She could become the first female leader in Italy, and the first far-right after Mussolini

Giorgia Meloni has been defined as a fascist, extremist and, to some extent, de facto heir of the twentieth-century dictator Benito Mussolini.

It also seems well on its way to becoming Italy’s next prime minister, favored by many voters tired of the country’s contentious politics and resigned to trying something new. New and very controversial.

Italy, which has seen seven governments in 11 years, holds parliamentary elections on Sunday. Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party leads the pre-election polls. If it prevailed, it would become the nation’s first Female Prime Minister – and first far-right leader after Mussolini.

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

The trend is seen throughout Europe. This month in Sweden, the ultra-conservative party of the Swedish Democrats won an astonishing 20% ​​of the vote. In France, Marine Le Pen, a perennial right-wing second-generation presidential candidate, has seen support for each new election increase. Hungarian Viktor Orban – who openly advocates “illiberal democracy” while shutting down university programs and civil society organizations – recently denounced the “mixed race”. The premier’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 respected.

The treaty of the European Union states that member nations must uphold certain values ​​which include “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 against these values, particularly when it comes to immigrants and LGBTQ individuals.

Traditional democracy is taking hits, from Europe to Asia to the United States, where rogue politicians are reducing trust in a democratic system.

These trends are fueled, analysts say, by anti-immigrant sentiment, disaffection for traditional politics and general unhappiness for the economy and prospects for the future. In countries like Italy, it is easy to go back to a fascist past for historical foundations.

Meloni, 45, won by leaning on his uncompromising stances against immigrants, a trend in several right-wing political parties that is making gains in parts of Europe, which has seen the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country. Syria and elsewhere. She was harshly criticized for using a video of an immigrant allegedly raping a woman in an Italian city in her campaign.

By promoting what he calls traditional Christian values, Meloni opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and parenting. “Yes to the natural family!” she declares at the demonstrations.

She pledged to cut taxes and this week said she would cap gas prices, saying she was ready to rule and planned to keep her right-wing coalition united despite some differences. You have attempted to moderate your positions in order to become more attractive to a larger Italian electorate, even though you often go back to more radical positions.

“Over the past decade the left has managed to stay in power … not by winning the elections … but through under-the-table deals,” he said in a video recorded in Italian, English and French to respond to those he would call a threat. to democracy, a narrative, he said, promoted by the left.

Supporters describe her as charismatic and sensitive.

“She is consistent, pragmatic and purposeful with a real character,” said Daniela Romano, 62, an insurance company executive. “I really hope you become the first Italian woman premier”.

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

(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

Another of the approximately 2,000 guests invited to the dinner, Claudia Capecchiacci, who works for a leather goods company, agrees.

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

Sunday’s elections were set in motion when 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 have fueled discontent with the Draghi administration.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is a descendant of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, formed by supporters of Mussolini in the 1940s, not long after he was deposed and subsequently assassinated at the end of World War II. Mussolini had aligned Italy with Nazi Germany.

Meloni has joined forces with the far-right League and the center-right Forza Italia, led by the exuberant former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, 85.

His supporters said Meloni was a safe bet to be prime minister after a decade of Italy being run by technocrats or compromise candidates after the elections did not 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 the occasional news of neo-fascists presenting themselves 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 the polling company You Trend, listed the main reasons why Italians voted for Meloni, and none of them were ideological. He said she is seen as “consistent” – a word quoted repeatedly by supporters – and is a new face, not having served in the government. She is seen as a politician who has not achieved power by making deals with other politicians, he said.

In terms of how radical his policies could be, Pregliasco suggested he would have “little room for maneuver” given budget restrictions and other factors.

“I don’t expect to see too much political ‘identity’ in the short term, although if it needs to increase its popularity it could fuel a battle against immigration,” he said. “However, I don’t see her attacking the Italian law frontally which allows same-sex civil unions or abortion.”

Although he has tried to soften his positions, he has also worked to assure the Italian electorate that he will not abandon the European Union, while continuing to side with those like Orban, who are determined to do so. Meloni expressed affinity with him and even with Russian President Vladimir Putin while she also criticized him. Many see the flip-flop as a matter of political expediency, with Meloni refusing to condemn Mussolini.

Aldo Cazzullo, author of a new book, “Mussolini Il Capobanda”, said that many Italians do not have a negative view of the former dictator, a sort of whitewashing of the historical news.

“Most think that Mussolini was a success until 1938. He had to crack the whip a bit, but it was necessary. It was only in 1938 that he allied himself with Hitler and passed the racial laws, “he said.

“The truth is that he took power with violence and already in 1938 he had his opponents killed”, added Cazzullo. “Going to the war was not a tactical mistake. 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 adopt a more conventional line of government, especially with regard to the European Union and financial markets. The money from these sources depends in part on whether countries maintain basic democratic values.

“From a statistical point of view,” he said in an analysis for the think tank, “the rise of Brothers of Italy is no different from that of all other Italian anti-system parties from the 1990s onwards. Current developments – albeit traumatic for Italian political culture – appear to be a new round of the same phenomenon, with single parties suddenly rising and riding the waves, one after another, of endless Protestants against Italians. Those waves haven’t 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.