Giorgia Meloni, who could become Italy’s first female prime minister at the upcoming election later this month, denies her party’s links to fascism. But a look at its history and support base suggests otherwise.
With Italy’s election campaign in full swing, a viral video emerged in mid-August of a 19-year-old Giorgia Meloni, soft features and round blue eyes captured in a close-up by the camera, giving an interview to a French TV channel where she talks about Benito Mussolini, Italy’s dictator who rose to prominence in the period between the two world wars.
Then an activist with the right-wing National Alliance (AN) party in Rome, where she grew up, Meloni tells the reporter Mussolini was “a good politician.”
“Everything he did, he did it for Italy. There haven’t been other politicians like him in the last fifty years,” she utters in imperfect but clear French.
The year was 1996, just ahead of early elections that saw the National Alliance party run as part of a coalition alongside Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. It was the first time since World War II that a party considered to have a direct lineage to the fascist tradition entered mainstream politics by declaring a clear break from the past.
The National Alliance was born from the dissolution of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), a party established after the end of World War II, that counted among its ranks former members of the Italian Social Republic, a Nazi puppet state established in northern Italy during the German occupation.
Founded after the dissolution of National Alliance by some of its most prominent members including Meloni, Brothers of Italy officially broke with, but in practice adopted, some of its rhetoric and symbolism – including the tricolour flame in its logo that the MSI originally used.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is currently neck and neck in the polls with Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party, making it the strongest party in a coalition that includes Matteo Salvini’s party, the League, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Both are trailing far behind Brothers of Italy, with its projected 23-24 percent share of the vote, according to polls. The League ranks third but far behind at around 14 percent – which would make Meloni Italy’s first female prime minister should the right-wing coalition win.
When former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi came to power last year after the government fell while the country was dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic, Meloni’s was the only party that remained in the opposition, propelling Brothers of Italy’s meteoric rise from the 4,3 percent share of the vote the party received at the last general election in 2018.
Unlike a good number of other Italian politicians and members of her own party, Meloni speaks several languages and has been adamant in defending herself from accusations that her party has anything to do fascism, speaking directly to the foreign press.
“For days I have been reading articles in the international press about the upcoming elections that will give Italy a new government,” Meloni says in a video message that she posted in French, English and Spanish in mid-August.
“They describe me as a danger to democracy, and to Italian, European and international stability,” she added. “I read that a Brothers of Italy victory at the upcoming elections will constitute an authoritarian turn, lead to Italy’s exit from the Euro, and similar nonsense,” she added.
“The Italian right has consigned fascism to history decades ago,” she says.
The daughter of a communist absent father, Meloni has often laid proud claims to her humble beginnings.
Her father, an accountant, left the family when she was just two years old never to return. At the time, she had been living with her sister and her mother in an upscale neighbourhood in the north of Rome. But when a fire triggered by the flame of a candle caused the family to lose their home, they moved to a working-class area in the south of the city.
“The constant need to rise to the occasion, to be accepted particularly in a male environment, besides the fear of letting down those who believe in me, probably comes from the absence of my father’s love,” Meloni writes in her autobiography.
Her rise from political activist with the Youth Front – the youth wing of the MSI – to parliament is meteoric. She entered the Italian parliament in her late twenties and became minister for youth in the fourth Berlusconi government two years later.
In 2020, she was elected president of the European Conservative and Reformists Party of the European Parliament, having succeeded in presenting a ‘cleaned up’ image of her party and right-wing Italian conservatives whose ideas align with France’s Marine Le Pen, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and Spain’s Vox. In her speeches, she has rallied against migration and has espoused the values of the Christian, conservative right in Europe, supporting the “traditional family” and rejecting gay marriage and abortion.
“As a historical phenomenon, fascism is over,” Carlo Ruzza, a professor of political sociology at the University of Trento who has written about post-fascism and the Italian right, told TRT World.
But as a “system of values”, he adds, it means “a return to nationalism, patriotism, anti-Europeanism, even if it is toned down for strategic reasons.”
“And then [she stands for] populist-inspired values including social exclusion of ethnic and other minorities,” he adds.
Extremists in the party’s ranks
“Meloni’s problem is that her party’s leadership was moulded from fascism, they are not educated and very extremists,” Carlo Ruzza, a professor of political sociology at the University of Trento who has written about post-fascism and the Italian right, told TRT World.
Over the years, Italian media has several times pointed out how several major personalities in Brothers of Italy have indulged in fascist nostalgia, taking part in events openly commemorating fascism and fascist symbols – despite the fact that Italian law criminalises the revival of fascism and the reorganisation of the Fascist Party in any form.
One regional governor, Francesco Acquaroli, came at the centre of a media storm in recent years when he took part in a dinner that commemorated the march on Rome, which officially marked the beginning of fascist rule. A candidate from the southern Campania region used the slogan “me ne frego” – “I don’t care” – used by Mussolini’s troops, in one of his election campaign posters in 2020.
A municipal councillor who once ran with the party posing for a photo in front of a portrait of Hitler while dressed as an SS officer. At the time the photo became viral, the party denied he was a member and said he had only run in one of the party lists in local elections.
Journalistic investigations have also pointed to links between Brothers of Italy and self-proclaimed neo-fascist movements such as CasaPound, including the personal friendship between Meloni and the former leader of the movement – who has now gone on to form his own party, which is distancing itself from Meloni for electoral purposes. In 2019, an investigation showed links between a lobby of right-wing extremists and the Brothers of Italy and League parties.
“She will [attract voters] who will quit the League with a confused Salvini, who has often changed sides and is no longer taken seriously, and whose pro-Russia stance doesn’t always find consensus,” Ruzza says, adding that she has also recruited in her party’s ranks some politicians from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia who are “looking to be elected.”
“But Meloni is a good speaker, more educated and younger, and will appeal to a more general electorate as well,” Ruzza says.