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Italian Meloni steeped herself in far-right ideology as a teenager

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ROME — Her heart steeped in far-right principles, as a young teenager Giorgia Meloni embarked on an ideological quest that propelled her — 30 years later — to the pinnacle of government power.

The September 25 election victory of the Brothers of Italy, a fast-growing nationalist party with neo-fascist roots that she helped create a decade ago, gave Meloni a springboard to the post of Italian prime minister. By striking coalition deals with right-wing and conservative allies, she created what will be Italy’s first far-right-led government since the end of World War II.

Scrappy and outspoken, Meloni, 45, stands out in the clubby world of Italian politics, dominated by men and characterized by decades of broken promises. When she becomes prime minister, after Saturday’s swearing-in ceremony in the heart of Rome, Meloni will be the first woman to lead Italy.

Throughout the campaign, Meloni has boasted of being the only major party leader to refuse to join the pandemic national unity government of Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank who was appointed to this post.

Draghi’s unusual coalition, which imploded last summer, brought together forces from right and left, moderates and populists, all worried about power sharing. Meloni has remained above the fray, portraying herself as a champion of democracy and demanding snap elections, which took place last month.

The last candidate to become prime minister after a ballot was media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who with his conservative Forza Italia party won the 2008 elections. Since then, Italian prime ministers have come out of clandestine deals before be requested by the Italian President.

Berlusconi tapped Meloni to be his youth minister at the age of 31, making her Italy’s youngest minister.

His term 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 prime minister Meloni abhors – a technocrat not chosen by the voters.

In 2016 and while pregnant, Meloni ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Rome. In a condescending rebuke, Berlusconi commented “it is clear to everyone that a mum cannot dedicate herself to a job” as demanding as that of mayor of the troubled Italian capital.

Berlusconi, who for years surrounded himself with a slew of young women, chafed last week after Meloni spurned one of his cabinet picks. In a note he left for photographers to see, he described her as “presumptuous, bossy, arrogant, offensive.” Meloni countered that he had omitted one quality: that she is resistant to blackmail.

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

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

His initiation into the granularity of grassroots politics is featured in the 2021 book “Io Sono Giorgia” (“I Am Giorgia”), part autobiography, part political manifesto. Meloni crafts a narrative of herself as a “soldier” fighting to save Italy from the evils she attributes in large part to leftists.

In 2012, Meloni created his own nationalist identity, founding the Brothers of Italy with Ignazio La Russa and Guido Crosetto, both of whom are expected to remain key advisers. Last week, the Senate elected La Russa as president.

In 2013, the novice party, which takes its name from the first words of the Italian anthem, won 2.9% of the vote in parliament. In 2018, the party obtained just over 4% of the vote. Last month, Brothers of Italy became the leading party, winning 26% of the vote.

But even as his party’s popularity skyrocketed, Meloni was careful to nurture his grassroots base. The Brotherhood’s symbol includes a flame in the red-green-white hues of the Italian flag, an icon associated with its neo-fascist political ancestors in the MSI. When a Holocaust survivor, Senator for Life Liliana Segre, challenged Meloni to remove the flame, she responded by tweeting her pride.

Mussolini’s racial laws paved the way for the deportation of many members of Italy’s small Jewish community to death camps during the Nazi occupation.

In her book, Meloni brushes aside concerns about her party’s neo-fascist legacy. “I know that I am entering a minefield, but I am not afraid to repeat, for the last time, that I do not want to worship fascism.”

She also makes it clear that criticism of fascism has little relevance in her rise to power.

Meloni sees her nationalist party as a bulwark against international companies, which she says promote mass immigration to attract foreigners who will work for low wages that Italians won’t accept.

It also defends sovereignty – which translates into its unwavering support for Ukraine defending itself against Russia. However, his right-wing coalition partners have been ambiguous on this issue and in the past have openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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

Exposing his position on immigration “will probably cost me a big scarlet red letter stitched on my chest – ‘Racist, xenophobe, shame on you!’ “, she writes.

Meloni campaigned on the promise to “give women the right not to have an abortion”. She said she would not overturn the 1978 law that legalized abortion, but would ensure that no woman terminates a pregnancy for economic reasons, a position that makes people uncomfortable abortion rights advocates.

“Giorgia Meloni has honed the art of turning ambiguity into a political resource,” writes historian Giovanni De Luna in the newspaper La Stampa.

Meloni praised Poland’s right-wing government, which called the LGBTQ rights movement a threat to that country’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 does not recognize same-sex marriage, despises gender equality and embraces the legacy of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

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

Her own leadership will “rewrite the destiny of the nation with a strong, united and authoritarian government”, she tweeted recently.

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

Follow AP’s coverage of Italian politics at https://apnews.com/hub/giorgia-meloni

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