Far-right Italian leader Meloni rides popular wave in polls

ROME (AP) – With a message that blends Christianity, motherhood and patriotism, Giorgia Meloni is riding a wave of popularity that could see her become Italy’s first female prime minister next month and the first far-right leader since World War II.

Although her Brothers of Italy party has neo-fascist roots, Meloni has sought to play down concerns about her heritage, saying voters are tired of such talk.

Still, there are striking signs that such a legacy may not be so easily shaken off: her party symbol includes an image of a trident, borrowed from a neo-fascist party founded shortly after the end of the war.

If the Brothers of Italy win the Sept. 25 election and the 45-year-old Meloni becomes prime minister, it will mark almost 100 years to the month since Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini came to power in October 1922.

In 2019, Meloni proudly introduced Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, grandson of the dictator, as one of her candidates for the European Parliament, although he ultimately lost.

For most Italian voters, questions about anti-fascism and neo-fascism “are not the main driver of who to vote for,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of polling company YouTrend. ” They do not see it as part of the present. They see it as part of the past. ”

Still, Meloni is sensitive to international scrutiny over her potential premiership and prefers the term conservative rather than far-right to describe her party.

She recently recorded a video message in English, French and Spanish saying that the Italian right “has consigned fascism to history for decades, unequivocally condemning the suppression of democracy and abusive anti-Jewish laws.”

He was referring to the 1938 laws banning Italy’s small Jewish community from participating in business, education and other aspects of daily life. These laws paved the way for the deportation of many Italian Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation of Rome in the waning years of World War II.

Yet by keeping the trident in her party logo, “she’s symbolically playing on that legacy,” said David Art, a Tufts University political science professor who studies Europe’s far right. “But then she wants to say, ‘We’re not racist.’

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Unlike Germany, which has worked to come to terms with its devastating Nazi legacy, the Fascist period is rarely examined in Italian schools and universities, says Gaston Malaguti. Now 96, he fought against Mussolini’s army as a teenager. In his decade of visiting classrooms to talk about Italy’s anti-fascist resistance, he found many students “ignorant” of that history.

Just five years ago, the Brothers of Italy – its name inspired by the opening words of the national anthem – were seen as a fringe force, winning 4.4% of the vote. Now, opinion polls suggest it could come out on top in September, just ahead of the center-left Democrat Party led by former premier Enrico Letta at 24%.

Under Italy’s complex, partially proportional electoral system, campaign coalitions push party leaders not just for votes but for the prime ministership. Right-wing politicians have worked to forge wider electoral partnerships this year than Democrats.

Meloni has formed an alliance with the right-wing League party led by Matteo Salvini, who like her favors cracking down on illegal immigration. Her other electoral ally is former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia.

Last year, her party was the only major to refuse to join Italy’s National Pandemic Solidarity Coalition led by Premier Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi’s government collapsed last month, abruptly abandoned by Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-star leader Giuseppe Conte, all of whom have been busy with their parties’ declining fortunes in opinion polls and local elections.

In opinion polls, Meloni is credited with a “consistent and coherent approach to politics. She doesn’t compromise,” Pregliasco said, adding, “She’s also known as a leader with clear ideas – not everyone agrees with those ideas, of course.”

She has apologized for the “tone” but not the content of an explosive speech she gave in Spain in June in support of the far-right party Vox.

“They will say we are dangerous, extremists, racists, fascists, denialists and homophobes,” Meloni roared, in an apparent reference to Holocaust deniers. It ended with shouts of: “Yes to natural families! No to the LGBT lobby! Gender Identity Yes! No to gender ideology!”

Meloni denounced “bureaucrats in Brussels” and “climate fundamentalism”. Meloni, who has a young daughter, claimed the “most offensive” phrase was “woman and motherhood”.

Abortion has not emerged as a campaign issue in Italy, where it is legal. But Meloni has decried Italy’s declining birthrate, which would further decline without immigrant women having babies.

At a rally of right-wing supporters in Rome in 2019, Meloni drew roars of approval when she shouted in staccato speed: “I am Georgia! i am a woman i am mother I am Italian and I am Christian. And you can’t take that away from me!”

Within days, her announcement became fodder for rap song lyrics. While some saw it as parody, Meloni liked it and sang a few bars on a state radio show.

According to her 2021 memoir, “I Am Georgia,” much of her identity came from growing up in Rome’s working-class Garbettela neighborhood. At 15, she joined the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement, a neo-fascist party with a flame symbol and political posters in the capital.

When she was 31, Berlusconi made her Minister of Youth in his third and last government. But she soon blazed her own path, co-founding Brothers in Italy in 2012.

Both Salvini and Meloni say they are defending Europe’s Christian identity. Salvini kisses hanging rosaries and wears a large cross on his often exposed chest, while Meloni’s small cross sometimes peeks through her loose-fitting blouse.

Salvini and Berlusconi, an open admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, strongly supported Draghi’s move to send weapons to Ukraine in her party. Meloni also defends the United States, the NATO alliance, a cooperative bloc of seven countries. But she often sees EU rules as a violation of Italy’s sovereignty.

If Meloni’s far-right forces dominate Italy’s next government, the EU is concerned about the support Italy is giving “for their deeply conservative agendas” to right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, Art said.

For her part, Meloni says she will “vehemently oppose any anti-democratic turn.”

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