Is Giorgia Meloni's rise to power a sign Italy is returning to fascism?

Brothers of Italy's leader Giorgia Meloni has tried to distance herself from Mussolini's legacy. Credit: AP
  • Words and report by ITV News Reporter Sejal Karia

He may be long dead, but Benito Mussolini and his ideas are once again looming large in modern Italy. A hundred years since the world's first fascist dictator took over the country, Italy has just put a far-right leader back in powerGiorgia Meloni.

Her rise to the top has left many in the country to question whether that means a return to fascism.

I wanted to explore why those parallels are being drawn and if those fears are justified.

I began my journey in Predappio, just South of Bologna, in what seemed like a quiet, ordinary Northern Italian town.

But look beyond the cafes and restaurants and this is an area steeped in fascist history and architecture. Predappio is not only where Mussolini was born it is also home to his tomb.

Predappio, a small town in central Italy, is home to Mussolini's tomb. Credit: ITV News / On Assignment

Just over a mile away, on the main high street, there are extraordinary shops teeming with fascist memorabilia. When I went inside, what I saw was disturbing.

There were swastika and SS badges, t-shirts with similar emblems, and mugs with Hitler's face. There was Il Duce's fascism sitting alongside Hitler's Nazism.

We tried to speak to the owners, but they refused to comment. Recently, thousands took part in an annual march to Mussolini's crypt in his honour in Predappio.

They expressed sympathy for the country's newly elected Prime Minister - Meloni.

People march in the hometown of Mussolini to mark the 100th anniversary of the coup d'etat by which he seized power in 1922, in Predappio. Credit: AP

She had been elected just a month before, on a ticket of anti-immigration and traditional Christian values.

Her party, Brothers of Italy, is the political descendant of the neofascist 'Italian Social Movement', itself formed by members of Mussolini's 'National Fascist Party'. What's more, Meloni's party has fielded candidates from the Mussolini family and its logo is the tri-coloured flame, a fascist symbol which also features on the dictator’s tomb. Meloni has tried hard to distance herself from Mussolini. She's described Italy's wartime anti-Jewish laws as the country's "lowest point" and has pitched her party as a more moderate conservative right-wing force.

Benito Mussolini, pictured centre with his hands on his hips, with members of the Fascist Party, in Rome, in 1922. Credit: AP

But her stance on what she describes as illegal migration, and on social issues such as gay rights and abortion is causing concern. In Rome, I met Rory and her partner Eugenia. The couple had to fight in the courts for the right to both be legal mothers to their young daughter. They see Meloni as a threat to the LGBTQ+ community. Eugenia said: "My biggest fear is this a backwards step for civil rights. Especially in terms of LGBTQ+ rights...women’s rights, minorities in general. Her partner, Rory agreed: "I think we only need to look at the people in her Cabinet, her inner circle. Her advisors, those closest to her. They all have their reputations, shall we say.

"So for sure, she’s trying to distance herself from that...but [fascism] is really a part of these people’s DNA."

ITV News reporter Sejal Karia travelled to Rome, where she spoke with Rory and her partner Eugenia. Credit: ITV News/ On Assignment

Lia Levi, who lived in Italy during Nazi occupation, and escaped the holocaust, told me she is also apprehensive about the country's new political direction: "When I look on those [migrants] left adrift at sea, when I see this attitude, that turns people’s lives...into a political commodity, this attitude causes me great concern."

She added that while Meloni's politics were "retrograde", the government was "still a long way from an actual dictatorship." I wanted to put these concerns to the Brothers of Italy party and Mussolini’s grand-daughter– Rachele –agreed to talk to me.

She is a local politician who has recently been elected for the party. While she is proud of her surname, she told me she is fed up of being asked to look back on the past and she fiercely denies any accusations that Meloni or the party is fascist.

"Absolutely not. I’ll say it again. We are against any form of extremism or that from the right or the left...and including, of course, fascism."

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But what is the difference between the far right and fascism? I went to meet Professor Nicholas Startin, an expert on International Relations at Rome's John Cabot University, to find out.

He told me: “Meloni and her party display all the characteristics of the populist radical right, I think fascism goes down the line of authoritarianism, doesn't respect democracy, really targets, outsider groups in terms of their identity.

"We haven't seen signs that Meloni is not going to respect the democratic system. So I think to call her a fascist is probably unwise at this stage".

Italy has a history of coalitions. It has seen 70 governments since World War Two.

Although Meloni leads with a clear majority, she is still reliant on other right-wing politicians to keep her in charge.

She will be keenly aware that if The Brothers of Italy want to remain in power they must tread carefully as her policies will be closely scrutinised, in the hope that the flame of fascism is never rekindled. We asked Giorgia Meloni and her government to comment on all these issues, but we didn’t receive a response.

Watch Sejal's On Assignment report on ITV tonight (Thursday 1 December) at 23.05, on ITV, and on ITVX