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Italian election: Firebrand speeches and the politics of the far-right set to capture Rome

Italians go to the polls on Sunday with results announced on Monday evening.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IT HAS BEEN a bruising two months for Italian politics following the collapse of Mario Draghi’s government but this weekend voters will take to the polls to appoint a new political leader. 

Draghi, seen as a centrist moderate on the world stage, lost the support of his fragile alliance with an anti-establishment coalition in July.

That saw the economist and academic try twice to resign but would ultimately lead Italy into a general election which will reach its crescendo on Sunday.

Polls are banned in the final two weeks of an Italian election so as not to potentially interfere with the ballot but the last canvas of opinion, on 7 September, showed a five point lead for the far-right party of Fratelli Italia (Brothers of Italy) over the left leaning centrist Democratic Party.

Their meteoric rise has taken many observers by surprise – led by Giorgia Meloni they are seen as the heirs to the fascist politics that led Italy into disaster in World War Two.

Her party had just 4% of the vote in previous years but a concerted campaign of alliances with other far-right leaning organisations has thrust potential Government leadership on the longtime campaigner. 

But Meloni has sought to, publicly at least, distance her party from views to those shared by fascist Il Duce Benito Mussolini – just last week she sacked a Sicilian representative for past praise of Hitler.

Meloni is not without controversial views – she has embraced a dogma of “God, fatherland and family” and ticks the boxes of far-right politics.

In firebrand passionate speeches she has railed against gender debates, the LGBTQ community and that old Italian political hot potato of trans-Mediterranean migration.

Her alliance with noted Vladimir Putin fan Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and her former stable of Forza Italia means that she is the favourite to take the prime minister’s post. 

Forza Italia is the party of Silvio Berlusconi, with the former prime minister’s waxwork-like visage back in the limelight on Thursday night as he praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an operation to place “decent people” in positions of power in the Slavic country.   

Her main challenger is Enrico Letta, a left-leaning supporter of Draghi’s now defunct Government and leader of the Democrat Party. There is also the populist Five Star Movement under Giuseppe Conte, centrist Matteo Renzi of Italia Viva and Carlo Calenda of Azione. 

But predictions in the Italian press and from observers suggest that they will be unable to overhaul Fratelli Italia.

Despite the tensions within her alliance, she vowed to govern for five years with a programme that includes low taxes, higher social spending – and strong defence of Italy’s interests on the world stage.

rome-italy-23rd-sep-2022-rome-22-september-2022-closing-of-the-unitary-electoral-campaign-for-the-center-right-at-piazza-del-popolo-in-rome-the-leaders-of-the-brothers-of-italy-giorgia-meloni-o The crowd listen to Meloni during the final rally of the campaign. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Garbatella

Meloni, 45, is a single mother of one who was born and raised in the Roman working-class area of Garbatella.

By 15-years-old in 1992 she was already politically active having joined the Fronte Della Gioventù, the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The history of that party harks back to the days of Mussolini as the organisation was formed by Giorgio Almirante, a minister in the fascist dictator’s government.

It was a difficult time in Italian politics as a series of political scandals, widespread corruption and mafia activity caused the collapse of the post WWII status quo.

She has had electoral success and served as a Minister in Berlusconi’s Government. 

When that collapsed she left and formed the Fratelli Italia. Its policies are that classic populist mix of ideological answers but nothing of the substantive solutions. 

She is the most likely candidate to become Italy’s first female prime minister if her post-fascist Brothers of Italy party wins the general election.

“Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby! Yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology! Yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death!” Meloni roared in a speech in Spain in June.

Meloni has led a clever campaign but with repeated efforts to reduce the firebrand tag – defending the above speech by saying it was made when she was tired.

Some of the old guard remain, but Meloni is attempting to construct herself instead as a “nationalist conservative”, said Mabel Berezin, an expert on fascist, nationalist and populist movements.

Claims of pro-Europe

While Salvini, a former MEP, is profoundly Eurosceptic Meloni has painted herself as pro European Union with much of her pronouncements on Europe sounding more like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Fears that a Meloni-led government would copy the violations of rules based principles seen in Hungary or Poland were probably “overblown”, Mabel Berezin, an expert on fascist, nationalist and populist movements from Cornell University told AFP.

