Giorgia Meloni ready to become Italian Prime Minister

Italy is ready to make history this weekend. If the polls are correct, on Sunday Italian voters will pave the way for Giorgia Meloni to become Italy’s first female Prime Minister and her party, the Brothers of Italy, leading the country’s most far-right government since the Second World War. world.

But the Italian elections matter for reasons that go far beyond Italy. After years of failing to completely break through the sanitary cordon around the far right, which prevented the far right from settling in other major EU countries, including Germany and France, some far-right European parties like Meloni’s have rebranded to soften their image and broaden their appeal despite marrying many of the same policies. If Meloni’s Brothers of Italy emerge as the largest party in the September 25 competition, a result that would likely see Meloni lead a coalition government alongside far-right leader Matteo Salvini’s Northern League and center-right striker Italia. former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi party: will not only provide a playbook to follow for like-minded parties, but will represent a new face of the European far right: one that is more lucid and electorally savvy than ever.

When you ask Italian politicians and analysts what is behind the sudden rise of the Brothers of Italy, a party of neo-fascist roots that barely garnered more than 4% of the votes during the last Italian elections of 2018, the most common is that it is the only opposition party to the ballot. Of all the major political parties in the country, it is the only one that chose to stay out of the rare unity government led by independent technocrat Mario Draghi until it collapsed earlier this summer after weeks of infighting, making it a likely beneficiary of the protest vote

“[Meloni] gets the support of many people for one reason or another: inflation, the cost of energy, those who are not satisfied with the current situation “, says Piero Ignazi, political scientist at the University of Bologna and expert on Fratelli d’Italia.” These people will vote for an opposition party. “

But Meloni’s past worries many. The interest in the politics of the 45-year-old politician dates back to at least 1992 when she, at the age of 15, grew up in a popular neighborhood in Rome, she joined the Italian Social Movement. The neo-fascist party was formed in 1946 by supporters of the ousted dictator Benito Mussolini, whom the teenager Meloni praised as “a good politician”—And is seen as a predecessor of Brothers of Italy, which Meloni co-founded ten years ago. Meloni has since repudiated his praises of Mussolini, but remnants of the party’s neo-fascist nostalgia remain. His party logo, a tricolor flame, is a symbol of the Italian Social Movement; some of Mussolini’s descendants even contested elections under his banner.

The idea that Meloni’s party is trying to restore the Italian fascist regime is “ridiculous,” says Ignazi. However, his political style has all the characteristics of a far-right politician. She warned of the dangers of immigration-induced “ethnic substitution” (a not too veiled reference to the “great substitute” conspiracy theory) and railed against “the Brussels bureaucrats”, “the LGBT lobby”, ” climate fundamentalism, “and the” globalist “left. In a speech earlier this summer in which he garnered support for the far-right Vox Party in Spain, Meloni told party supporters that” They will say we are dangerous , extremists, racists, fascists, deniers and homophobes. “The comments echoed similar remarks made by former chief strategist of Donald Trump’s White House, Steve Bannon, who in 2018 encouraged supporters of the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen a “Let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.

What makes Meloni different, however, is that he appears to have learned from the mistakes of his far-right allies across Europe: many, though not all, have been sidelined by voters and political parties because they are considered too toxic to vote for either. govern with. Throughout the campaign, Meloni sought to moderate her party’s image and promote herself not as a nativist or Eurosceptic like Salvini, but as a defender of family values, a fervent supporter of Ukraine and NATO, as well as a woman, mother and a Christian. In doing so, Meloni «tries to transform [Brothers of Italy] in a large conservative party “, says Luigi Di Gregorio, professor of political science at the University of Tuscia.” In Italy we have many political parties, but her ambition is to be the leader of the most important right-wing party in Italy. The most important right-wing party in Italy cannot be a party of the extreme right ”.

Read more: What the Italian political chaos means for Europe

This strategy has been tested elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. In Sweden, the far-right of the Swedish Democrats, despite their neo-Nazi roots, is poised to play an important role in the next government after winning the second majority of votes during the elections earlier this month. In France, Le Pen delivered her best election performance to date at her National Rally party, although she failed to win in a rematch against Emmanuel Macron earlier this year.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party should arrive first, unlike the Swedish Democrats and the National Review, in part because it seems to have convinced enough Italian moderates that it is worth the risk. As one voter told France 24, “She is the only one we haven’t tried yet, which means she is the only one not to fail yet.”

And Meloni wants to win over the moderates by emphasizing her respect for parliamentary democracy. In a speech to the international press last month, she dismissed warnings that her rise to power is a harbinger of authoritarianism in Italy, noting that she and her coalition partners “fiercely oppose any undemocratic drift” and share the values ​​of other traditionally center-right parties in the world. She also pointed to her firm support for Ukraine in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia as proof of her Atlanticist credentials.

However, not everyone is convinced by these openings. Meloni’s opponents argue that his international allies, including Vox in Spain, Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland, should tell Italian voters everything they need to know about the kind of Italy he would lead.

“You already see what kind of policies they are adopting in their countries,” Elly Schlein, an independent candidate for the Democratic Party’s Progressive Italy list, tells TIME about far-right governments in Hungary and Poland. The two countries undermined the rule of law and introduced legislation that restricts the rights of women, migrants and the LGBTQ community. Indeed, the European Parliament recently voted to label Hungary an “electoral autocracy” due to its democratic backwardness. (Meloni’s Brothers of Italy voted against that resolution.) “How can it be clearer than that?” Schlein asks.

Not even European legislators are convinced. A far-right government in Rome in which two of its major players are seen as sympathetic to the Kremlin could undermine Western cohesion when it comes to supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, Brussels’ ongoing efforts to defend the rule of law within its borders could be thwarted if Meloni becomes an ally of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whom he defended earlier. For example, to drastically reduce EU funding in Budapest, which is currently under consideration, a qualified majority of 15 Member States representing 65% of the EU population must sign. [clear]”says Daniel Freund, a Green Party member in the European Parliament from Germany and one of the negotiators behind the rule of law mechanism used by European lawmakers to withhold EU funds.” If Italy is not part of that coalition in support of the protection of the rule of law, it becomes almost impossible to effectively reach a qualified majority “.

It remains to be seen whether Meloni would continue his restraint efforts if he takes power. But that decision may not be entirely up to you. Meloni would have to contend with coalition partners (who are not as close as they seem) and with the base of supporters of her party, many of whom may choose to defect to Salvini or Berlusconi if ​​it is seen that she has become too soft. .

“Even if he is trying to change, there is nothing he can do with his electorate and, above all, with his party members,” says Teresa Coratella, program manager at the Rome office of the European Council for foreign relations. “The big test for her will be to see if she can use the election victory as a way to completely reshape her party. But, as of today, I don’t think there is much you can do. “

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.