Meloni: Italy's far-right 'Christian mother' on brink of power
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Often intense and combative as she rails against the European Union, mass immigration and "LGBT lobbies", the 45-year-old has swept up disaffected voters and built a powerful personal brand.
She remains deeply divisive, not least over her Catholic family values that many fear will see a step backward on rights such as abortion.
Meloni vowed Monday to unite the country, saying she would govern for "all Italians".
"It is a time of responsibility," she said, adding that "Italy has chosen us, and we will not betray her."
- Ready to govern -
She has long been involved in politics -- becoming the youngest minister in post-war Italian history at 31 -- and co-founded Brothers of Italy in 2012.
In the 2018 general elections, her party secured just four percent of the vote, but looked set to secure 26 percent in Sunday's general elections.
That put Meloni ahead of not just her rivals but also her coalition allies, Matteo Salvini's anti-immigration League and Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, in whose government she served in 2008.
Meloni has benefited from being the only party in opposition for the past 18 months, after choosing to stay out of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi's national unity government.
At the same time she has sought to reassure those who question her lack of experience, with her slogan "Ready" adorning billboards up and down the country.
Wary of Italy's huge debt, she has emphasised fiscal prudence, despite her coalition's call for tax cuts and higher social spending.
Her stance on Europe has moderated over the years -- she no longer wants Italy to leave the EU's single currency, and has strongly backed the bloc's sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine war.
However, she says Rome must stand up more for its national interests and has backed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in his battles with Brussels.
- Neo-fascist past -
Meloni was a teenage activist with the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.
At 19, campaigning for the far-right National Alliance, she told French television that "Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy".
After being elected an MP for National Alliance in 2006, she shifted her tone, saying the dictator had made "mistakes", notably the racial laws, his authoritarianism and entering World War II on the side of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.
Her party takes its name from the first line of Italy's national anthem and its logo includes the same flame used by MSI, in the green, white and red of the country's flag.
She has refused calls to change the logo, insisting the flame has "nothing to do with fascism" -- and blaming talk to the contrary on "the left".
She insists that within her party "there is no room for nostalgic attitudes".
On abortion, she says she has no plans to change the law, which allows terminations but permits doctors to refuse to carry them out.
However, she says she wants to "give to women who think abortion is their only choice the right to make a different choice".
Meloni has a daughter, born in 2016, with her TV journalist partner, and is a huge fan of "Lord of the Rings".