She could become Italy’s first female leader – and her first far-right since Mussolini

Giorgia Meloni has been called a fascist, an extremist and, to some extent, the de facto heiress of 20th century dictator Benito Mussolini.

She also appears to be on track to become Italy’s next prime minister, favored by many voters weary of the country’s turbulent politics and resigned to trying someone new. New and very controversial.

Italy, which has seen seven governments in 11 years, holds legislative elections on Sunday. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is leading in the pre-election polls. If she wins, she would become the first in the country female prime minister – and the first far-right leader since Mussolini.

His early victory highlights Italy’s conflicted relationship with its fascist past. Many voters interviewed here at a recent fundraising dinner for Meloni indicated that their support for her was not ideological but the product of general frustration with national politics.

The trend can be seen across Europe. This month in Sweden, the ultra-conservative Swedish Democrats got a surprising 20% ​​of the vote. In France, Marine Le Pen, a second-generation right-winger and permanent candidate for the presidency, has seen her support increase with each new election. Hungarian Viktor Orban – who openly advocates “illiberal democracy” by closing university programs and civil society organizations – recently denounced 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-fledged democracy”, but “an electoral autocracy” in which democratic standards fundamentals are not respected.

The European Union Treaty states that member states must respect certain values, including “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 these valuesespecially when it comes to immigrants and LGBTQ people.

Traditional democracy is taking a beating, from Europe to Asia to the United States, where rogue politicians are undermining faith in a democratic system.

These trends are fueled, analysts say, by anti-immigrant sentiment, disaffection with mainstream politics and general dissatisfaction with the economy and future prospects. In countries like Italy, there is a easy access to a fascist past for historical basis.

Meloni, 45, has won support through his tough anti-immigrant stances, a trend in several right-wing political parties that is gaining ground in parts of Europe, which has seen the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Syria and elsewhere. She was heavily criticized for using a video of an immigrant allegedly raping a woman in an Italian town in her campaign.

Promoting what she calls traditional Christian values, Meloni opposes abortion and same sex marriage and parenthood. “Yes to the natural family!” she says at rallies.

She has pledged to cut taxes and said this week she would put on the ceiling where gas prices, saying she was ready to govern and planned to maintain her right-wing coalition despite some differences. She has attempted to tone down her positions to become more palatable to a wider Italian electorate – although she often returns to more radical positions.

“Over the past decade, the left has managed to stay in power…not by winning elections…but through clandestine agreements,” she said in a video recorded in Italian, English and French to respond to those who would call it a threat to democracy, a narrative, she says, promoted by the left.

Fans describe her as charismatic and sensitive.

“She is consistent, pragmatic and decisive with real character,” said Daniela Romano, 62, an insurance company executive. “I really hope she becomes First female Prime Minister of Italy.”

Poster of Italian political candidate Giorgia Meloni on the side of a bus

A poster of far-right political candidate Giorgia Meloni, who could become Italy’s first female prime minister, on the side of a bus in Rome.

(Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

Another of the estimated 2,000 dinner guests, Claudia Capecchiacci, who works for a leather goods company, agreed.

“She is credible and one of the few politicians who has not formed alliances,” said Capecchiacci, 36. “It makes a difference.”

Sunday’s elections were called 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 Draghi’s administration.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is a descendant of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, which was formed by supporters of Mussolini in the 1940s, shortly after his dismissal and subsequent assassination at the end of World War II. Mussolini had aligned Italy with Nazi Germany.

Meloni has teamed up with the far-right and center-right League Forza Italia, led by flamboyant 85-year-old former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

His supporters said Meloni was a safe bet to be prime minister after a decade in which Italy has been either led by technocrats or compromise candidates after the elections produced no clear winner.

“It will be the first time in years that the date will not be about the exchange of favors,” said health consultant Paola Baccani, 59.

Luciano Panichi, 59, a lighting company employee, played down occasional reports of neofascists posing as local councilors in Meloni’s party. “Fascism no longer exists, and there are also fanatics on the left,” he said.

Lorenzo Pregliasco, director of polling firm You Trend, listed the main reasons Italians voted for Meloni, and none of them were ideological. He said she is seen as “coherent” – a word cited repeatedly by her supporters – and is a new face, having not served in government. She is seen as a politician who did not achieve power by making deals with other politicians, he said.

In terms of the radicalness of her policies, Pregliasco suggested she would have “little leeway” given budget restrictions and other factors.

“I don’t expect to see too much ‘identity’ politics in the near term, although if it needs to boost its popularity it could start a battle against immigration,” he said. “However, I don’t see her attacking the Italian law authorizing homosexual civil unions or abortion head-on.”

Although she tried to soften her positions, she also tried to assure the Italian electorate that she would not abandon the European Union, as long as she on the side of those like Orban, who are determined to do so. Meloni has expressed affinity with him and even Russian President Vladimir Putin while criticizing him. Many see the about-face as a matter of political expediency, with Meloni refusing to condemn Mussolini.

Aldo Cazzullo, the author of a new book, “Mussolini Il Capobanda”, said many Italians don’t have a negative opinion of the former dictator, a kind of bleaching of the historical archives.

“The majority think Mussolini was a success until 1938. He had to crack the whip a bit, but it was necessary. It was not until 1938 that he allied himself with Hitler and adopted racial laws,” he said.

“The truth is that he seized power with violence and that in 1938 he had already had opponents killed,” Cazzullo added. “Going into the war was not a tactical mistake. It was the natural result of fascism.

Carlo Bastasin, senior fellow on Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, predicted that Meloni is likely to adopt a more conventional line of government, particularly when it comes to the European Union and financial markets. Money from these sources depends in part on countries maintaining core democratic values.

“Statistically,” he said in an analysis for the think tank, “the rise of the Brethren of Italy is no different from that of all the other anti-system Italian parties in from the 1990s. Current developments – although traumatic for Italian political culture – seem to be a new wave of the same phenomenon, with single parties suddenly springing up and riding one after another on the waves of Italians protesting without These waves have been surging ever since the resurgence of anti-political sentiment in the early 1990s.”

Special envoy Kington reported from Florence and Times writer Wilkinson from Washington.