Giorgia Meloni has been called a fascist, an extremist and — to an extent — a de facto heir to 20th century dictator Benito Mussolini.
She also seems well on her way to becoming Italy’s next prime minister, favored by many voters weary of the country’s fractious politics and resigned to trying someone new. New, and highly controversial.
Italy, which has seen seven governments in 11 years, holds parliamentary elections on Sunday. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has been leading preelection polls. If it prevails, she would become the nation’s first female prime minister — and first far-right leader since Mussolini.
Her anticipated victory highlights Italy’s conflicted relationship with its fascist past. Many voters interviewed here at a recent fundraising dinner for Meloni indicated their support for her was not ideological but the product of general frustration with national politics.
The trend is seen across Europe. This month in Sweden, the ultraconservative Sweden Democrats party took a surprising 20% of the vote in the Scandinavian nation. In France, Marine Le Pen, a second-generation right-winger and perennial presidential candidate, has seen support increase with every new election. Hungary’s Viktor Orban — who openly advocates an “illiberal democracy” as he shuts down university programs and civil-society organizations — recently decried the “mixing of races.” The prime minister’s words and deeds recently prompted the European Parliament to declare in a vote that “Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy,” but “an electoral autocracy” in which basic democratic norms aren’t observed.
The European Union treaty states member nations must uphold certain values that 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 are contrary to those values, particularly when it comes to immigrants and LGBTQ individuals.
Traditional democracy is taking hits, from Europe to Asia to the United States, where rogue politicians are whittling away at trust in a democratic system.
These trends are fueled, analysts say, by anti-immigrant sentiment, disaffection with traditional politics and general unhappiness with the economy and prospects for the future. In countries such as Italy, there is an easy reach back to a fascist past for historical foundation.
Meloni, 45, has won backing with her hard-line anti-immigrant positions, a trend in several right-wing political parties making gains in parts of Europe, which has seen the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria and elsewhere. She was roundly criticized for using in her campaign a video of an immigrant allegedly raping a woman in an Italian city.
Promoting what she calls traditional Christian values, Meloni opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and parenting. “Yes to the natural family!” she says at rallies.
She has pledged to cut taxes and this week said she would put a cap on gas prices, saying she was ready to govern and planned to keep her right-wing coalition together despite some differences. She has attempted to moderate her positions to become more palatable to a broader Italian electorate — although she often switches back to more radical positions.
“For the last decade the left has managed to stay in power … not by winning election … but through under-the-table deals,” she said in a video recorded in Italian, English and French to respond to those who would call her a threat to democracy, a narrative, she said, promoted by the left.
Supporters describe her as charismatic and sensitive.
“She’s coherent, pragmatic and decisive with a real character,” said Daniela Romano, 62, an insurance company manager. “I really hope she becomes Italy’s first female prime minister.”
Another of the estimated 2,000 guests at the dinner, Claudia Capecchiacci, who works for a leather goods company, agreed.
“She is believable and one of the few politicians not to have formed alliances,” said Capecchiacci, 36. “That makes a difference.”
The elections on Sunday were put in motion when the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi 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 Draghi’s administration.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is a descendant of the neofascist Italian Social Movement, which was formed by Mussolini supporters in the 1940s, not long after he was deposed and later assassinated as World War II was ending. Mussolini had aligned Italy with Nazi Germany.
Meloni has joined forces with the far-right League and center-right Forza Italia, which is led by Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old flamboyant former prime minister.
Her supporters said Meloni was a sure bet to be prime minister after a decade in which Italy has been run by either technocrats or compromise candidates after elections produced no clear winner.
“It will be the first time for years the appointment will not be about trading favors,” said health consultant Paola Baccani, 59.
Luciano Panichi, 59, a lighting company employee, played down the occasional reports of neofascists turning up as local councilors in Meloni’s party. “Fascism doesn’t exist anymore, and there are fanatics on the left as well,” he said.
Lorenzo Pregliasco, director of the polling firm You Trend, listed the main reasons Italians were voting for Meloni, and none were ideological. He said she is seen as “coherent” — a word cited by supporters repeatedly — and is a new face, having not served in the government. She is seen as a politician who did not reach power making deals with other politicians, he said.
In terms of how radical her policies might be, Pregliasco suggested she would have “few margins to maneuver” given budget restrictions and other factors.
“I don’t expect to see too much ‘identity’ politics in the short term, although if she needs to boost her popularity she could stoke up a battle against immigration,” he said. “However, I don’t see her making a frontal attack on Italy’s law allowing same-sex civil unions or abortion.”
Although she has attempted to soften her positions, she’s also worked to assure the Italian electorate that she will not abandon the European Union, while still siding with those like Orban, who are determined to do so. Meloni has voiced affinity with him and even with Russian President Vladimir Putin while also criticizing him. Many see the flip-flop as a matter of political expediency, with Meloni having refused to condemn Mussolini.
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Aldo Cazzullo, the author of a new book, “Mussolini Il Capobanda,” said many Italians do not have a negative view of the former dictator, a kind of whitewashing of the historical record.
“The majority think Mussolini was a success until 1938. He had to crack the whip a bit, but that was necessary. Only in 1938 did he ally with Hitler and pass racial laws,” he said.
“The truth is that he took power with violence and by 1938 had already had opponents killed,” Cazzullo added. “Entering the war was not a tactical error. It was the natural result of fascism.”
Carlo Bastasin, a senior fellow specializing in Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, predicted Meloni will probably adopt a more conventional governing line, especially where the European Union and financial markets are concerned. Money from those sources depends in part on countries maintaining core democratic values.
“From a statistical perspective,” he said in an analysis for the think tank, “Brothers of Italy’s rise is no different from that of all other Italian anti-system parties from the 1990s onwards. The current developments — though traumatic for Italy’s political culture — appear to be a new round of the same phenomenon, with single parties suddenly rising and surfing the waves, one after the other, of endlessly protesting Italians. Those waves have not stopped rolling since the resurgence of anti-political sentiment in the early 1990s.”
Special correspondent Kington reported from Florence and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Washington.