Italy’s Meloni steeped herself in far-right ideology as teen

ROME (AP) — Her heart steeped in far-right tenets, as a young teen Giorgia Meloni embarked on an ideological quest that has propelled her — 30 years later — to the height of government power.

The Sept. 25 election victory of Brothers of Italy, a fast-growing, nationalist party with neo-fascist roots that she helped create a decade ago, gave Meloni a springboard into the Italian premiership. By forging coalition deals with right-wing and conservative allies, she created what on Saturday will take office as Italy’s first far-right-led government since the end of World War II.

Scrappy and plain-talking, Meloni, 45, stands out in the clubby world of Italian politics, which is dominated by men and characterized by decades of unkept promises. When she is sworn in on Saturday as premier before Italy’s president, Meloni will begin her tenure as the first woman to lead Italy.

Throughout the campaign, Meloni boasted of being the sole major party leader refusing to join the pandemic national unity government of Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief who was appointed to the role.

Draghi’s unusual coalition, which imploded last summer, brought together right-wing and left-wing forces, moderates and populists, all uneasy about sharing power. Meloni stayed above the fray, depicting herself as a champion of democracy and demanding an early election, which took place last month.

The last candidate who went on to become premier after a ballot was media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who, with his conservative Forza Italia party, won 2008 election. Since then, Italian premiers have emerged from backroom deals before being tapped by Italy’s president.

Berlusconi tapped Meloni to be his youth minister when she was 31, making her Italy’s youngest minister.

Her stint in government ended in 2011, when financial markets lost faith in Berlusconi during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. He was replaced by economist Mario Monti, the type of premier that Meloni abhors — a technocrat not chosen by voters.

In 2016 and while pregnant, Meloni unsuccessfully ran to be mayor of Rome. In a patronizing rebuke, Berlusconi commented “it’s clear to everybody that a mamma cannot dedicate herself to a job” as demanding as mayor of Italy’s problem-plagued capital.

Berlusconi, who for years surrounded himself with a bevy of younger women, chafed last week after Meloni rebuffed one of his choices for her Cabinet. In a note he left in plain view for photographers, he described her as “presumptuous, bossy, arrogant, offensive.” Meloni retorted that he left out one quality: that she’s resistant to blackmail.

Meloni describes herself as brimming with right-wing fervor when, at 15, she phoned the Italian Social Movement, or MSI, a party founded by nostalgists for fascism following the demise of dictator Benito Mussolini’s regime.

She was directed to MSI’s youth office near her home in Rome’s working-class Garbatella neighborhood, where, armed with glue and political posters, Meloni plastered ideological messages on the streets.

Her initiation into the grittiness of grassroot politics is laid out in the 2021 book “Io Sono Giorgia” (“I Am Giorgia”), part autobiography, part political manifesto. Meloni crafts a narrative of herself as a “soldier” battling to rescue Italy from ills she largely blames on leftists.

In 2012, Meloni created her own nationalist identity, founding the Brothers of Italy along with Ignazio La Russa and Guido Crosetto, both of whom are expected to remain key advisers. The Senate last week elected La Russa as its president. Meloni rewarded Crosetto’s loyalty by naming him defense minister Friday.

In 2013, the novice party, which takes its name from the first words of Italy’s anthem, took 2.9% of the vote for Parliament. In 2018, the party won just over 4% of the vote. Last month, Brothers of Italy became the top party, garnering 26% of the vote.

But even as her party’s popularity ballooned, Meloni took care to nurture its core base. The Brothers’ symbol includes a flame in the red-green-and-white hues of the Italian flag, an icon associated with her neo-fascist MSI political ancestors. When a Holocaust survivor, Senator-for-life Liliana Segre, challenged Meloni to remove the flame, she replied by tweeting her pride for it.

Mussolini’s racial laws paved the way for many in Italy’s tiny Jewish community to be deported to death camps during Nazi Germany’s occupation.

In her book, Meloni dismisses concerns over her party’s neo-fascist legacy. “I know I am entering a minefield, but I’m not afraid to reiterate, for the latest time, that I don’t hold the cult of fascism.”

She also makes clear critiquing fascism holds scant relevance in her ascent to power.

Meloni sees her nationalist party as a bulwark against international corporations, which she contends promote mass immigration to get foreigners who’ll work for low pay that Italians won’t accept.

She also champions sovereignty — which translates into her staunch support for Ukraine defending itself from Russia. However, her right-wing coalition partners have been ambiguous on that issue and in the past openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meloni vows to boost Italy’s birth rate, one of the world’s lowest. But in the decades before Italy’s “native” population can grow again, she says immigrants can come, especially if they are Christian and female.

Laying out her immigration stance “probably will cost me a big scarlet red letter sewed onto my chest — ‘Racist, xenophobe, shame on you!’” she writes.

Meloni campaigned on a promise to “give women the right not to abort.” She has said she won’t undo the 1978 law that legalized abortion but would see to it that no woman aborts a pregnancy for economic reasons, a stance that makes abortion rights advocates uneasy.

“Giorgia Meloni has refined the art of transforming ambiguity into a political resource,” historian Giovanni De Luna wrote in the La Stampa newspaper.

Meloni has praised Poland’s right-wing government, which has cast the LGBTQ rights movement as a threat to that nation’s Catholic identity and its youth and tightened the country’s already highly restrictive abortion law.

She also hails Spain’s far-right Vox party as her own party’s “twin.” Spain’s third-largest party doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, disdains gender equality and embraces the legacy of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

A big fan of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who came to power with his “Make America Great Again” mantra, Meloni has similar ambitions for Italy.

Her own leadership will “re-write the destiny of the nation with a government strong, united and authoritative,” she tweeted recently.

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Ciarán Giles in Madrid and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed reporting.

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