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Italy Is Getting Its First Female Leader—A Polished Far-Right Firebrand

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Updated: | Originally published:

Italy is poised to make history this weekend. If polls are correct, Italian voters will on Sunday pave the way for Giorgia Meloni to become Italy’s first female Prime Minister and for her party, Brothers of Italy, to lead the country’s most far-right government since World War II. (Update, Sept. 26: Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party led a right-wing coalition that surged to victory, garnering 44% of the vote.)

But the Italian elections matter for reasons that stretch far beyond Italy. After years of failing to fully break through the cordon sanitaire around the extreme right—the likes of which has prevented the far-right from taking office in other major E.U. countries, including Germany and France—some European far-right parties such as Meloni’s have rebranded to soften their image and broaden their appeal despite espousing many of the same policies. Should Meloni’s Brothers of Italy emerge as the largest party in the Sept. 25 contest—an outcome that would likely see Meloni lead a coalition government alongside far-right leader Matteo Salvini’s Northern League party and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forward Italy party—it will not only provide a playbook for like-minded parties to follow, but represent a new face of the European far-right: one that is more polished and electorally savvy than ever before.

When you ask Italian politicians and analysts what is behind the sudden rise of Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots that barely garnered more than 4% of the vote during the last Italian election in 2018, the most common answer is that it is the only opposition party on the ballot. Of all of the major political parties in the country, it is the only one that opted to sit out of the rare unity government led by the independent technocrat Mario Draghi until its collapse earlier this summer following weeks of infighting, making it a likely beneficiary of the protest vote.

“[Meloni] gets the support of a lot of people for one reason or another: inflation, cost of energy, whoever is not pleased with the current situation,” says Piero Ignazi, a political scientist at the University of Bologna and an expert on the Brothers of Italy. “These people will vote for an opposition party.”

But Meloni’s background worries many. The 45-year-old politician’s interest in politics goes back to at least 1992 when, as a 15-year-old growing up in a working class neighborhood of Rome, she joined the Italian Social Movement. The neo-fascist party was formed in 1946 by supporters of the deposed dictator Benito Mussolini—who teenage Meloni praised as being “a good politician”—and is seen as a predecessor to Brothers of Italy, which Meloni co-founded a decade ago. Meloni has since repudiated her praise of Mussolini, but remnants of the party’s neo-fascist nostalgia remain. Her party’s logo, a tricolor flame, is a symbol of the Italian Social Movement; some of Mussolini’s descendants have even contested elections under its banner.

The idea that Meloni’s party seeks to restore Italy’s fascist regime is “ridiculous,” says Ignazi. Nevertheless, her political style has all the trappings of a far-right politician. She has warned of the dangers of “ethnic substitution” spurred by immigration (a not-so-veiled reference to the “great replacement” conspiracy theory) and has railed against “Brussels bureaucrats,” “the LGBT lobby,” “climate fundamentalism,” and the “globalist” left. In a speech earlier this summer rallying support for the far-right Vox Party in Spain, Meloni told the party’s supporters that “They will say we are dangerous, extremists, racists, fascists, deniers and homophobes.” The comments echoed similar remarks made by Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who in 2018 encouraged supporters of the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen to “Let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honor.”

What makes Meloni different, however, is that she appears to have learned from the mistakes of her far-right allies across Europe—many, though not all of whom, have been sidelined by voters and political parties for being seen as too toxic to vote for or govern with. Throughout the campaign, Meloni has tried to moderate her party’s image and promote herself not as a nativist or Euroskeptic like Salvini, but as a defender of family values, an ardent supporter of Ukraine and NATO, as well as a woman, a mother, and a Christian. In doing so, Meloni “is trying to transform [Brothers of Italy] into a broad conservative party,” says Luigi Di Gregorio, a professor of political science at Tuscia University. “In Italy, we have many political parties, but her ambition is to be the leader of the most important right-wing party in Italy. The most important right-wing party in Italy cannot be a far-right party.”

Read More: What Italy’s Political Chaos Means for Europe

This strategy has been tested elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats, despite its neo-Nazi roots, is poised to play a major role in the next government after winning the second-largest share of votes during elections earlier this month. In France, Le Pen delivered her National Rally party its best electoral performance to date, even though she failed to win in a rematch against Emmanuel Macron earlier this year.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is expected to come in first, unlike the Sweden Democrats and National Rally, in part because she seems to have convinced enough Italian moderates that she is worth the risk. As one voter told France 24, “She’s the only one we haven’t tried yet—which means she’s the only one yet to fail.”

And Meloni is keen to win over moderates by emphasizing her respect for parliamentary democracy. In an address directed at the international press last month, she dismissed warnings that her rise to power is a harbinger for authoritarianism in Italy, noting that she and her coalition partners “fiercely oppose any anti-democratic drift” and share the values of other traditionally center-right parties around the world. She has also pointed to her staunch support for Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion as evidence of her Atlantacist credentials.

Still, not everyone is convinced by these overtures. Meloni’s opponents argue that her international allies—among them Spain’s Vox, Hungary’s Fidesz, and Poland’s Law and Justice party—should tell Italian voters everything they need to know about what kind of Italy she would lead.

“You already see what kind of policies they are taking in their countries,” Elly Schlein, an independent candidate for the Democratic Party’s Progressive Italy list, tells TIME of the far-right governments in Hungary and Poland. The two countries have undermined the rule of law and introduced legislation curbing the rights of women, migrants, and the LGBTQ community. Indeed, the European Parliament recently voted to brand Hungary an “electoral autocracy” over its democratic backsliding. (Meloni’s Brothers of Italy voted against that resolution.) “How can it be clearer than that?” asks Schlein.

European lawmakers aren’t convinced either. A far-right government in Rome in which two of its main players are seen as sympathetic to the Kremlin could undermine Western cohesion when it comes to backing Ukraine. What’s more, Brussels’ ongoing efforts to defend the rule of law within its borders could be scuppered if Meloni becomes an ally of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who she has previously defended. For example, to slash E.U. funding to Budapest, which is currently under consideration, a qualified majority of 15 member states representing 65% of the E.U. population needs to sign off. “That’s a hard bar to [clear],” says Daniel Freund, a Green Party member of the European Parliament from Germany and one of the negotiators behind the rule-of-law mechanism being used by European lawmakers to withhold E.U. funds. “If Italy is not a part of that coalition supporting the protection of the rule of law, it becomes close to impossible to actually achieve the qualified majority.”

Whether Meloni would continue her moderation efforts if she takes power remains to be seen. But that decision may not be fully up to her. Meloni would have to contend with coalition partners (who are not as unified as they seem) and her party’s core base of supporters, many of whom could choose to defect to Salvini or Berlusconi if she’s seen to have gone too soft.

“Even if she is trying to change, there is nothing she can do with her electorate and, above all, with her party members,” says Teresa Coratella, the program manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Rome office. “The big test for her will be to see if she manages to use the electoral victory as a way to completely reshape her party. But, as of today, I don’t think there is much she can do.”

Update, Sept. 26

The headline of this story was updated following election results on Monday.

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com