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Over the years, liberal elites throughout Europe have fretted about the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi, the now 85-year-old media tycoon and conservative politician who has led Italy a few times since the 1990s and recently made a bid for the country’s presidency. These observers fear that Berlusconi’s populist appeal, his brashness and pro-corporate policies would be a prelude to a new kind of fascism in the country that birthed that horrible ideology in the 1920s.

Now, a former youth minister in Berlusconi’s cabinet could be realizing those fears. Giorgia Meloni, 45, who runs the far-right Brothers of Italy, a political party with fascist roots, is now the front-runner to become Italy’s next prime minister after parliamentary elections on Sept. 25, reported the New York Times, adding incidentally that Meloni enjoys Aperol Spritzes and thin cigarettes.

The Brothers of Italy stress traditional values; they oppose abortion, for example, want to curb immigration and use the flame symbol of the Italian Social Movement, a political party formed by ex-fascists after World War II, Politico wrote.

Her popularity stems in part from Italian voters’ cynicism about the capacity for older and more established leaders to enact changes in a country where the quality of life is arguably high but productivity is low, and the financial system is still precarious after the worst of the Eurozone crisis a decade ago. “She’s the only one we haven’t tried yet – which means she’s the only one yet to fail,” Italian pensioner Francesco Trevisi told Agence France-Presse.

Openness to fascist policies is rooted in Italian culture, the Guardian noted. The country never fully came to grips with its fascist past under Benito Mussolini. Instead, his political skills have been admired in certain circles. The European migration crisis of the past few years, economic instability and consequent social disruptions have made the fascist message more appealing, too.

Meloni’s ascent is also giving heart to another European boogeyman – Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Washington Post editorial board. Meloni has been outspokenly critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But, like Putin, Meloni emphasizes traditional family values at the expense of openness to LGBTQ rights. She also has vowed to use the Italian navy to prevent migrants from North Africa and beyond from washing up on Italy’s southern shores.

She has a “fraught” relationship with Italy’s other right-wing parties, however, heralding “government volatility” if she wins the largest plurality of seats in parliament rather than a majority, the Financial Times warned. Her plans to split the treasury into two units – with one dedicated to taxes and fiscal reforms, as Reuters explained – is also raising eyebrows in financial quarters, but addresses the people’s urge for change.

So business as usual is still an option.

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