Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right Brothers of Italy triumphed in Sunday's general election, succeeded in channelling both the aspirations of conservative voters and resentment of Mario Draghi's unelected government, without fully renouncing her party's neo-fascist roots.
As he paused to chat with supporters after casting his ballot on Sunday, Italy's four-time premier Silvio Berlusconi engaged in his customary bravado, describing himself as the only Italian political leader who ever worked for a living.
When asked whether he felt Meloni's astonishing rise was cause for concern, he answered, his face dead serious: "Yes, she is a little scary".
Berlusconi's take on his awkward coalition partner reflects the many paradoxes of an election Italy almost stumbled upon by accident, following the premature fall of its most respected prime minister in decades, Mario Draghi.
The results of Sunday's vote are set to usher in a momentous change for Italy, bringing to power its first woman prime minister, while also handing control to the most backward-looking coalition since World War II - a baroque alliance of populists, Eurosceptics and far-right nationalists imbued with a revanchist ideology.
Meloni's Brothers of Italy has emerged as the centrepiece of this alliance, taking a quarter of the vote and easily surpassing the combined tally of its two allies, Matteo Salvini's anti-immigrant Lega and Berlusconi's Forza Italia, both stuck at under 9 percent.
Between them, the three parties are on course to command a majority in both chambers of parliament, thanks to an electoral law that all parties agreed was a "sham" and yet proved unable to change.
"Italians chose us," a triumphant Meloni told supporters after the vote, glossing over the fact that her winning coalition fell significantly short of the 50-percent mark, amid record-high abstention. Berlusconi, meanwhile, vowed to serve as the coalition's "playmaker", returning to the Italian Senate a decade after he was kicked out of parliament and banned from public office for tax fraud.
A vacuum on the right
The decline of the octogenarian former premier - who upended Italian politics three decades ago, ushering in the age of populism - is at the source of Meloni's surge to the cusp of power.
Berlusconi's absolutist rule over his party never allowed for a successor to emerge, not even when he carried out his community service sentence at a hospice for the elderly. His steady demise left a vacuum on the right, one Meloni has successfully stepped into.
"Berlusconi's decline has opened up a huge space among centre-right voters, who traditionally account for a decisive swathe of the electorate," said Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena. "Salvini occupied part of that space for a while, now it's Meloni's turn."
The far-right leader has benefited from the weakness and blunders of her allies on the right, stealing support from the once-popular Salvini, whose standing has plummeted ever since a botched power grab in 2019.
Remarkably, she has done so without a flagship policy of her own, adopting the Lega leader's anti-immigrant rhetoric and Berlusconi's tax-cutting mantra, while pledging fiscal discipline in a nod to business leaders alarmed by Draghi's ouster. With Italy's households and businesses struggling with staggeringly high energy bills as winter approaches, she has notably opposed Salvini's push to swell Italy's already huge debt load to pay for energy relief.
"She has come across as a savvier and more credible politician than Salvini, offering responsible opposition and maintaining cordial relations with Draghi," said Cotta.
"Meloni has effectively cannibalised her allies on the right," added Massimo Giannini, chief editor of La Stampa, noting that the far-right leader succeeded in channelling both the hopes of right-wing voters and the resentment of those hostile to the outgoing government.
In a country accustomed to punishing the incumbents, Meloni enjoyed a decisive advantage over all other parties. Her decision to shun Draghi's national unity coalition effectively made her the only opposition force, and thus a natural recipient of Italy's protest vote.
This allowed her to "capitalise on the resentment of a segment of the population towards Draghi's government - a capable, efficient administration that also came across as severe and technocratic," Cotta explained.
After a decade of turmoil, Meloni's pledge to return power to the Italian people chimed with voters weary of coalition reshuffles and crisis cabinets led by unelected technocrats. At campaign rallies up and down the country, voters who once backed Berlusconi and Salvini highlighted her "coherence" and "steadfastness" in refusing to enter "unnatural alliances" with the left.
Meloni will now have to prove she can compromise with her troublesome partners on the right - but she will do so from a position of great strength, said Cotta.
"The new balance of power is strikingly clear," he explained. "Meloni's once dominant partners may be licking their wounds after becoming junior partners, but they have nowhere else to go. Their only path to government is behind Meloni."
Italy's fading anti-fascist culture
Meloni's only cabinet experience so far dates back to 14 years ago, when Berlusconi plucked her out of anonymity and handed her the youth portfolio in the last of his four governments.
A far-right activist from the age of 15, Meloni founded her own party in 2012 with other former members of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a neo-fascist outfit set up after the war by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. She named her party after the opening lines of Italy's national anthem, Fratelli d'Italia.
Since then, she has gradually succeeded in pushing Brothers of Italy into the mainstream, without ever fully repudiating its post-fascist roots. She has notably rejected calls to remove from her party's logo a tricolour flame that was an icon of the MSI.
Meloni, who was raised by a single mother in a working-class district of Rome, has cultivated a straight-talking, tough persona. She describes herself as conservative, even as much of the foreign press calls her far right. She champions patriotism and traditional family values, while excoriating political correctness and global elites. In a fiery speech in support of Spain's far-right Vox party in June, she railed against "Islamic violence", "gender ideology" and the "LGBT lobby".
The 45-year-old far-right leader notably softened her tone during the election campaign, undercutting her opponents' attempts to portray her as a threat to democracy, the rule of law and Italy's standing in Europe.
In late August, she recorded a video message in three languages to reassure Italy's partners that she would stick to Rome's traditional alliances, including NATO. She also dismissed as "nonsense" claims she would head an authoritarian government like her Hungarian ally Viktor Orban.
"The Italian right has handed fascism over to history for decades now, unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws," she said in the message sent to foreign media in English, French and Spanish.
At campaign rallies, however, she has also cultivated the ambiguity that still defines her revanchist party, vowing to vindicate those "who have had to lower their heads for many years, pretending that they had different ideas so as not to be ostracised".
As Meloni soared in the polls, her opponents on the left proved incapable of uniting even when faced with the prospect of the most right-wing government since Mussolini. Unlike in France, where voters have repeatedly banded together to keep the far right out of power, no such front materialised in Italy - in part because few Italians even label Meloni as "far right".
In that respect, Sunday's election marked the fading of the "founding culture of antifascism" that has underpinned the Italian Republic since the postwar years, La Repubblica's former chief editor Ezio Mauro wrote on Monday.
"With this vote, an indifferent country appears to have amnestied the legacy of fascism," Mauro said, pointing to the "repository of memories and symbols" that Brothers of Italy has "kept alive like a sentimental landscape of reference".