A brief speech defending the role of family has been Giorgia Meloni’s calling card at campaign rallies. “I’m Georgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I’m Italian. I’m a Christian. You can’t take this from me,” he said.
The woman widely expected to become Italy’s first female prime minister in Sunday’s election is far from typical, however: A far-right nationalist accused by political rivals and experts spreading white supremacist ideas, advocating a naval blockade to stop illegal migration from Africa, Meloni is also a committed JRR Tolkien fan and has embraced internet memes and musical remixes of his infamous fiery speeches.
His victory, as leader of a far-right coalition, would make Italy the latest European country after Sweden to see a far-right party win power, months after Marine Le Pen made a strong challenge to President Emmanual Macron in France.
Meloni leads the Brothers of Italy Party (Fratelli d’Italia, or FdI), a populist party with roots in the postwar Italian fascist movement. The Fdl is predicted to get 25% of the vote on Sunday, six times more than it received in the last election, in 2018, and enough to deliver a clear majority in both houses of Parliament.
If elected, Meloni, 45, a mother of one, will head a coalition government consisting of Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League) Party and Forza Italia (Italy Forward), led by an 85-year-old media baron and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is returning. back to politics.
“What he’s trying to do is both say he’s a traditional conservative but at the same time is framed by ideas that are conspiracy, extreme and fascist,” David Broder, a Berlin-based writer who specializes in Italian politics, said. His forthcoming book is entitled “Mussolini’s Grandsons: Fascism in Contemporary Italy.”
“Meloni is widely presented as the moderation face of the party, as she is a mother and can speak kindly to other politicians, but she herself promotes white nationalist ideas,” he said.
Meloni’s office and the Italian Brotherhood Party did not respond to requests for comment by NBC News.
Meloni caught the public’s attention in 2019 when the video of her “I am Giorgia” speech went viral. It was turned into an electronic dance music track by two DJs from Milan which has 12 million views and counting on YouTube. His autobiography is titled “Io Sono Giorgia” (“I am Giorgia”) and topped the sales charts on its release last year.
He has compared his party to Britain’s centre-right Conservative Party, but Meloni’s views will be familiar to anyone who follows the Polish right, Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” and Republican nationalist populism. Party in the United States.
He has defended Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian leader, who is accused of destroying democracy by packing his country’s judiciary and Parliament with supporters and giving himself the ability to easily make or change laws.
Meloni has bemoaned Italy’s extremely low birth rate – just 1.2 babies per woman, according to the World Bank, one of the lowest in the world – and spoke of the left-wing government’s plans to “finance the invasion to replace Italians with immigrants,” principle the main “great surrogate,” a conspiracy theory that accuses a shadowy global elite of importing non-white migrants on a large scale into white-majority countries.
His party’s manifesto says on the first page: “We are determined not to succumb to the nation’s economic, social, cultural and political decline,” before proceeding to link illegal immigration to drug trafficking and urban decline.
“We live in a time where everything we stand for is under attack,” he told the American conservative CPAC conference in February. In a speech on Tuesday in Palermo, he warned about the “violence” of Islam.
The Brothers of Italy, whose name is taken from the first line of Italy’s national anthem, emphatically reject any accusations of fascism or racial politics, describing such criticism as an undisputed smudge of the left-wing of rival parties. “In the DNA of Fratelli d’Italia, there is no fascist, racist, antisemitic nostalgia,” said Meloni.
His reputation may have been largely positive – his personal approval rating during the campaign was higher than that of any other party leader – but party membership continues to attract accusations of fascist leanings.
This week the party fired one candidate, Calogero Pisano, after a newspaper exposed an eight-year-old social media post in which he praised Hitler as a “great statesman.”
Pisano, who is running in Sicily, in 2016 also praised someone for describing Meloni as a “modern fascist,” adding that the Brothers of Italy “never hid his true ideals.”
“From this point on, Pisano no longer represents [the party] at any level,” the Brothers of Italy said in a statement Tuesday, Reuters reported.
Also this week, Romano La Russa, a member of the European Parliament and brother of the party’s co-founder Ignazio La Russa, was featured in a video widely shared online performing a controversial tribute at a funeral.
The homage, an outstretched right hand with a flat palm, was adopted by Mussolini’s Fascist regime and later Hitler’s Nazi Party, although some Italian nationalists have since attempted to reclaim it as an act of defiance.
The Brothers of Italy did not respond to requests for comment on the incident.
