Giorgia Meloni, the 45-year-old head of the far-right populist "Brothers of Italy" party, is poised to become Italy's first female prime minister – with polling suggesting the rightest bloc she leads gaining 44% to 47% of the vote and majorities in both houses in parliament – potentially leading the most right-wing government since Prime Minister Benito Mussolini's National Fascist Party lead Italy before and during World War II.
Despite being known for her tough-talking, Meloni's recent evolution as the front-runner after the Sept. 25 elections leaves unanswered questions about her future as a leader.
Meloni, who started her political career when she was only 15 in Rome's working-class Garbatella neighborhood, helped found the neo-fascism-rooted Brothers of Italy party in 2012, four years after becoming the country's youngest minister under Silvio Berlusconi.
She studied languages in high school but never went to university, instead working temporary jobs as a babysitter, flea market stallholder and as bartender in a disco. By 29 she was a deputy and aged 31 she became the youngest minister in post-war Italy, running the youth portfolio in 2008 in Berlusconi's government.
Her party has been cannibalizing electoral support from its traditional allies – Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini's League – surging from 4% in 2018 to around 25% in the last available surveys ahead of Sunday's election.
In her years at the helm of Brothers of Italy, Melon has managed to transform an originally neo-fascist party, born from the ashes of the late Mussolini era, into a populist and nationalist political force able to attract voters from the rightist and moderate electorate.
"I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am a Christian," is one of Meloni's most popular rallying quotes, which became viral on social media and has even been turned into a rap song.
As a youth, she praised Mussolini but has now repudiated these views and the anti-Semitic laws enacted in his era. However, she has a policy of Islamophobia, saying in a speech: "No to the violence of Islam, yes to safer borders. No to mass immigration, yes to work for our people."
Furthermore, the Brothers of Italy continues to use the flame logo associated with fascists – meaning fascism burns on – and the party includes Mussolini sympathizers who are sometimes caught giving the stiff-arm salute, while some local officials have Mussolini memorabilia in their offices.
"While her government will not have fascist overtones, it is questionable whether Meloni will stick to the compromising line that she has carefully steered during the election campaign," said Wolfango Piccoli, head of London-based research firm Teneo.
Meloni, who originally was very critical of the European Union's fiscal policies, is not expected to pick a fight with Brussels in the short term, said Piccoli, but it remains to be seen if her past Eurosceptic stance could make a comeback.
Analysts stressed that during the electoral campaign, Meloni has been talking to two different audiences. On one side, international allies, which she tried to reassure her support for defending Ukraine and her sound pro-NATO approach. On the other side, the internal public and her traditional electorate, for which she insisted on anti-migrant and anti-LGBT policies.
Many observers believe Meloni will face the classic decline in popularity that former opposition leaders always suffered once in government.
Moreover, she would inherit a very challenging agenda, including possible energy shortages, record inflation and a looming recession. On top of that, she will have to manage her litigious allies – Berlusconi and Salvini, who feel weakened by Meloni's popularity.
"Meloni as a premier is still a mystery," Massimiliano Panarari, a political analyst at Rome's Mercatorum University, told Anadolu Agency (AA). "Whether she will end up being the leader of a governing party or a revolutionary political force is very difficult to predict," he added.
Meloni's political ideology strongly embraces identity politics and focuses on naval blockade against asylum-seekers, national interests and the traditional family structure, despite being unmarried and having a child from a TV journalist.
She has always been staunchly anti-drugs and anti-abortion, although she insists she would not ban abortion.
Her international approach is less defined and follows 19 months of stable and internationally credible leadership under former European Central Bank (ECB) head Mario Draghi.
"It will be determinant to see how much international allies will be worried by the new Italian government and how markets will react," said Franco Pavoncello, a professor of political science and head of Rome-based John Cabot University.
Meloni will have to take solid stances on EU policies to counter the Russian war in Ukraine, current and future European economic policies and the resilience of Italian democracy.
"Who's the real Giorgia Meloni? She's all we have seen," said Emiliana De Blasio, a professor of sociology of communications at Luiss University in Rome.
"She had no difficulties in changing her tones toward Europe and this probably won't be a problem if she becomes premier, while the difficulty to take roots in local territories may hit her more," De Blasio added.
The rightist bloc led by Meloni's party is likely to secure a comfortable majority in the Lower House and the Senate in Sunday's vote.
Polling data suggests that the Brothers of Italy and its allies should secure between 44% and 47% of the vote, providing a solid lead over the center-left alliance.
But a landslide victory that would provide the rightist bloc with a two-thirds majority in parliament, which is needed to change the constitution without consulting voters via referendum, looks very unlikely, said analysts.
As the share of undecided voters remains significant at around 25%, there is still a possibility that the right-wing alliance may secure a slimmer majority than earlier suggested.
Meloni's staunchest supporters, who gathered in Rome's central Piazza del Popolo on the closing day of the election campaign Thursday, believe that "Giorgia" will be strong enough to govern while resisting compromises.
"Coherence is her better quality," said Filippo Mosticone, a 21-year-old supporter of the Brothers of Italy and one of Meloni's fans. "I believe our time has finally come," he said ominously.