(CN) — Italian voters on Sunday are poised to deliver a profound and disorienting shock to the European Union by throwing their support behind Giorgia Meloni, a far-right firebrand who leads a “post-fascist” nationalist party called the Brothers of Italy.
A Meloni win in general elections on Sunday – as predicted by polls – would see the EU's long-feared far-right menace explode onto the political scene, potentially causing deep ripple effects across the 27-member bloc where the rise of hard-right nationalist politicians like Meloni has come to seem inexorable.
At 45, Meloni is not only on track to become Italy's first female prime minister but also arguably the country's first “post-fascist” leader since dictator Benito Mussolini was killed along with his mistress at the end of World War II by Italian communists and then hung upside down in Milan for public viewing.
Also, if she becomes premier, Meloni could be labeled as the first leader of one of the EU's large founding nations with a political career forged out of the far-right fascist movements of the first half of 20th century.
“It's completely evident that Meloni has a fascist past. In the symbol of her party, there's the flame that burns on the tomb of Mussolini,” said Mariolina Sattanino, an Italian television journalist and host, during a recent discussion on LA7, an Italian news channel.
The rise of far-right politicians like Meloni also threatens to weaken the bloc's unity against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the war over Ukraine.
Indeed, Putin himself has fostered a hard-right, traditionalist and nationalistic ideology and his regime was admired by similarly minded politicians, including Meloni and her Italian allies, across Europe before he launched his catastrophic invasion.
Since the invasion, Meloni has vowed support for NATO and condemned Putin, but doubts remain about how firm her anti-Putin sentiments are. Additionally, she is likely to form a coalition government with Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, and 85-year-old business magnate and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, a center-right party.
Both Salvini and Berlusconi have had close ties with Putin. Salvini once sported a T-shirt with Putin's portrait on it during a visit to Moscow. Berlusconi and Putin have a long friendly relationship. On Friday, Berlusconi caused a minor furor in Europe by saying Putin was “pushed” into invading Ukraine by Russian nationalists and media.
The apprehension in Europe over Meloni's pending victory cannot be overstated. This week, Stern, a major left-leaning German news magazine, put a photograph of a tough-looking Meloni on its cover with the headline: “The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe.”
In recent elections, voters in France, Spain, Sweden and elsewhere have thrown momentum behind nationalistic, anti-EU and anti-immigrant hard-right candidates. Meanwhile, radical right parties are entrenched in Warsaw and Budapest, where Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has established himself as Europe's troubling role model for so-called Christian “illiberal democracy.” Bureaucrats in Brussels and EU judges are waging a legal and political battle against Orban, accusing him of corrupting the country's democratic institutions. But he was reelected in April.
Sunday's elections come after a technocratic government led by former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi fell apart in July, opening a new chapter in Rome's notoriously turbulent and fractious politics.
Draghi was brought in as a steady hand to guide Italy through the coronavirus pandemic and oversee the disbursement of billions of dollars in pandemic recovery aid. He is not a politician and not affiliated with a political party; he became the latest in a string of non-elected Italian leaders given the task to keep the crisis-ridden country running.
Polls show that Meloni's Brothers of Italy is expected to come out on top with about 25% of the vote and form a coalition government with Salvini and Berlusconi.