Giorgia Meloni has been called a fascist, an extremist, and to some extent the de facto heir to 20th-century dictator Benito Mussolini.
She also appears on track to become Italy’s next prime minister, favored by many voters tired of the country’s fractious politics and resigned to trying someone new. New and very controversial.
Italy, which has seen seven governments in 11 years, holds parliamentary elections on Sunday. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party has led pre-election polls. If she prevails, she would become the nation’s first prime minister and first far-right leader since Mussolini.
His early victory highlights Italy’s troubled relationship with its fascist past. Many voters interviewed here at a recent fundraising dinner for Meloni indicated that her support for her was not ideological but a product of general frustration with national politics.
The trend is seen throughout Europe. This month in Sweden, the ultra-conservative Sweden Democrats won an astonishing 20% of the vote. In France, Marine Le Pen, a second-generation right-winger and perennial presidential candidate, has seen support rise with each new election. Hungarian Viktor Orban, who openly advocates “illiberal democracy” while shutting down university programs and civil society organizations, recently denounced “race mixing.” 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 are not observed.
The member states of the European Union treaty 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 individuals belonging to minorities”. Far-right politicians and their supporters often hold views contrary to those values, particularly 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 confidence in a democratic system.
These trends are fueled, analysts say, by anti-immigrant sentiment, discontent with traditional politics and general discontent with the economy and prospects for the future. In countries like Italy, there is an easy return to a fascist past for the historical base.
Meloni, 45, has won support with his hard-line anti-immigrant positions, a trend in several right-wing political parties that is gaining ground in parts of Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people have fled Syria and elsewhere. . She was heavily criticized for using a video of an immigrant allegedly raping a woman in an Italian city in her campaign.
Promoting what she calls traditional Christian values, Meloni opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and parenting. “Yes to the natural family!” she testifies at rallies.
She has pledged to cut taxes and this week said she would cap gas prices, saying she was ready to govern and planned to keep her right-wing coalition together despite some differences. She has tried to moderate her positions to make herself more acceptable to a wider Italian electorate, though she often reverts to more radical positions.
“Over the last decade, the left has managed to stay in power… not by winning elections… but through hidden deals,” she said in a video recorded in Italian, English and French to respond to those who would call her a threatens democracy, a narrative, he said, promoted by the left.
Followers describe her as charismatic and sensitive.
“She is consistent, pragmatic and decisive with a real character,” said Daniela Romano, 62, manager of an insurance company. “I really hope that she becomes the first female prime minister of Italy.”
Another of the estimated 2,000 guests at the dinner, Claudia Capecchiacci, who works for a leather goods company, agreed.
“She is credible and one of the few politicians who hasn’t formed alliances,” said Capecchiacci, 36. “That makes a difference.”
Sunday’s elections were launched as Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government collapsed in July after several parties, including Meloni’s, refused to back his coalition in a vote of confidence. Rising inflation and similar crises fueled discontent with the Draghi administration.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is descended from the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, which was formed by supporters of Mussolini in the 1940s, shortly after he was deposed and later assassinated as World War II was winding down. Mussolini had aligned Italy with Nazi Germany.
Meloni has joined forces with the far-right Liga and center-right Forza Italia, led by the flamboyant 85-year-old former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
His supporters said Meloni was a safe bet for prime minister after a decade in which Italy has been run by technocrats or compromised candidates after elections failed to produce a clear winner.
“It will be the first time in years that the appointment will not be about exchanging favors,” said health consultant Paola Baccani, 59.
Luciano Panichi, 59, a lighting company employee, downplayed occasional reports of neo-fascists appearing as local councilors in Meloni’s party. “Fascism is no more, and there are also fanatics on the left,” he said.
Lorenzo Pregliasco, director of the polling firm You Trend, listed the main reasons why Italians voted for Meloni, and none of them were ideological. He said she is considered “consistent,” a word repeatedly cited by supporters, and that she is a fresh face, having not served in government. She is seen as a politician who did not come to power by negotiating with other politicians, he said.
In terms of how radical his policies might be, Pregliasco suggested he would have “little room for manoeuvre” given budget constraints and other factors.
“I don’t expect to see too much ‘identity’ politics any time soon, although if it needs to boost its popularity, it could fuel 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 he has tried to soften his positions, he has also worked to reassure the Italian electorate that he will not leave the European Union, while siding with Orban, who is determined to do so. Meloni has expressed 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, as Meloni refused to condemn Mussolini.
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Aldo Cazzullo, 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.
“Most think Mussolini was successful until 1938. He had to crack the whip a bit, but that was necessary. It was only in 1938 that he allied himself with Hitler and passed racial laws,” he said.
“The truth is that he seized power with violence and by 1938 he had already killed his opponents,” 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 that Meloni will likely take a more conventional line on government, especially when it comes to the European Union and financial markets. Money from those sources depends in part on countries upholding core democratic values.
“From a statistical perspective,” he said in an analysis for the think tank, “the rise of the Brothers of Italy is no different than that of all other Italian anti-establishment parties from the 1990s onwards. The current developments, while traumatic for Italy’s political culture, appear to be a new round of the same phenomenon, with individual parties suddenly springing up and surfing the waves, one after another, 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.