From teenage activist who praised Mussolini to favourite to become Italy’s first woman prime minister, Giorgia Meloni has had quite a journey, leading her far-right party to the brink of power.
Opinion polls put Italy’s right-wing coalition on course for victory in Sunday’s elections, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy on top.
Often intense and combative as she rails against the European Union, mass immigration and “LGBT lobbies”, the 45-year-old has swept up disaffected voters and built a powerful personal brand.
“I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian,” she declared at a 2019 rally in Rome, which went viral after it was remixed into a dance music track.
Brothers of Italy grew out of the country’s post-fascist movement, but Meloni has sought to distance herself from the past, while refusing to renounce it entirely.
She advocates traditional Catholic family values but says she will maintain Italy’s abortion law, which allows terminations but permits doctors to refuse to carry them out.
However, she says she wants to “give to women who think abortion is their only choice the right to make a different choice”.
– Ready to govern –
Born in Rome on January 15, 1977, Meloni was brought up in the working-class neighbourhood of Garbatella by her mother, after her father left them.
She has long been involved in politics, at 31 was the youngest minister in post-war Italian history, and co-founded Brothers of Italy in 2012.
In 2018 general elections, her party secured just four percent of the vote, but is now polling at more than 24 percent.
Such a result on Sunday would put Meloni ahead of not just her rivals but also her coalition allies, Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League and Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi, in whose government she served in 2008.
Meloni has benefited from being the only party in opposition for the past 18 months, after choosing to stay out of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s national unity government.
At the same time she has sought to reassure those who question her lack of experience, her slogan “Ready” adorning billboards up and down the country.
Wary of Italy’s huge debt, she has emphasised fiscal prudence, despite her coalition’s call for tax cuts and higher social spending.
Her stance on Europe has moderated over the years — she no longer wants Italy to leave the EU’s single currency, and has strongly backed the bloc’s sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war.
However, she says Rome must stand up more for its national interests and has backed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in his battles with Brussels.
– Neo-fascist past –
Meloni was a teenage activist with the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.
At 19, campaigning for the far-right National Alliance, she told French television that “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he…