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Italy braces for far-right victory in elections

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now to Italy, where voting is set for tomorrow in one of the most consequential elections for the country in decades. Public opinion polls show that a far-right party, the Brothers of Italy, is expected to win the most votes. Its leader, a young firebrand named Giorgia Meloni, seems poised to be Italy's first female prime minister and the first to come from the far right since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Rome following developments, and she's with us now. Joanna, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So Giorgia Meloni - tell us a little bit about her and her background.

KAKISSIS: Right. So Giorgia Meloni is 45. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Rome that is staunchly leftist. But instead, she joined the youth chapter of the Italian Social Movement, which was created by the supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the aftermath of World War II. This youth group was heavily influenced by fantasy novels like J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord Of The Rings," and Guido Calderon (ph), a journalist who covers the far-right in Italy, he told us why.

GUIDO CALDERON: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: So he's saying that reading Tolkien gave these young people new ways to talk about their ideology, where they were not the bad guys, where they lived in a community whose traditions they were protecting.

MARTIN: That's really interesting. So the views of the young Meloni, does she still hold them?

KAKISSIS: Now, Meloni was much more explicit about her hardline views in her youth. But, you know, as she has grown, she's tried to maybe mute them a bit. At the start of this campaign, for example, she took pains to reassure Italians and the world of her party's pro-European and pro-Atlantic stance. But in some closing rallies in the last few days, her tone and content has been much more stridently nationalistic. And I should note here that her party, the Brothers of Italy, is not set to govern alone. They're expected to form a coalition with at least two right-wing parties, and one of them is led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

MARTIN: How are people reacting to all this and her views in particular to the election and sort of more broadly? What are people saying?

KAKISSIS: So yeah - so we wanted to find out. So we checked out the public mood at the Trionfale market in an upscale neighborhood in Rome. All the shoppers, they seemed unhappy at the prospect of a right-wing coalition in power. Middle-class professionals like Simona Romeo (ph), who works in the movie industry, was one of them. She called Meloni divisive and exclusionary.

SIMONA ROMEO: She is a new evolution of fascism. I mean, Giorgia Meloni and her entourage is going to be like in United States, like in your country, when, you know, Trump - and people is angry. That's the mood.

KAKISSIS: But the Romans running the stalls at the market called Meloni a hero. And Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who leads another party in her coalition, they call those two the two angels at her side. And those are the words of Manuela Ciarrone (ph), who sells gourmet mushrooms.

MANUELA CIARRONE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: So Ciarrone is saying Meloni will be focused on caring for Italians, not migrants, and that she will fight for the working class by pushing to provide better health care and lower electricity prices.

MARTIN: So let's go back to something you mentioned earlier, her relationship to Europe. Is that a factor in the campaign? I mean, she does blame the EU for watering down the national identities of member nations like Italy. How is that whole issue playing out?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, we heard a lot of concern about that in the market from the shoppers, of course. One person I spoke with said Italy really needs Brussels with all the debt the country has. And Guido Calderon, the fascism expert, he told us that Italians are also concerned that Meloni could take Italy down the path of illiberal democracy like Viktor Orban's Hungary. He says that may not be the fascism of Mussolini, but it is a very real threat that may soon present itself in Italy.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Rome. Joanna, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.