Aware of his party’s shadowy past, Meloni released a video statement last month in English, French and Spanish denying there would be an “anti-democratic shift” or “authoritarian spin” if his party won power on Sunday. He has released similar statements in the past.
And, unlike some other right-wing populists, Meloni is a pro-NATO Atlanticist who supports Western support for the war in Ukraine. In contrast, his would-be coalition partner, Salvini, is a long-time admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has argued for lifting Western sanctions against Russia.
Nevertheless, Meloni has faced questions throughout the campaign about the party’s fascist roots. The Brothers were formed from the remnants of the National Alliance, which descended from the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a fascist party formed by Mussolini’s allies after 1945, and which was largely confined to the periphery of Italian politics and was never in government.
Mussolini, the original fascist leader, seized power in 1922 in his famous march in Rome and was prime minister until he was overthrown in 1943, after turning Italy into a one-party dictatorship that supported Hitler in World War II.
The National Alliance split from Berlusconi’s People’s Freedom Party in 2012 when its leadership, including Meloni, later formed the Brothers of Italy, eventually adopting the MSI tricolor fire logo with fascist connotations, which is still used today.
Speaking to a French TV crew when he was a youth activist for MSI, Meloni praised Mussolini in a firm way. “Everything he did, he did for Italy – and there hasn’t been a politician like him for 50 years,” he said in footage that recently resurfaced.
“Italy has never handled the history of fascism as well as Germany did with Nazism. In Germany Nazism has long been taboo. If a politician there paid a Roman salute, his career would be over,” historian Francesco Filippi told NBC News. His book “Mussolini Also Did Much Good” dispels the surviving myths about the dictator’s legacy.
The association with fascism was not enough to deter Meloni’s supporters, including the youth.
“I believe he is popular now because he is very coherent with his basic ideas and values, which most Italians share,” said Maicol Busilacchi, 28, a law student from Potenza Picena, near the eastern city of Ancona, and regional president. . from the Giovent Nazionale, the youth wing of the Italian Brothers.
He rejected any claim that the party was right-wing.
“The short answer is no. Fratelli d’Italia is something completely new. “Many times in the history of the Italian right, leaders have made changes to build a party that can be trusted to govern Italy,” he said.
Although a minister under Berlusconi from 2008 to 2011, the multilingual and charismatic Meloni, from a working-class suburb of Rome, is relatively new to frontline politics.
Sunday’s snap election comes two months after the government led by Mario Draghi collapsed after an unlikely mix of left- and right-wing ministers refused to implement a post-Covid economic stimulus plan.
The Brothers of Italy are the only party with significant support to refuse to join Draghi’s makeshift coalition, giving the impression of being an untouchable outsider as Italy faces a crippling cost of living crisis.
Meloni may succeed where others fail. Le Pen, who presented himself as a moderate, conservative who opposed the liberal thinking of the French and European elites, won the support of traditional left and right-wing voters.
But in the end Macron held on to win 58.5% of the second-round second-round vote. Many of Macron’s voters are unhappy with his record, but are willing to join “la barrage of républicain” – a republican dam – to safeguard Le Pen and his extreme anti-migrant policies.
In Italy, Meloni is also working to soften his image and attract moderate patriots – but there will be no French-style voting bloc on his ambitions, said Lorenzo Pregliasco, of Italian polling firm YouTrend, in part because of the fractured centre. left opposition that failed to keep fragile pre-election cooperation pacts alive.
“We only have one round of elections – a more cohesive and unified coalition has a very significant advantage over other coalitions and parties, and that is the case for rights in Italy,” he said.
“You have a united front for the centre-right, led by Meloni and Salvini and the others [left-wing] the camp broke, cracked into at least three pieces,” said Pregliasco. “In France all non-Le Pen voters can consolidate behind Macron.”
Italy may be drawn to an authoritative figure at a time of economic strife, Filippi said.
“Since the fall of fascism, Italians have been looking for a ‘strong man’, who has a strong personality who will look after his people as fathers of the nation. It happened with Berlusconi, for example. And now it’s happening with Giorgia Meloni,” he said.
Voters in favor of Meloni are not necessarily fascist or right-wing, Filippi added. “Many are simply disillusioned with politics, tired of the failure of traditional parties from the left and right, and just want to try something new and disruptive.”
Patrick Smith reports from London, and Claudio Lavanga from Rome. Matteo Moschella contributed.