ROME — If polling is correct, Italians will elect their country's most right-wing government since the end of World War II on Sunday. That's no small matter in a country that has had 69 governments since 1946.
Leading the coalition that looks likely to secure a majority of seats in Italy's parliament is Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d'Italia, the Brothers of Italy party.
If her coalition does win, she will also make history by becoming Italy's first female prime minister.
Meloni, 45, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Rome that's better known for cultivating leftist activists than producing fiery hard-right politicians. Her party has roots in the neo-fascist movement that emerged out of the ruins of World War II.
Symbols point to the party's connection to that past too. The party flag includes a tricolor flame that was a symbol of fascism in the early 20th century. Meloni has refused to remove the flame from the party's logo.
And many party members have shown an affinity for fascism and fascist leaders of the past. Just this week, the party suspended a member running for parliament after an Italian newspaper revealed he had posted comments supporting Adolf Hitler in the past.
Meloni has spent considerable time and energy trying to convince Italians and Europeans that the party is not fascist. When not on the radio or TV, she is on the road, creating videos she streams live and posts to all her social media platforms.
Meloni's Twitter feed is full of dozens of scenes that look nearly identical. They all show her as she takes the stage in various Italian cities, to the adoring cheers of supporters holding Brothers of Italy flags.
Meloni's opposition to immigration has animated her and her base
In August, Meloni posted a video on social media saying she would introduce a naval blockade to patrol the Mediterranean, to interdict people whom she called "illegal immigrants" from North Africa.
"What is important in the campaign is not the policy itself. It's the message — 'we will stop them at any cost,'" says historian Lorenzo Castellani, a professor at Rome's LUISS University. "She is proposing herself as a sort of defender of the borders, a very Trumpian approach from this point of view," Castellani says, referring to former President Donald Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.
Even as she spends energy trying to dispense with the fascism label, Meloni also serves up red meat to the party faithful. At a recent event, she was yelling about the years of shame many have felt for holding what she often calls "anti-woke" opinions.
"I have a dream of a nation in which people who have had to put their heads down for so many years ... can now say what they think and not lose their jobs because of it," Meloni said.
A conservative in a moderate's clothing?
Some Italians fear a Meloni-led government would move to outlaw abortion, legal in Italy since 1978. Meloni says she will not.
Meloni has long been a Euroskeptic — and in the past has talked about taking Italy out of the common currency, the euro, and even of leaving the European Union. But she has repeatedly promised she'll work with the EU and can be trusted to manage the 200 billion euros ($194 billion) Italy has received in European pandemic recovery funds.
That assurance was called into question on Thursday, when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned there could be consequences for Italy, the EU's third-largest economy, if it moves in an anti-democratic direction after the election.
Meloni has long insisted that she has no plans to go soft on Russia and has supported Ukraine since war broke out in February. But one of her coalition partners, Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has a long friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and appeared on an Italian talk show Thursday, saying Putin invaded Ukraine to put "decent people" in power in Kyiv.
It's not clear if this could damage Meloni's coalition's prospects at this late hour, but her opponent, former Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the head of Italy's center-left Democratic Party, has repeatedly said on the campaign trail, "If the right wins, the first person to be happy will be Vladimir Putin."
An astute political operative
With Italians facing spiraling energy costs, inflation and a lackluster economy, Meloni, whose party only won 4% of the vote in the last election, has positioned herself as an outsider who will shake things up.
Political writer Federico Fubini, a Meloni critic, says she was astute to sit out of the national unity government that just collapsed. It created a big opening.
"The main reason why she's leading in the polls is because she's perceived as the one that was not in power for the last 10 years," he says.
If Meloni's coalition does win and she is named prime minister, she'll take office almost exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini took power in Rome. She insists his ideology is in the past. Many Italians and Europeans hope she'll stick to her word.