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Italy poised for glass ceiling-shattering vote, hard right turn

Sept. 25, 2022 Updated Sun., Sept. 25, 2022 at 9:12 p.m.

Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni gestures as she delivers a speech on stage Thursday during a joint rally of Italy’s right-wing parties Brothers of Italy, the League and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, ahead of Sunday’s general election.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni gestures as she delivers a speech on stage Thursday during a joint rally of Italy’s right-wing parties Brothers of Italy, the League and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, ahead of Sunday’s general election. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli Washington Post

ROME - Italian voters appeared to shatter several precedents Sunday, backing parties that are now set to form the country’s farthest-right government since the fall of Mussolini, led by its first female prime minister.

Projections based on a partial count of votes showed a clear victory for a coalition that includes two far-right forces, including the Fratelli d’Italia party of Giorgia Meloni, a once-marginal figure who vows to defend “traditional” social values, close off pathways to undocumented immigrants and push back against the “obscure bureaucrats” of Brussels.

The projections jibed with exit polls and predictions throughout the month, which suggested that the right would sail to victory - mainly because its parties are unified as a coalition while the left is not.

Meloni’s opponents warn that her rise could turn into an epochal event in European politics, pushing Italy into an illiberal bloc with Poland and Hungary, and causing tensions that cut through the heart of the continent.

Speaking after the vote, in the early hours of Monday morning, Meloni struck an apparently conciliatory tone.

“If we are called upon to govern this nation, we will do so for all Italians, with the aim of uniting the people, of exalting what unites them rather than what divides them,” Meloni told reporters, pledging not to betray their trust.

It’s easier to gain power in Italy than to stay on long enough to change it, and Meloni has said she isn’t looking to create upheaval. The typical government lasts no more than 400 days. Political zigzags are the norm. Meloni would face immediate tests at home and in Europe, given fatigue over soaring energy prices and divisions within her own coalition on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.

The vote Sunday only fills the seats of Parliament; the prime minister will be chosen later, indirectly. But because Fratelli d’Italia appears to have emerged with the most votes of any party in the fragmented system, it gives Meloni – a 45-year-old Roman who quotes pop songs and delights in bashing the “woke” left – the best shot at receiving the mandate from Italy’s president to form a government. That process figures to take at least a month.

“Fratelli d’Italia is now the dominant party of the coalition,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Bologna.

If Meloni indeed becomes prime minister, she’ll gain a level of power that has, so far, been out of reach for comparable figures in Europe’s major economic powers like France and Germany. Her ascent comes just after Swedish voters delivered a narrow majority to a group of right-wing parties, including one with a neo-fascist past. In her decade as leader of Fratelli d’Italia – Brothers of Italy – Meloni has espoused some extreme positions. She has advocated for the dissolution of the euro zone. She has warned, conspiratorially, that unnamed forces are guiding immigrants en masse to Italy in the name of “ethnic substitution.”

But she has clearly tacked toward the center on some issues as her party has widened its support. She says Italy belongs in Europe but will fight for its interests. She promises to maintain Italy’s Atlantic alliances and says the country won’t take an authoritarian turn. In an interview with the Washington Post this month, she also pledged financial stability and said “people abroad” would see her government’s seriousness “once we’ll present our first budget law.”

Her party’s rise is the culmination of a decadeslong process of image rehabilitation – and moderation – of a political wing started by Mussolini loyalists soon after World War II.

Fratelli d’Italia is a descendant of an earlier, more extreme post-fascist party. Meloni has said that the Italian right long ago handed fascism “to history,” but her opponents say that her party still includes some fascist sympathizers.

Italy’s right-wing parties, in banding together, gave themselves an overwhelming electoral advantage over the fragmented left, which failed, amid infighting, to create a comparable coalition. Amid early vote-counting, the right-wing coalition had around 43 percent of the overall vote, with Fratelli d’Italia receiving support from around one-quarter of all voters. Given Italy’s complex system for filling seats - a mix of proportional and first-past-the-post calculations - that would be enough to give the right a solid majority in both houses of Parliament.

