Georgia Meloni has been described as a fascist and radical – and to some extent – the de facto heir to twentieth-century dictator Benito Mussolini.
She also looks on her way to becoming Italy’s next prime minister, favored by many voters who are fed up with the country’s fractured politics and succumbed to trying someone new. New and highly controversial.
Italy, which has had seven governments in 11 years, held parliamentary elections on Sunday. The Meloni Brothers of Italy party leads the opinion polls before the elections. If she wins, she will become the nation’s first Prime Minister – and the first female far-right leader since Mussolini.
Her expected victory highlights Italy’s conflicting relationship with its fascist past. Many of the voters interviewed here at Meloni’s recent fundraising dinner indicated that their support for her was not ideological but the product of general frustration with national politics.
This trend is seen across Europe. This month in Sweden, the ultra-conservative Swedish Democrats took 20% of the vote. In France, Marine Le Pen, a second-generation right-winger and permanent presidential candidate, has seen an increase in support with each new election. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán – who has openly advocated “illiberal democracy” by shutting university programs and civil society organizations – recently denounced “mixing of races”. The prime minister’s words and actions recently prompted the European Parliament to declare in a vote that “Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy”, but an “electoral tyranny” in which basic democratic standards are not respected.
Treaty member states of the European Union 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 persons belonging to minorities.” Far-right politicians and their supporters often hold views that run counter to those values, particularly when it comes to immigrants and LGBT people.
Traditional democracy is taking a beating, from Europe to Asia to the United States, as rogue politicians erode trust in a democracy.
Analysts say these trends are fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment, discontent with traditional politics, and general dissatisfaction with the economy and future prospects. In countries like Italy, the fascist past is easily accessible for historical establishment.
Meloni, 45, has won support from her hardline anti-immigration stances, a trend in many right-wing political parties making gains in parts of Europe, which has seen the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria and elsewhere. She has come under fire for using in her campaign a video of an immigrant who allegedly rapes a woman in an Italian city.
By promoting what she calls traditional Christian values, Meloni opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and parenting. “Yes to the normal family!” Announce at gatherings.
She pledged to cut taxes and said this week she would cap gas prices, saying she was ready to govern and intended to keep her right-wing alliance together despite some differences. She has tried to adjust her positions to be more acceptable to the broader Italian electorate – although she often reverts to more radical positions.
In a video recorded in Italian, English and French, she said to respond to those she would describe as a threat to democracy, a novel, she said, is being promoted by the left.
Her supporters describe her as charismatic and reasonable.
She is cohesive, practical, decisive and has a real personality,” said Daniela Romano, 62, an insurance company manager. “I really hope that she will become the first woman prime minister in Italy.”
Claudia Kapikiashi, who works for a leather goods company, agreed among the 2,000 guests who attended the dinner.
“She’s believable and one of the few politicians who didn’t form alliances. That makes a difference,” said Kabekishi, 36.
The election was held on Sunday when Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government collapsed in July after several parties, including Meloni’s, refused to support his coalition in a confidence vote. High inflation and similar crises have fueled discontent with the Draghi administration.
The Meloni Brothers of Italy party is a descendant of the Italian neo-fascist social movement, formed by Mussolini’s supporters in the 1940s, shortly after it was deposed and later assassinated as World War II ended. Mussolini had made an alliance between Italy and Nazi Germany.
Meloni joined the far-right League and Forza Italia (center-right), led by the illustrious former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who is 85 years old.
Meloni’s supporters said Meloni was a sure bet on becoming prime minister after a decade in which Italy was run by either technocrats or compromise candidates after the election did not yield a clear winner.
“It will be the first time in years that the appointment will not be about swapping services,” said health advisor Paola Paccani, 59.
Luciano Panicchi, 59, a lighting company employee, played down occasional reports of neo-fascists emerging as local advisers in Meloni’s party. “Fascism no longer exists,” he said, “and there are fanatics on the left as well.”
Lorenzo Brigliasco, director of U-Trend Polls, listed the main reasons Italians voted for Meloni, and none of them were ideological. She is seen as a “cohesive” – a word her proponents have repeatedly cited – and a fresh face, he said, because she did not serve in government. He said she is seen as a politician who has not come to power and is making deals with other politicians.
In terms of how extreme its policies are, Brigliasco suggested it should have “few margins for maneuver” given budget constraints and other factors.
“I don’t expect to see a lot of ‘identity’ politics in the short term, although if they need to boost their popularity they could spark a fight against immigration,” he said. “However, I don’t see them making a direct attack on Italian law that allows civil same-sex marriage or an abortion.
Although it has tried to soften its positions, it has also served to reassure Italian voters that it will not abandon the European Union, while still standing with those who, like Orbán, are determined to do so. Meloni has expressed closeness to him and even Russian President Vladimir Putin while criticizing him as well. Many see the flop as a matter of political expediency, with Meloni refusing to condemn Mussolini.
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Aldo Cazolo, author of a new book, Mussolini Il Capobanda, said that many Italians do not have a negative view of the former dictator, a kind of whitewashing of the historical record.
“The majority believes that Mussolini was successful until 1938. He had to break the whip a little, but this was necessary. And only in 1938 he allied himself with Hitler and passed the racial laws.”
“The truth is that he took power by violence and by 1938 he had already killed his opponents,” Kazulo added. Entering the war was not a tactical error. It was a natural consequence of the outbreak.”
Carlo Bastasin, a senior fellow on Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, predicted that Meloni would likely adopt a more traditional line of government, particularly with regard to the European Union and financial markets. Funds from these sources depend in part on countries that maintain basic democratic values.
In a think-tank analysis he said: “From a statistical perspective, the rise of the Brothers of Italy is no different from that of all other Italian anti-regime parties from the 1990s onwards. It appears that the current developments – although shocking to Italian political culture – are a new round of the same phenomenon, with the rise of the parties Suddenly solo and surfing, one by one, of Italians’ endless protest. These waves have not stopped spinning since the resurgence of anti-political sentiment in the early 1990s.”
Special correspondent Kington reports from Florence and Times staff writer Wilkinson reports from Washington.