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Italy's voters could pivot the country to the far right at a critical time for Europe

A Carolina dog waits for his owner to vote at a polling station in Rome on Sunday.
Updated September 25, 2022 at 3:07 PM ET

ROME — Italians are voting Sunday in an election that could bring to power the first far-right government since World War II, as the European Union struggles to remain united as Russia's invasion of Ukraine fuels economic turmoil.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time and are set to close at 11 p.m. Results are expected early Monday. The Italian daily La Repubblica reports that voter turnout is lower than in the last election in 2018, which could help the party leading public opinion surveys, Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy). The party has its origins in the Italian Social Movement, which was created by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the aftermath of World War II.

Its leader, 45-year-old Giorgia Meloni, could become Italy's first female prime minister. She already has plans to form a coalition with two smaller right-wing parties: the hard-right, anti-immigrant Lega (League), led by former interior minister Matteo Salvini, and the center-right Forza Italia, led by three-time former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Meloni has cultivated an image of a strong everywoman who criticizes "Brussels bureaucrats" and identifies with the needs of ordinary people. But as a teenager, Meloni joined the youth chapter of the Italian Social Movement, which used fantasy novels like J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord Of The Rings" to recast fascist ideas, says Guido Caldiron, an Italian journalist who covers fascism and the far right.

"Tolkien gave them new ways to talk about their ideology where they were not the bad guys but communitarians protecting their kingdoms and traditions," he says.

Most voters where she grew up reject her politics

Meloni grew up in the working-class Garbatella neighborhood in Rome, where most voters support leftist parties.

"She's definitely not part of the spirit of this neighborhood," says Michela Mancurti, a retired United Nations officer who was among a crowd of voters outside a polling station on Sunday. "Many of us are here voting to try to prevent her from winning."

But NPR did speak to a few Meloni fans, including Tiziana Pipistrello, who works in advertising. Pipistrello rolls her eyes when others in the neighborhood call Meloni a fascist.

"Enough, enough with that fascism business," she says. "That all happened a long time ago."

Parties with fascist roots are being normalized in Italy

Caldiron, the fascism expert, says politicians who belong to parties with fascist roots have been normalized in Italian politics since Berlusconi, the former prime minister, brought them into his governments.

"Meloni didn't have to do much work to convince some Italians that she won't bring back fascism in Italy," Caldiron says.

But there is concern that she could take Italy down the path of illiberal democracies like Hungary, where longtime prime minister Viktor Orban has hollowed out democratic institutions like free courts, independent media and civil rights.

"It's not fascism but it's still a threat," Caldiron says.

Meloni's alliance with Orban has rattled EU leaders but she has stuck by the EU line on the most pressing issue: Russia's war on Ukraine. Her party has staunchly supported Ukraine's sovereignty and has approved sending weapons to Ukrainian forces. Her coalition partners, Salvini and Berlusconi, are both admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin but have tried to distance themselves from Putin during the campaign.

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