Giorgia Meloni has been called a fascist, an extremist and – to some extent – the de facto heir of 20th century dictator Benito Mussolini.
He also appears well on his way to becoming Italy’s next prime minister, favored by many voters who are tired of the country’s fractious politics and have given up on trying someone new. New and very controversial.
Italy, which has had seven governments in 11 years, will hold parliamentary elections on Sunday. The Italian brothers of Meloni’s party have led the pre-election polls. If it prevails, he becomes the nation’s first a female prime minister and the first far-right leader since Mussolini.
His expected victory highlights Italy’s controversial relationship with its fascist past. Many voters interviewed here at a recent fundraising dinner for Meloni indicated that their support for him was not ideological but the result of a general disillusionment with national politics.
This trend can be seen across Europe. This month, the ultra-conservative Sweden Democrats won a surprising 20% of the vote in Sweden. In France, support for Marine Le Pen, the second-generation right-wing and perennial presidential candidate, has grown with each new election. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who openly promotes “illiberal democracy” by shutting down university programs and civil society organizations, recently decried “race mixing.” The Prime Minister’s words and actions prompted a recent European Parliament vote to declare that “Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy” but an “electoral autocracy” that does not adhere to basic democratic norms.
According to the Treaty on European Union, member states must adhere to certain values, which include “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. Far-right politicians and their supporters often hold views that conflict with these values, especially when it comes to immigrants and LGBTQ people.
Traditional democracy is under attack from Europe to Asia to the United States, where rogue politicians are eroding trust in the democratic system.
Anti-immigrant sentiment, dissatisfaction with traditional politics and general dissatisfaction with the economy and future prospects are fueling these trends, analysts say. In countries like Italy, it is easy to reach back to the fascist past for a historical foundation.
Meloni, 45, has won support for his hard-line anti-immigration stance, a trend that has seen several right-wing parties make gains in parts of Europe that have seen hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria and elsewhere. He was criticized for using a video of a migrant allegedly raping a woman in an Italian city in his campaign.
Promoting what he calls traditional Christian values, Meloni opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and parenting. “Yes to the natural family!” he proclaims at rallies.
He has promised tax cuts and announced this week he would cap gas prices, saying he is ready to govern and plans to keep his right-wing coalition together despite some differences. He has tried to moderate his positions in order to appeal to the wider Italian electorate – although he often reverts to more radical positions.
“For the last decade, the left has managed to stay in power … not by winning elections … but through under-the-table deals,” he said in a video recorded in Italian, English and French to counter those who would call him a threat to democracy, a narrative he said, promoted by the left.
Supporters describe him as charismatic and sensible.
“He is united, pragmatic and decisive and has his own character,” said Daniela Romano, 62, the head of an insurance company. “I really hope she becomes Italy’s first female prime minister.”
Another of the dinner’s estimated 2,000 guests, Claudia Capecchiacci, who works at a leather goods company, agreed.
“He’s credible and one of the few politicians who hasn’t formed alliances,” said Capecchiacci, 36. “That makes a difference.”
Sunday’s election was set in motion when Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government collapsed in July after several parties, including Meloni’s, refused to back his coalition in a confidence vote. Rising inflation and similar crises fueled discontent with the Draghi administration.
Meloni’s Italian Brothers party is a descendant of the neo-fascist Italian social movement formed by supporters of Mussolini in the 1940s, shortly after he was overthrown and later assassinated at the end of World War II. Mussolini aligned Italy with Nazi Germany.
Meloni has joined forces with the far-right League and the center-right Forza Italia, led by the flamboyant 85-year-old former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
His supporters said Meloni was a sure bet to become prime minister after a decade in which Italy has been led by technocrats or compromise candidates who failed to produce a clear winner after elections.
“This is the first time in years that the meeting is not about trading favors,” said health consultant Paola Baccani (59).
Lighting company worker Luciano Panichi (59) played down occasional reports of neo-fascists running for local councilors in Meloni’s party. “Fascism no longer exists and the left are fanatics too,” he said.
Lorenzo Pregliasco, director of polling firm You Trend, listed the main reasons why Italians voted for Meloni, and none of them were ideological. He said he is seen as “coherent” – a word repeatedly invoked by supporters – and is a new face because he has not worked in government. He said that he is seen as a politician who did not reach power deals with other politicians.
As for how radical his policies might be, Pregliasco suggested he has “little room to maneuver” given budget constraints and other factors.
“I don’t expect to see too much identity politics in the short term, although if he needs to boost his popularity, he could launch a fight against immigration,” he said. “However, I don’t see him directly attacking the Italian law allowing same-sex civil unions or abortions.”
While he has tried to soften his stance, he has also worked to reassure the Italian electorate that he will not leave the European Union, while supporting those, like Orban, who are determined to do so. Meloni has expressed similarities to him and even Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also criticizing him. Many see the flip-flop as a matter of political expediency, as Meloni refused to denounce Mussolini.
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Aldo Cazzullo, author of a new book, Mussolini Il Capobanda, said that many Italians do not have a negative view of the former dictator, which is a kind of whitewashing of the historical record.
“Most people think Mussolini was successful until 1938. He had to crack the whip a bit, but it was necessary. It wasn’t until 1938 that he joined Hitler and passed racial laws,” he said.
“The truth is that he took power by violence and by 1938 his opponents had already been killed,” Cazzullo added. “Going to war was not a tactical mistake. It was a natural consequence of fascism.
Carlo Bastasin, a senior fellow on Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, predicted that Meloni would likely take a more conventional leadership line, particularly regarding the European Union and financial markets. Funding from these sources depends in part on countries maintaining basic democratic values.
“From a statistical point of view,” he said in the think tank’s analysis, “the Brothers of the Rise of Italy is no different from that of all other anti-establishment parties in Italy since the 1990s. The current developments – although traumatic for Italian political culture – appear to be another round of the same phenomenon of individual parties suddenly rising and surf one after the other endless waves of protesting Italians that have not stopped rolling since the resurgence of political hostility in the early 1990s.
Special correspondent Kington reported from Florence and Times writer Wilkinson from Washington.