ROME -- Italian right-wing leader Matteo Salvini's once-bold demeanor has turned nervous and edgy since his failed bid to become premier this summer, giving an opening on Italy's political stage to his junior ally, the energetic leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party.
Giorgia Meloni's far-right party has seen a surge in support — albeit remaining in the single digits — as Italy's traditionally conservative political landscape shifts even more toward the right, according to pollsters.
The two leaders and their supporters plan to descend Saturday on Rome for a massive right-wing rally, dubbed by commentators the new "March on Rome," as it resurrects memories of the mass demonstration that marked fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's ascent to power in 1922.
Salvini calls the rally "a peaceful day of Italian pride," rebuffing critics that saw the initiative as a dangerous flirtation with the Fascist era. But many still believe the protest will attract far-right extremists, including neo-fascist groups like the Rome-based CasaPound.
Salvini's right-wing League remains by far the most popular party in Italy despite his political misstep — while trying to become the country's next prime minister he lost his powerful job as Italy's interior minister. But he has suffered a dip in the polls, along with all the other major parties, as Italians view with suspicion the new coalition government created in September by the left-wing Democratic Party and the populist 5-Star Movement.
Only the 42-year-old Meloni has gained — viewed by many as the only politician who has not compromised her principles.
The League and Brothers of Italy are on a trajectory that Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of pollster YouTrend, says could win them more than 40% support in Italy's next national election.
"Such a scenario would be impressive, as it would hand two right-wing parties solid control of parliament," Pregliasco said.
The Brothers of Italy was originally a fringe far-right party born from the ashes of the post-Fascist Social Movement and its successor, National Alliance. Its support currently hovers at around 8%, with Meloni often topping the list of Italy's most popular politicians, after Premier Giuseppe Conte and Salvini. The party won just 4.4% of the vote in the last national election and has long been just a minor player in a center-right group long dominated by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
A Roman born raised in the working-class Garbatella neighborhood, Meloni entered politics when she was only 15 and founded her own party after breaking with Berlusconi in 2012.
Her straightforward political message focuses on an anti-migrant stance even more extreme than that of Salvini, who paralyzed the European Union's migrant policy during his 8-month tenure as Italy's interior minister. She pairs that with a nationalist rhetoric that focuses on a few key words: nation, sovereignty and order. She's also a fierce critic of EU rules but never embraced anti-euro rhetoric.
Outside Italy, Meloni is far less well known than Salvini, who was long seen as the possible leader of nationalist forces emerging across Europe. At home, however, Meloni's political reach, supported by her strong communication skills, has been consolidating. She is the only woman leading a party in Italy's male-dominated politics and the only one who managed not to be cannibalized by Salvini.
In just a few years, she has transformed the Brothers of Italy from a marginal group of fascist nostalgists into the second-biggest rightist party after the League, overtaking Berlusconi's moribund Forza Italia party, which is now stuck at around 5% support.
"Meloni's success is based on her ability to attract both right-wing moderates, who are abandoning Berlusconi's Forza Italia, and more radical-right supporters, who were disappointed by the League's recent moves," said Lorenzo Castellani, political analyst at Rome's LUISS University.
Now, thanks to the 83-year-old Berlusconi's inexorable decline, Meloni can become the new "friendly face" of Italy's far-right, as her reassuring, traditional approach fits in well with nationalist policies.
Analysts note that Meloni's strongholds are in Italy's struggling southern regions and in the peripheries of its cities, which helped her to gain an independent role within the new Salvini-led coalition.
Many disillusioned Italian voters — angered by the broken promises of both traditional parties and anti-establishment forces — have bet on Meloni's reassuring leadership. She never denied her party's fascist past but has openly distanced it from Mussolini's racial laws.
"I voted for her because she's one of the few women in politics and I hoped she could have a crucial role within a winning center-right alliance," said Marco Bonaiuto, 46, from the southern Italian city of Avellino.
After voting for center-left forces in the past, Bonaiuto shifted to the far-right Brothers of Italy in Italy's 2018 election.
"And you know what? I would even consider voting for Meloni again," he said.