gays — is poised to become the first woman prime minister in Italian history.

Recent polls predict Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), successor to the party founded in 1946 by Mussolini’s former supporters, will win Sunday’s national elections with 25.1 percent of the vote, the highest of any party in the country and more than enough to form a ruling right-wing coalition under the country’s parliamentary democracy.

It’s a stunning ascendancy for Meloni and Brothers of Italy, which won only 4 percent of the vote in national elections four years ago. And with energy and economic crises precipitated by the war in Ukraine looming, it may signal the return of what could be dark days for Europe and for democracy.

A self-described “Christian mother” born in a working-class neighborhood, Meloni joined the youth wing of nationalist party Italian Social Movement, the post-fascist party founded in 1946, when she was 15.

In a 1996 interview, she infamously praised the dictator who ruled Italy for 20 years until his ouster during World War II. “Everything he did, he did it for Italy,” she said. “There have been no other politicians like him in the last 50 years.”

Ten years later, she won a seat in Parliament and became Italy’s youngest minister in 2008 when then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appointed her minister of youth.

Her main opponent in Sunday’s election is Enrico Letta, an academic who served as prime minister for less than a year between April 2013 and February 2014. (There have been 30 prime ministers since World War II; twelve served for less than two years.)

Letta’s center-left Democratic Party was polling at 23 percent, just behind Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, but he rejected the idea of a coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. 

Last summer, that party boycotted a parliamentary confidence vote which in turn led to the collapse of the government led by former Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank. Despite receiving plaudits from The Economist for overseeing Europe’s “most improved” country, Draghi resigned, leading to Sunday’s election.

According to an estimate from Quorum/YouTrend, a right-wing coalition between Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia will win more than 45% of the national vote.

“So many businesses and families are going under,” Pino de Stasio, owner of an espresso bar in downtown Naples, told the BBC. “That’s why, unfortunately, people are looking to the [political] right. Because they haven’t yet sat in government to disappoint us.”

Observers say two main factors propelled Meloni to the cusp of power: anti-immigrant sentiment triggered by a wave of migrants fleeing to Italy — many from nearby Libya, which has suffered a decade of turmoil since the removal of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi — and a series of missteps by Salvini’s League.

Using a sophisticated social media operation to spread misinformation and stoke anti-immigrant panic — and luring xenophobic voters with a vow to deport 500,000 immigrants if elected — Salvini managed to win 18 percent of the vote in the 2018 elections to become the leading conservative party in the country. But after forming a coalition with Five Star Movement and becoming deputy prime minister, Salvini miscalculated.

He pulled out of the coalition government in 2019, hoping to trigger new elections that would see him be elected prime minister. Instead, Five Star Movement struck a deal with the center-left Democratic Party — and Salvini and the League were left out.

This failure in turn created an opportunity for Meloni among conservative voters seeking an alternative.

“The rise of her party is clearly fed by former voters of other right-wing parties,” Paolo Natale, a political science professor at the State University of Milan, wrote in the Italian newspaper Gli Stati Generali.

Italian voters also appear tired of constant turmoil and ready for an alternative. Part of Meloni’s appeal is that she and her party are simply new, Nathalie Tocci, director of Rome-based think tank the International Affairs Institute, told the Associated Press.

“So many businesses and families are going under,” Pino de Stasio, owner of an espresso bar in downtown Naples, told the BBC. “That’s why, unfortunately, people are looking to the [political] right. Because they haven’t yet sat in government to disappoint us.”

Meloni also demonstrated political savvy. She broadened her appeal to political moderates with a familiar formula: She promised to slash taxes — a critical issue in Italy, where the average tax rate is 30 percent, compared to an average of 24.6 percent in other western democracies — and to review European Union treaties.

She has also tried to soften her former hard-right tone. As Deutsche Welle reported, Meloni issued internal memos to party members, asking them to halt use of the so-called “Roman salute,” the stiff-armed Nazi-affiliated gesture popular with supporters of traditionally conservative soccer teams, and to refrain from overt references to fascism. She has also appealed abroad, posting a tri-lingual message aimed at the international press promising that Italy would not become authoritarian if she took power.

However, other core far-right values remain, including a murky approach towards Russia and Vladimir Putin that could spell trouble for a so-far durable coalition supporting Ukraine in the ongoing war that’s spiked energy and food prices in Italy as well as across the world.

In addition to demonizing LGBT people, immigrants, and “woke ideology,” Meloni continues to invoke Italy’s darker periods. Brothers of Italy’s logo is the tricolor of the Italian flag stylized in the shape of a flame — the same logo used by the Italian Social Movement, the post-fascist party, from 1946 until its dissolution in 1995. 

There are fears that if she takes control of government for even the classic short-lived term enjoyed by most prime ministers, lasting damage could result.

“Italian democracy will survive Meloni,” John Foot, research director at Bristol University, wrote in The Guardian in August. “And Italy will remain in the EU and the euro, but it may be severely damaged, especially if plans to alter Italy’s beautiful anti-fascist constitution are pushed through.”

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