RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Big changes in Italy. Italians have voted in what will be their first-far right government since World War II.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Yeah. Yesterday's vote saw Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy emerge as the single largest party. Her coalition of right-wing parties will be able to form the next government. And Meloni is expected to become Italy's first female prime minister. The move comes as the European Union struggles to remain united as Russia's invasion of Ukraine fuels economic turmoil in the continent.
MARTIN: NPR's Joanna Kakissis is following all of this from Rome, and she joins us now.
Good morning, Joanna.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Is this result a surprise in Italy, or had things been leaning in Meloni's direction for a while?
KAKISSIS: Yeah. Things had been leaning her way for quite a while. For weeks now, in public opinion polls, her party had been leading. Her party, the Brothers of Italy - they ran as part of a coalition that includes the hard-right, anti-immigrant party called the League, which is run by former interior minister Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia, which is run by three-time prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. But make no mistake; Salvini and Berlusconi - these are fading political figures. Meloni is the big winner now and the new star of Italian politics.
MARTIN: So before we talk about the consequences of that and this far-right party coming into power, just tell us about the woman at the center of this. Who is she?
KAKISSIS: Yeah. Meloni is young. She's 45 years old. And she grew up in this working-class neighborhood in Rome that's actually known for left-wing politics. Yet when Meloni was a teenager, she joined the local youth chapter of a movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini after World War II. And she stuck by this ideology for years. But she also had big ambitions. When she took over the brothers of Italy in 2018, it was a minor party. Now it's number one. And she made this happen in part by rehabilitating her own image, transforming from this young firebrand with a scary past into this reasonable everywoman fighting to save Italy's identity.
MARTIN: So she made a...
MARTIN: ...Transformation of herself, her political identity, but also her party's, clearly, in some way. Explain how she managed all this.
KAKISSIS: Yeah. So I spoke to this Italian political scientist, Domenico Fracchiolla. He says Meloni is a gifted politician who can read the room and learn from her mistakes. And that's how she campaigned.
DOMENICO FRACCHIOLLA: She was selling herself as a moderate, a defender of the family values, as ardent supporter of Ukraine and also of NATO, and as she likes to say, as a woman, mother and Christian.
KAKISSIS: And we stopped by her old neighborhood, Garbatella, this leftist neighborhood. And I even met voters who just shrugged off Meloni's past.
Here's advertising manager Tiziana Pipistrello.
TIZIANA PIPISTRELLO: (Speaking Italian).
KAKISSIS: She's saying, "Enough with this fascism business already. That's all in the past." You know - but many others, you know - they told me that, you know, they worry Meloni will roll back abortion rights or crack down on immigrants and the LGBT community.
MARTIN: So Italian politics, Joanna, as you know, are such that prime ministers don't necessarily like this that long. Governments can crumble...
KAKISSIS: That's right.
MARTIN: ...Really fast. How is she going to prevent that?
KAKISSIS: So, yeah. So she is going to prevent that by trying to unite the country. And she says that her aim is to bring together Italians. And she alluded to that in her victory speech last night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GIORGIA MELONI: (Speaking Italian).
KAKISSIS: And she's got a lot of uniting to do because only 64% of Italians voted on Sunday. And that's the lowest turnout for a general election in nearly 50 years.
MARTIN: NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Rome.
KAKISSIS: You're welcome.
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