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Italy appears likely to elect its most right wing leader since World War II

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Italians vote on Sunday. It seems likely they'll elect the country's most right-wing government since World War II. If Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy Party comes out on top, she could also make history by becoming the country's first woman prime minister. Adam Rainey reports from Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIORGIA MELONI: (Speaking Italian).

(APPLAUSE)

ADAM RAINEY, BYLINE: Giorgia Meloni's Twitter feed is full of scenes like this, taking the stage in Italian cities across the country. They all look similar - dozens, sometimes hundreds of people waving flags for her Brothers of Italy party as she sprints to the stage. Milan, Palermo, Genoa - the feed is like a map of Italy meant to show her national, not just nationalist appeal. Although her party has roots in Italy's postwar neo-fascist movement, Meloni, who is 45, is making great pains to distance herself from fascism.

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MELONI: (Speaking Italian).

RAINEY: Speaking on one of Italy's main evening newscasts, Meloni sarcastically jokes that her opponent on the left don't seem to realize that fascism ended 30 years before she was born. Just this week, though, her party suspended a member after an Italian newspaper revealed he had made statements supporting Adolf Hitler on social media eight years ago. The fascism label may trouble Meloni. Hard-right positions clearly don't. Here she is in August.

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MELONI: (Speaking Italian).

RAINEY: She's saying her party supports a naval blockade to stop illegal immigration from North Africa. And here she is, fired up on stage.

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MELONI: (Speaking Italian).

RAINEY: She says she has a dream that Italians won't have to lower their heads in shame or worry they'll lose their jobs for their political beliefs, a clear message to people who support her party's pro-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-woke positions, as she has called them. Some Italians fear a Meloni government would move to outlaw abortion, legal in Italy since 1978. But she has gone on the record saying she has no plans to do so. She also says she has no plans to go soft on Russia. Meloni has long been a Eurosceptic but has repeatedly promised she'll work with the EU and can be trusted as a steady hand to manage 200 billion euros in European pandemic recovery funds. It's Meloni's opposition to immigration that has animated her and her base.

LORENZO CASTELLANI: She is proposing herself as a sort of defender of the borders - so a very Trumpian approach.

RAINEY: That's Lorenzo Castellani, a historian at Rome's LUISS University.

CASTELLANI: The real majority of people who are concerned about illegal immigration are scared, and they are using this fear very well to convince people to support their political agenda.

RAINEY: Political writer Federico Fubini is a Meloni critic but says she is politically astute for having refused to take part in the national unity government that just collapsed.

FEDERICO FUBINI: 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.

RAINEY: Meloni's party won't win anything near a majority of seats in parliament alone. But her coalition with two other right-wing parties, including Forza Italia, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi...

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Speaking Italian).

RAINEY: ...Heard here trying to reach out to young voters on TikTok, is expected to win a clear majority. If Meloni's coalition wins and she is named prime minister, she'll take office almost exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini took the reins of power in Rome. She says his ideology is in the past. Many Italians and Europeans hope she'll stick to her word. For NPR News, I'm Adam Rainey in Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULATU ASTATKE'S "KASALEFKUT-HULU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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