Giorgia Meloni currently enjoys the highest personal ratings of any Italian party leader / © ANSA/AFP
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, has sought to detoxify the country's post-fascist movement and in doing so has brought it to within touching distance of power.
With her party topping opinion polls and Meloni herself enjoying the highest ratings of any party chief, she has put herself forward as prime minister if Brothers of Italy finishes first in September 25 elections.
Small in stature with poker-straight blonde hair, a deep voice and forceful delivery, the 45-year-old has wooed Italians with her motto of "God, country and family".
In 2018 elections, her party won just over four percent of the vote, but is now polling around 23 percent and leading her right-wing alliance comprising Matteo Salvini's League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
She has brought together many voters dissatisfied with the status quo, the "diktats" from the European Union, the high cost of living and the limited opportunities available for Italy's young people.
Meloni has pledged to cut taxes and bureaucracy, raise defence spending, close Italy's borders to protect the country from "Islamisation", renegotiate European treaties to return more power to Rome and fight "LGBT lobbies".
She also wants to reverse the decline in Italy's population by encouraging birthrates -- but not by allowing immigrants to naturalise, having warned in 2016 of an "ethnic replacement" underway in Italy.
"In general terms, Meloni represents a point of reference for protest, disaffection," said Sofia Ventura, professor of political science at the University of Bologna.
And with Italy's other main anti-establishment parties, the Five Star Movement and the League, having joined Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government last year, she is the only one entering elections with a clean slate.
- Fascism in history -
Meloni's party, which takes its name from the first line of the national anthem, is a political descendant of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.
Opinion polls put Italy's right-wing parties on course to take power in September elections / © ANSA/AFP
They share the same symbol of a flame in the national colours of green, white and red -- an image also used by the former National Front in France.
But Meloni has sought to reassure the moderate voices in her movement, knowing she needs to widen her base to win power.
"The Italian right has handed fascism over to history for decades now," she said in a video message this week aimed at her international critics.
Mussolini made "several mistakes", notably the racial laws and his entry into World War II, she said in 2016, adding: "Historically he also produced a lot, but that does not save him."
Within Brothers of Italy, she clarified last year, "there is no room for nostalgic attitudes of fascism, for hypotheses of racism and anti-Semitism".
- Christian, Italian mother -
Born in Rome on January 15, 1977, Meloni grew up in the working-class neighbourhood of Garbatella and was steeped in politics from early on.
As a teenager, she joined the youth wing of the MSI, Fronte della Gioventu, and went on to be national head of Student Action, part of the far-right Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), which replaced the MSI.
In 2006, she was elected to the lower parliamentary house, the Chamber of Deputies, and became vice-president.
Two years later Meloni was named minister for youth in Berlusconi's government, at 31 the youngest minister in post-war Italy.
She founded Brothers of Italy in 2012 and her youth and confidence -- and the fact that she was a woman -- made her stand out.
As she grew older, and had a daughter in 2006 with her TV journalist partner, Meloni tapped her personal life to sell her national brand.
"I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian," she declared at a 2019 rally in Rome, which went viral after it was remixed into a dance music track.
Hers was the only main party to refuse to join Draghi's national unity government in February 2021, an opposition stance that has helped shoot her poll ratings skyward.
Meloni opposed Draghi's tough coronavirus measures, notably the so-called Green Pass requiring workers to be vaccinated.
Unlike Salvini and Berlusconi, who have long had ties with Moscow, she backed Draghi's strong support for Ukraine following Russia's invasion.
But she is sharply critical of the European Union, and is president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Party, which includes Spain's Vox and Poland's Law and Justice parties.