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ABC News
ABC News
Lucia Stein

Giorgia Meloni could make history as Italy's first female PM. She would also be its first far-right leader since Benito Mussolini

When Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government spectacularly collapsed in July, sparking political upheaval and sending Italy into an early poll, one politician was set to benefit enormously.

Giorgia Meloni, the young leader of Italy's far-right party Brothers of Italy, went from political obscurity to becoming the candidate polls suggest will be the country's prime minister.

"We've had three different governments, three different majorities [since the March 2018 general elections]. Have any worked? No. History has proved us right," she told her supporters during a speech on the stage of Rome's Piazza Vittorio.

But as Meloni has rapidly risen in the polls, observers have drawn comparisons between the 45-year-old and Italy's first far-right leader — Benito Mussolini.

Her party has drawn criticism for its origins in the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which rose from the ashes of Mussolini's fascist party in the aftermath of World War II.

The symbol of the Brothers of Italy, known locally as Fratelli d'Italia, still contains the eternal flame of the MSI, and Mussolini's descendants have stood as candidates for the party.

Tomorrow's poll also comes at an auspicious time for Italy’s fascist history.

October marks 100 years since Mussolini led an insurrection of some 30,000 men in the March on Rome.

The young fascist leader seized power in 1922, mobilising his army of "blackshirts" to usher in a dark period in Italy's history.

Meloni has moved to distance herself from claims her party is a danger to democracy and stability.

But her critics warn her ascension comes at a fragile time in Europe, and has broader implications for the rise of populist leaders around the world.

The late-night escapades that helped fuel her far-right leadership

In Rome's blue-collar Garbatella district, a bastion of hard-left politics, Giorgia Meloni's political life started early.

Raised by a single mother, after her father abandoned them following her birth, her teenage years were spent sneaking out at the dead of night to plaster her Rome neighbourhood with far-right posters.

It was the collapse of Italy's postwar political order in 1992 amid a series of scandals, including the murder of the anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino, that inspired her to join politics.

At just 15, she became an activist for the Youth Front of the neo-fascist MSI.

In her memoir, I Am Giorgia, she wrote the party became her "second family".

Four years later, she was appointed president of the student branch of the movement's successor, National Alliance, before going on to win her first local election aged 21.

"You'd notice her because at student meetings, she would stop anybody grabbing the microphone off her," Marco Marsilio, a close friend and political ally of Meloni and now president of the Abruzzo region, told the BBC.

"She had the courage of a lion."

In 2006, she was elected to office as a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, and in 2008 became Italy's youngest-ever minister at 31.

The National Alliance was dissolved in 2009 and three years later Meloni founded the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, alongside fellow politicians Ignazio La Russa and Guido Crosetto.

The name was inspired by the opening lines of the national anthem, a symbolic display of the patriotism that has come to define her political rhetoric.

"It's a young political party but it came from … the tradition of the Italian right," says Francesco Giubilei, author of the book Giorgia Meloni: The Revolution of the Conservatives.

Meloni became its president in 2014, but the party was seen as more of a fringe movement in those early years.

Nearly a decade later, it is now her face that is emblazoned on posters on buses and streets across the country.

The daring move that secured Meloni's run for power

The right in Italy is largely made up of three parties that agree to an alliance to form government.

There is Italian media tycoon and former president Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini's League and Meloni's Brothers of Italy.

The last time Italians went to the polls in 2018, Brothers of Italy was a minor player, securing only 4 per cent of the vote.

But as three governments came and went, including Prime Minister Mario Draghi's recent government which was formed during the pandemic, Brothers of Italy became a major player.

Observers say this partly comes down to the negotiations made during Italy's last period of political instability.

While Forza and the League signed on to Draghi's government, Meloni held firm, and refused to join — arguing that Italians should decide their leader in an election.

The move proved to be beneficial for her party.

"The Brothers of Italy were basically taking every opportunity to criticise government action and this was playing out electorally," says  Vincenzo Glasso, a professor of economics at Bocconi University in Milan. 

