Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy), could become the first female prime minister in the history of Italy in an anticipated right-wing surge to the polls on Sunday.
Europe's attention is trained on Rome, where this potential first is joined by fears that Meloni would restore an ideology not seen in Italy since World War II. Pollsters expect the Sunday vote to deliver a conservative coalition to parliament, with the government guided by Meloni as premier.
The archconservative of Italian politics, Meloni entered politics at age 15 in 1992, joining the neo-fascist Social Movement, a group with pronounced sympathy for Benito Mussolini, the country's dictator from 1925 to 1945. Fratelli d'Italia's party imagery evokes Italy's fascist past, but Meloni has rejected the associations, framing her proposed conservative coalition as a nationalist project that would recover power from Brussels.
A Meloni government would represent a major change in tide from the technocrat government held together by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. Meloni's party was the only opponent to Draghi's coalition, which fell in July after maintaining a hardline on consensus issues in the European Union – including sending arms to Ukraine and sanctioning Russia.
Observers say EU battle lines may be realigning, with Italy, one of the bloc's founders and its third-largest economy, cozying more to Hungary and Poland than Germany and France.
The collapse of Draghi's government in July threw Italy into a familiar political tumult, and a splintered left wing, including the center-left Democratic Party and the populist Five-Star Movement, has not coalesced with a pre-election pact. The Democratic Party leader, Enrico Letta, has trailed consistently in polls and is expected to split ballots cast by liberals with voters for Five-Star and a "Third Pole" coalition.
The right wing, though, has joined forces. Polls indicate Meloni will be the leading conservative finisher on Sunday; her government's junior partners would be Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, and Silvio Berlusconi, the head of the center-right Forza Italia. Berlusconi, the media tycoon and conservative firebrand, rose to power in 1994 and won three stints as prime minister, in total the longest serving premier in the post-war era. Salvini has been seen as the conservative in the wings of Palazzo Chigi, while Meloni had led the smaller Fratelli d'Italia, distant from the mainstream.
Analysts credit Meloni's surge past them to her resolute anti-Putin, pro-NATO posture. Berlusconi, a longtime Putin friend, has outright echoed the Kremlin's war narrative. Salvini has wavered on continuing to send arms to Kyiv.
In the two-month campaign sprint, Meloni has worked to settle fears over the conservative coalition, including those of her own making. If more pugilistic toward Brussels than her recent predecessors, Meloni does not propose a divorce with the EU or an exit from the euro, which is supported by more than 70% of Italians. She has tempered her past hostile tones toward LGBT rights and abortion rights.
Amid rising energy costs hitting Italians particularly hard and long-stagnant wages in the country, Meloni has made her message economic, focusing on tax cuts and investment in nuclear energy.
Anticipation for a far-right surge in Rome, which would follow closely behind Tuesday's stunning electoral victory for the Swedish Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi origins, has already provoked barbed remarks from Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission chief. Von der Leyen was not keen to veil Brussels' posture toward a government that could move to subvert democracy.
"If things go in a difficult direction, I've spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools," von der Leyen told students in the United States on Thursday. The Commission has recommended exercising an internal sanctions measure on Hungary over corruption it alleges.
Potential clashes with the EU will not be the first order of business should the right-wing coalition win a majority of votes on Sunday. Before it can govern, conservatives will have to organize a government behind Meloni in a process that could take weeks.
Fratelli d'Italia won 4.4% of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections, the last time Italians went to the polls. After votes are counted on Sunday, barring a major break from polling, it's poised to be the nation's leading political party.