Giorgia Meloni – the political provocateur set to become Italy's first far-right leader since Mussolini

In the autumn of 1922, Benito Mussolini, the ambitious and charismatic founder of the Fascist Party, became Italy’s youngest prime minister – seizing power in a march on Rome that ushered in a dark period of totalitarian rule.

A century on, Italy looks set to get its first far-right leader since Mussolini’s body was strung up for all to see at the end of World War II. On Sept. 25, 2022, voters are widely expected to elect as prime minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy – a party whose lineage traces back to the rump of Mussolini’s fascists.

Many Italians and Europeans are understandably worried. Her likely ascent comes at a time of national fragility for Italy, which is wracked by economic woes, spiraling inflation and an immigration crisis. It also poses uncomfortable questions over the idea of European identity and unity. Moreover, it is a symptom of the political malaise in Italy and of the winds that have seen populist right-wing leaders gain support around the world.

Who is Giorgia Meloni?

Meloni has been accused of being a political provocateur. A proud nationalist, her policy stances stress anti-immigration positions and the protection of Italy from “Islamization.” In contrast, she presents herself as the defender of traditional family values, politicizing Christianity and motherhood as the cornerstones of the authentic Italian national identity. In a 2019 speech, she explained: “I am Giorgia. I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian” – a rhetorical flourish that went viral, even being turned into a disco remix.

But Meloni is also a political chameleon. She changes strategy when it is politically advantageous to do so. In her youth, she openly admired Mussolini and considered him a good politician. But asked in the run-up to the election if she agreed that the fascist leader was bad for Italy, she said “yes.”

Over the years, she has courted leaders deemed by many to be ultra nationalist, such as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Marine Le Pen of France. Yet she has also tried to position herself as aligned with the conservatism of the British Conservative Party and the Republican Party in the U.S.

She has of late tried to distance herself from prior support for the strongmen of Russia and China and to reemphasize her willingness to patriotically serve her country.

Fratelli d’Italia’s rise to power

The ploy has seemingly worked.

The far-right alliance of Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and like-minded parties Lega and Forza Italia are on course to win an absolute majority in the Parliament. But it is Meloni’s party that has stood out, with polls showing it is set to win around a quarter of all votes.

It marks a remarkable rise to power for Fratelli d'Italia. In the course of the past four years, the party’s polling numbers have been steadily growing from a little over 4% in 2018 to over 25% in 2022. The trajectory suggests that the party has either shrugged off its historical links to fascism or that many Italians simply don’t care.

Fratelli d’Italia is a descendant of the Italian Social Movement party, formed by Mussolini supporters after World War II. Meloni has tried to put distance between the lineage, declaring that the Italian right considers fascism to be confined to Italy’s history.