The risks may be subtler than that, according to Emma Bonino, who leads the +Europe party.

rome-italy-22nd-sep-2022-rome-closing-campaign-of-the-center-right-pictured-matteo-salvini-silvio-berlusconi-giorgia-meloni-maurizio-lupi-credit-independent-photo-agencyalamy-live-news Closing campaign rally from left: Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi, Giorgia Meloni, Maurizio Lupi. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Abortion became the most divisive campaign issue after Meloni said she wanted to give a choice to women unsure about terminating pregnancies.

“We won’t touch the abortion law. We just want (women) to know there are other options,” she said.

Meloni is likely to keep her word on not criminalising abortion, said Bonino, who did time in jail in the 1970s for her fight to legalise it.

But she fears Meloni will instead “push for the law to be ignored”, exacerbating an existing problem — difficulties in getting hold of abortion pills or finding gynaecologists willing to perform terminations.

“There are entire regions where… the gynaecologists are all conscientious objectors” who can opt out of performing the operation, Bonino said — referring in particular to the Marche region in central Italy, which is governed by Brothers of Italy.

Laura Boldrini, one of Italy’s most high-profile female politicians, said she did not think Meloni in charge “would mean women’s lives improve”.

“Meloni has never been about affirming women’s rights, about valuing women or breaking down prejudices against them,” she said this week.

Michela Murgia, a writer and political activist, said Meloni was a “violent creature… who has learned to speak in a reassuring way” so that “positions previously considered extremist now appear good sense”.

Italy would do well, she said, to remember the Meloni speech in Spain, “who seems possessed” and would “bring the same violence to her political rule”.

Russia and Italy

Meloni has aligned herself heavily to the alliance with Salvini and Berlusconi and it could result in her reaching the top office.

There seems to be little appetite in Rome to question Salvini’s lust for Putin and Berlusconi’s full-blooded defence of the Ukraine invasion. 

Salvini has been highly critical of the sanctions, saying they are harming Europe and Italy more than Moscow.

palermo-italy-20th-sep-2022-9202022-demonstration-against-giorgia-meloni-and-fascist-party-in-palermo-photo-by-antonio-melitapacific-presssipa-usa-credit-sipa-usaalamy-live-news Protestors against Meloni's party on the streets of Palermo earlier this week. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

But the Russians have made a late intervention on Thursday, with the Russian embassy in Italy tweeting photos of almost all the main party leaders with President Vladimir Putin.

“From the recent history of relations between Russia and Italy. We have some memories,” the embassy wrote, at the end of a campaign where the Ukraine war and Italy’s ties with Moscow have taken centre stage.

The only major party leader not included in the photos was Meloni.

One photo showed Putin and former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi leaning towards each other, while another portrayed Putin shaking hands with a smiling Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party.

Another showed Putin standing between anti-immigration League leader Matteo Salvini – a long-standing Putin admirer – former premier Giuseppe Conte, now head of the populist Five Star Movement, and ex-Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s current foreign minister.

The last photo showed Putin smiling while shaking hands with former prime minister Matteo Renzi, now leading a centrist party.

Italy’s current government led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been strongly supportive of Western sanctions against Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

Meloni has backed the measures, and the sending of weapons to Kyiv, but is fighting the election as part of a right-wing alliance alongside Salvini and Berlusconi.

New system

Italy has transformed its political voting system with the alliance needing a lead in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

The new rules mean parliament has been reduced in scale by a third with less deputies and senators.

Italy has a hybrid voting system – 35/36% of members are elected on a first-past-the-post result and then the rest elected by proportional representation. 

Whatever happens on Sunday the likelihood of a shock victory for the more reasonable voices associated with Enrico Letta is unlikely.

The firebrand tone and passion of Meloni is the most probable result and she will, in all likelihood, return triumphant for a rally on Monday evening in the stunning, historic surrounds of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo.

With reporting from © – AFP 2022

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