ROME – With a message that combines Christianity, motherhood and patriotism, Giorgia Meloni is riding a wave of popularity that next month could see her become Italy’s first female prime minister and the first far-right leader since World War II.
Although her Brothers of Italy party has neo-fascist roots, Meloni sought to allay concerns about her legacy, saying voters were tired of such discussions.
Still, there are unpleasant signs that such a legacy cannot be so easily shaken off: her party’s symbol includes an image of a tricolor flame borrowed from a neo-fascist party formed shortly after the end of the war.
If Italy’s Brothers win the Sept. 25 election and Meloni, 45, becomes prime minister, it will be almost 100 years to the month since Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, came to power in October 1922.
In 2019, Meloni proudly presented Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, the dictator’s great-grandson, as one of his candidates for the European Parliament, although he ultimately lost.
For most Italian voters, issues of anti-fascism and neo-fascism are not “a key driver of who to vote for,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of polling company YouTrend. “They don’t see it as part of the present. They see it as part of the past.”
Still, Meloni is sensitive to international scrutiny of her possible premiership and prefers the term conservative to far-right to describe her party.
She recently recorded video messages in English, French and Spanish saying that the Italian right “has consigned fascism to history for decades, unequivocally condemning the suppression of democracy and the disgraceful anti-Jewish laws.”
This was a reference to the 1938 laws barring Italy’s small Jewish community from participating in business, education and other aspects of daily life. The laws paved the way for the deportation of many Italian Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation of Rome in the final years of World War II.
Still, by keeping the tricolor flame in her party’s logo, “she is symbolically playing with that legacy,” said David Art, a political science professor at Tufts University who studies the far right in Europe. “But then she wants to say ‘We’ are not racist.
Unlike Germany, which is working to come to terms with its devastating Nazi legacy, the Fascist period is little explored in Italian schools and universities, says Gastone Malagutti. Now 96, he fought as a teenager against Mussolini’s forces. In his decades of visiting classrooms to talk about the Italian anti-fascist resistance, he found that many students were “ignorant” of this history.
Just five years ago, the Brothers of Italy – whose name is inspired by the opening words of the national anthem – were seen as a marginal force, winning 4.4% of the vote. Now opinion polls suggest she could come out on top in September with as much as 24% support, just ahead of the centre-left Democratic Party led by former prime minister Enrico Letta.
Under Italy’s complex, partially proportional electoral system, electoral coalitions are what propel party leaders to the premiership, not votes alone. Right-wing politicians have done a much better job this year than Democrats of building broad electoral partnerships.
Meloni allied with the right-wing League party led by Matteo Salvini, which, like her, supports a crackdown on illegal migration. Her other ally in the election is former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party.
Last year, her party was the only major party to refuse to join Italy’s national unity coalition led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi’s government collapsed last month, abruptly abandoned by Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-Star leader Giuseppe Conte, all preoccupied with their parties’ slipping fortunes in opinion polls and local elections.
In opinion polls, Meloni is “credited with a coherent and coherent approach to politics. She didn’t compromise,” Pregliasco said, adding that she is also seen as “a leader who has clear ideas — not everyone agrees with those ideas, of course.”
She apologized for the “tone” but not the content of a fiery speech she gave in June in Spain to rally support for the far-right Vox party.
“They’re going to say we’re dangerous, extremists, racists, fascists, deniers and homophobes,” Meloni thundered, apparently referring to Holocaust deniers. It ended with a crescendo of shouted slogans: “Yes to natural families! Not to the LGBT lobbies! Yes to sexual identity! No to gender ideology!”
Meloni criticizes “bureaucrats in Brussels” and “climate fundamentalism”. Meloni, who has a young daughter, claimed the “most censored” phrase was “woman and motherhood”.
Abortion has not emerged as a campaign issue in Italy, where it is legal. But Meloni decried Italy’s declining birth rate, which would be even lower without immigrant women giving birth.
At a rally of right-wing supporters in Rome in 2019, Meloni drew roars of approval when he shouted in staccato: “I am Georgia! I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Italian and I am Christian. And you can’t take that away from me!”
Within days, her proclamation became fodder for a rap song lyric. While some saw this as a travesty, Meloni loved it and even sang a few bars on a public radio program.
According to her 2021 memoir, I Am Georgia, much of her identity was forged from growing up in Rome’s working-class neighborhood of Garbatella. At 15, she joined the youth branch of the Italian Social Movement, the neo-fascist party with the flame symbol, and put up political posters in the capital.
When she was 31, Berlusconi made her Minister of Youth in his third and final government. But she soon forged her own path, co-founding Brothers of Italy in 2012.
Both Salvini and Meloni say they are defending what they call Europe’s Christian identity. Salvini kisses dangling rosaries and wears a large cross on her often bare chest, while Meloni’s small cross sometimes peeks out from her baggy blouses.
Her party strongly backed Draghi’s moves to send weapons to Ukraine, although Salvini and Berlusconi, outspoken admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressed only lukewarm support. Meloni also defends the NATO alliance founded by the United States, another G7 country. But it often sees European Union rules as an encroachment on Italy’s sovereignty.
If Meloni’s far-right forces dominate Italy’s next government, there are concerns about Italy’s support for right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland “for their deeply conservative agendas” amid fears of a “backsliding of democracy” in the EU, Art said. .
For his part, Meloni says he will “vehemently oppose any anti-democratic movement.”
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Italy’s far-right leader Meloni is riding the popular wave in polls
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