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Giorgia Meloni on course to be Italy’s first post-fascist leader

With origins in far-right activism, 45-year-old now leads the nation’s most popular party

The eyes of Europe will be watching Italy this Sunday as it holds an election that polls predict may produce the country’s first prime minister from the country’s post-fascist tradition.

Giorgia Meloni (45), has risen from being a far-right teenage activist in the fraught youth politics of the Roman suburbs to command a party that is significantly ahead of all rivals nationally on roughly 25 per cent support, within a right-wing electoral alliance set to win a majority.

Video footage from a 1996 French television programme that captured Meloni in these early years resurfaced and caused a stir during the campaign.

It revealed a teenage Meloni defending Benito Mussolini in the typical manner of neo-fascist activists, who tend to insist they can retain the dictator as an inspiration while playing down the taboo elements of fascist beliefs — racial supremacy, opposition to parliamentary democracy, and the crushing of dissent.


“I think Mussolini was a good politician,” the 19-year-old Meloni told the interviewer. “Everything he did, he did for Italy.”

Two years after that video was recorded, she became a local councillor in Rome for the National Alliance, which drew together strands of the neo-fascist-inspired Italian Social Movement that Meloni was part of and combined them with more moderate groups, part of a transition towards more mainstream conservatism.

She was elected to the lower house of parliament in 2006 aged 29 and became minister for youth in the cabinet of then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi two years later, going on to found her Brothers of Italy party in 2012.

Understanding far-right gains in Italy and Sweden

Listen | 39:52
Europe correspondent Naomi O'Leary talks to Hugh about forthcoming elections in Italy that look likely to return a government led by the far-right. What will that mean for the rest of Europe? They also discuss the recent victory of the far-right Sweden Democrats and the EU's ongoing dispute with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban.

Throughout this evolution, Meloni has always represented the furthest-right element of the coalitions she has been part of with more centre-right groups, and her party has retained the post-fascist flame symbol and motto of “God, fatherland, family”.

Pressed on the latter during a pre-election television interview this month, she insisted the slogan was in keeping with modernity and was not inconsistent with valuing the “secular state”.

The mother of one has carefully adapted her public persona to exploit public frustration about immigration and economic stagnation, while distancing herself from her political tradition’s more toxic baggage.

She casts her support for policies that favour families, for example, as a response to grinding precarity among Italy’s young. While she has been a fixture in Christian right campaigning in favour of “traditional family” values for years, and uses the kind of scapegoating rhetoric about “LGBT lobbies” that is familiar from Polish or Hungarian politics, her electoral platform stops short of proposing any changes to social rights.

Key to broadening her appeal in the campaign has been disavowing outright euroscepticism, which has become a fringe viewpoint in Italy since the Brexit referendum. (An “Italexit” party that advocates leaving the Euro and the union languishes below 3 per cent support, potentially below the threshold to make it into parliament.)

Meloni, who is president of the pan-European right-wing political party the European Conservatives and Reformists, has campaigned with a keen eye to the broader international context, adapting her image for an overseas audience.

She supports Ukraine, Nato, and ties with the United States, and has insisted that her government would wisely spend the massive Covid-19 stimulus money due to Italy that is funded by joint EU borrowing.

All points are aimed at quelling concern internationally that Italy could prove a weak point in the Western position towards Russia, and perennial nervousness about the highly-indebted country’s economic fragility as a potential recession looms.

This, along with the strategic positioning of her party as the main opposition to the national unity government of outgoing technocrat prime minister Mario Draghi, has helped Meloni to eclipse the League leader Matteo Salvini, an erstwhile open admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin who continues to air misgivings about sanctions on Russia.

In the 2018 election Salvini was the breakthrough figure; it was the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in 2013. Meloni is this election’s novelty.

Deeply-held frustrations in Italy about two decades of economic stagnation, lack of opportunity for the young, and the disproportionate role it shoulders due to its geographic location in processing people who cross the Mediterranean seeking better lives in Europe, have resulted in repeated votes for change.

Nevertheless, Italy has for more than a decade been ruled by a churn of cobbled-together coalitions led by technocrats and compromise figures, all with programmes to reform Italy that have been partially realised at best.

If Meloni becomes prime minister, she will be the first woman to hold the role in Italy’s history, but also the first prime minister to lead a winning party in an election for 14 years.