To the extent there were any surprises, it came from the vaguely anti-establishment Five Star Movement, whose support rate climbed into the midteens as it defended its signature welfare program - which Meloni wants to cut.

On the campaign trail, the leader of Italy’s left-center party, Enrico Letta, argued that if Italians handed power to the right, they would be doing a favor for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has tried increasingly to sow strife in Europe - primarily by withholding energy exports - as his invasion of Ukraine has faltered.

Though Meloni has consistently backed Ukraine, other figures in her coalition have shown affection for Putin. Matteo Salvini has worn a shirt with Putin’s face on it and in 2017 signed a cooperation deal with the ruling United Russia party; he recently questioned the effectiveness of sanctions. Silvio Berlusconi once gifted Putin a duvet cover of the two men shaking hands, and days ago he suggested, falsely, that Putin was merely responding to the popular will of his people when he invaded, and intended to replace the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky with “decent people.”

But there was further potential blessing for Meloni in the vote outcome Sunday: Salvini’s League fared so poorly that analysts quickly speculated that the party might replace him as leader. That would reduce the odds for strife in Meloni’s coalition.

There are reasons, beyond Russia, that Europe is on edge about the prospect of a right-governed Italy.

Within Meloni’s party there’s a deeply held sentiment that European integration should be limited, and that nations should be able to define themselves rather than taking directives from Brussels. That could in theory spark Italy to play a more obstructionist role on key issues such as migration or foreign affairs.

Any differences would be jarring because, for the last year-and-a-half, Italy has been led by Mario Draghi, a former central banker who helped save the euro zone from crisis a decade ago and has a sterling reputation in Brussels.

“It will be the first time that one of the big E.U. countries is under the mold of somebody who is not pro-Europe,” Letta told The Post.

On Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Europe has the “tools” to contend with Italy if things go in a “difficult manner,” in an apparent reference to the proposed fund cuts aimed at Hungary over corruption.

Meloni would face natural constraints in Europe, given that many of the wealthy right-wing business interests in Italy prefer a stable relationship with Brussels. Mountainous national debt means any government, with missteps that scare investors, could edge toward a financial crisis. That would make for high incentive for Meloni tread cautiously.

But she and her allies would have leeway on the issue of immigration. When Italy was led in 2018 and 2019 by a populist coalition that included Salvini’s League, the country routinely denied landing permission to boats that rescued undocumented immigrants from sinking dinghies in the Mediterranean.

For voters, though, immigration has receded as a hot-button topic, given the general decline in attempted crossings since a record wave seven years ago. Some of that decline is owed to controversial work, carried out by Italian governments on the left and right, to equip Libya’s coast guard with the resources to halt would-be immigrants before they get very far toward Europe.

Based on data Sunday evening, voter turnout sank from the level of previous national elections in 2018, a reflection of skepticism in a country that has had 11 governments in 20 years, and where household wealth has scarcely improved in a generation. The rapid turnover of governments - generally before leaders have time to follow through on promises - has amplified a sense of alienation. Twice in the last three years Italy staved off snap elections with backroom deals to form new coalitions, as parties shape-shifted, joined hands and then bickered with each other.

The last such deal brought about Draghi in a broad-based government that included every party but Fratelli d’Italia. While Draghi was personally popular, his coalition was undone when several parties withdrew their support.

To visit polling stations across Rome on Sunday was to be reminded why Italy is so hard for anybody to lead. Italian voters, rather than cleaved neatly between left and right, are instead cut into countless little slices - each with their own narratives about the ills of the country. Ballots on Sunday had more than a dozen party logos on them, and even so, many voters said they weren’t particularly enthused about any of the options. Some turning out for Meloni said her party seemed the most clear-eyed - but even they had jumped to her party only recently and weren’t sure she could retain her coherence in a coalition. Many others said they worried about how she might guide the country.

“I don’t think we’re going back to 1920, but that is the underlying inspiration,” said Rita Taggi, 59, a tax consultant.

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