"You could totally see from the poll that maybe the number of votes to the right coalition was kind of stable, but then there was some major shift within.

"So basically the League and Forza Italia, they were losing votes, and the Brothers of Italy were gaining a lot of votes."

Meloni's party now tops the polls with support pegged at more than 25 per cent, just slightly ahead of the main centre-left group, the Democratic Party.

A far-right leader in Italy may trouble Europe

Some of Meloni's success is a result of Italy's frustration with its political establishment and a desire to try something new.

The young leader is seen as the only untested option left after 13 tumultuous years of government, which has tainted many parties across the political spectrum.

Meloni promotes what she calls traditional Christian values. She opposes same-sex marriage and allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, prompting fears her rise to power will roll back gay rights.

"Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death," she said in a speech in June to supporters of the Spanish rightist party Vox.

She has also backed calls for a zero-tolerance policy on illegal migration, wants European Union treaties to be renegotiated, and has promised to change the constitution to elect the Italian president by popular vote.

Critics say Meloni's extreme views could return the country to the dark days of mid-20th century fascism.

Her political ascendancy has been seen as an abrupt departure from Draghi, a former economist and banker, and has sparked unease in Europe.

"Yes, we are concerned,"  one senior EU Council official told Politico of the September poll.

"Italy has long been one of the weak links in the eurozone economy, its debt levels are high.

"What happens in Italy matters."

Last month, global credit agency Moody's cut Italy's credit rating from "stable" to "negative", pointing to the economic impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and "domestic political developments".

However, analysts believe the country's economic situation may also curb any potential plans to reduce civil rights or practice autocratic policies.

Italy's highly indebted government is reliant on EU funds and financial markets, which is conditional on countries maintaining core democratic values.

Meloni will also face other significant headwinds once in power.

Italy is still recovering from the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now experiencing rising inflation as well as an ongoing energy crisis driven by Russia's war in Ukraine.

"If she becomes the prime minister, I think that she won't have a lot of leverage in doing that many things," Glasso says.

"So I think that, not because of the coalition, [but] because of the international situation, because of the economy, because of the constraints that she's facing in Europe, and so on and so forth … she [can't] cut all those things loose and just do whatever she wants."

The shadow of Italy's fascist legacy looms large

Meloni has been described as a political chameleon, who changes strategy when it is politically advantageous to do so, and her rise reflects a global political climate fascinated with populists.

"She has been described as kind of similar to Trump and Viktor [Orban] ... and in terms of the politics, I think that's a fair statement," Glasso says.

In an interview with a French TV network in 1996, she called Mussolini "a good politician, the best in the last 50 years".

Over the years, she has attempted to change her party's image, saying the Italian right had "handed fascism over to history for decades now".

But Marla Stone, an author, lecturer and expert on Italian fascism, has been following Italy's election campaign for months and believes Ms Meloni has been playing an "interesting linguistic game".

"She's a much, much more sophisticated politician [than Salvini], much more able to speak the language of the European Union. So on the one hand, her external message is: 'don't be afraid, we're about freedom. We're about national identity,'" she said.

"And then her internal message is similar to Salvini, she's going to be hard on immigration, she's going to protect … the 'natural family.'"

Ms Stone says Meloni does have "some attachment to the fascist past, even though she would like to pretend she doesn't".

"But her forward looking piece, and I think the piece that makes her popular, is this general authoritarian nationalist movement that … is answering people's existential needs and existential fears," she said.

She says Meloni has more successfully tapped into this mindset than other Italian politicians.

Certainly, the young leader has laid out her "ready to govern" attitude in the final days of her campaign, with polls suggesting she will be Italy's next leader.

But some warn nothing is set in stone.

"In Italy, you never … forget that we are the country of Machiavelli. So everything can happen in our political landscape," Giubilei says.

"But right now, if there is [no] disaster from the centre-right, according to all the polls, [Meloni] is a possibility to win the election."

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