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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Key takeaways from Italy’s landmark election

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the hard-right Brothers of Italy party, holds a sign reading “Thank you Italy” at a news conference in Rome early Monday morning, Sept. 26, 2022.

By Gaia Pianigiani

After a historic national election in Italy, nearly complete election results Monday showed a clear victory for a right-wing coalition led by a party descended from the remnants of fascism. The impressive showing for that party — the highest of any single party — made it almost certain that Giorgia Meloni, its leader, would become Italy’s first female prime minister.

The right-wing coalition won 44% of the votes across the country, while the left, which failed to cobble together a significant alliance, barely surpassed 26%. Those results would give the right the ability to govern without help from the opposition.

Italy will not have a new government for weeks, though, as the system requires the newly elected Parliament to be seated before negotiations on who becomes prime minister. A new government should be installed by the end of October or early November, analysts said.

The country’s hard turn to the right has sent shock waves across Europe after a period of stability in Italy led by Mario Draghi, the centrist technocrat who resigned as prime minister in July. Draghi directed some 190 billion euros, about $184 billion, in COVID recovery funds to modernize the country and helped lead Europe’s strong response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Monday, European analysts said that Meloni, who has a long record of bashing the European Union and international bankers, did not represent an immediate economic or political threat to the bloc. They said that the real risk was for Italy, noting that the nation would likely lose the influence it exercised under Draghi, going from a leading country to one that Europe watches anxiously.

Here’s what to know about the landmark vote.

Some familiar names are back: Berlusconi and Salvini.

One vote out of every four cast was for the hard-right Brothers of Italy, known for its anti-immigrant policies, nationalist views and focus on “traditional” families. The party managed to multiply its support more than sixfold, to 26% in Sunday’s election, from 4% in 2018. Meloni’s party is now the largest in the country and the strongest within the coalition.

In an early-morning speech from an upscale Roman hotel, Meloni said that Italians’ indication was “clear” for a government “led by Brothers of Italy,” an apparent signal that she expected her coalition partners to support her for prime minister.

Before the election, Matteo Salvini of the nationalist League party,and Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time former prime minister and leader of Forza Italia — her main partners in the coalition — had been ambivalent about clearly designating her the top candidate for prime minister.

But the League party, which sought to expand from its northern, business-oriented base to a nationalist party on the strength of an anti-migrant appeal, had such a poor showing Sunday that analysts said it was unlikely to be able to argue about who gets to lead the country. The party won less than 9% of the vote, about half

of what it obtained in 2018, hemorrhaging support especially in its stronghold in the northern regions.

Meloni’s party devoured the League’s support, leaving Salvini’s leverage, and even leadership, in doubt. Some representatives of the League have started calling for his resignation.

Berlusconi, positioning himself as the most moderate partner in the

coalition, should hold on to his influence even though his party also lost support. Forza Italia took 8% in this election, compared with 14% in 2018. In 2001, the party had 29%.

The Five Star Movement was resurgent.

One of the surprises in the vote was the performance of the 5-Star Movement, the once anti-establishment party that was part of the coalitions that governed Italy for more than four years from 2018 until earlier this year.

The party had been struggling because of internal divisions and lackluster showings in opinion polls. But after it prompted the collapse of Draghi’s government, it managed to gain 15% of the votes Sunday, becoming the third-largest party, after Brothers of Italy and the center-left Democratic Party, which took 19%.

Giuseppe Conte, the 5-Star Movement’s leader and a former prime minister, campaigned largely on the citizens’ income, a subsidy for unemployed, low-income Italians that has split the electorate. Five-Star introduced the program in 2019, and it has been very popular in Italy’s poorer south. But many of Meloni’s supporters are against the subsidy, and she has said in the past that she wants to abolish the program.

At a news conference in the early hours of Monday, Conte spoke of his party’s “great comeback,” which he deemed “very significant.”

The center-left was split and suffered for it.

The Democratic Party won 19% of the vote, losing support even in historical bastions of Italy’s left.

After the defeat, Enrico Letta, the party’s leader, said, “Our opposition will be strong and intransigent.”

But he also announced that he was not going to run for the party’s leadership next year. He has been accused of leading a campaign lacking in substance and based on fear of the right.

The Democrats, for decades the largest party in the center-left, have failed to build durable alliances. In this election, as in previous ones, they were able to build a coalition only with smaller, pro-European, environmentalist and more extreme leftist parties. In recent years, some of the Democratic Party’s former leaders have broken away and founded their own parties, draining support.

Governing the country with other political forces for the past 10 years, and in Draghi’s unity government, did not help the party, Letta said.

Turnout hit a record low.

Voters went to the polls in record-low numbers. Only 64% of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday, 9 percentage points lower than in 2018. In the southern region of Calabria, only 50% voted.

“Italians are disillusioned with politics,” Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, said on a national news channel Monday. “The largest party in Italy are those who didn’t vote. It’s a strong message.”

The numbers are striking in a country that is used to relatively high turnout. Voter participation had hovered around 90% after World War II, but in the 1980s, the figure started falling. Still, the numbers from this election were especially low. In 2018, almost 73% of eligible voters cast ballots.

The majority looks strong and maybe even stable.

The results will hand the right-wing coalition a strong majority in seats in both the lower house and in the Senate, allowing it to govern without much consent or support from the opposition, which is likely to be quite fractured.

It was not immediately clear whether the coalition would have the overwhelming number of seats — a two-thirds majority — in Parliament that would allow it to change the constitution and veer toward making Italy a presidential republic, a long-sought goal of the right. Analysts said that it was unlikely the coalition would surpass that threshold, however.

The coalition partners also have substantial differences of opinion on domestic and foreign policy. Meloni has supported Ukraine and backed Draghi’s strong stance against Russia, while her coalition partners, such as Berlusconi, have signaled admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and criticized sanctions against Moscow, saying they are damaging to the Italian economy.

Being a woman has also distinguished her, and marked a major shift, from her coalition partners, especially Berlusconi, the subject of endless sex scandals.

But Meloni, Berlusconi and Salvini share a hard-right vision for the country. Meloni has called for a naval blockade against migrants and spread fears about a “great replacement” of native Italians. The three share populist proposals for deep tax cuts that economists fear would inflate Italy’s already enormous debt, and a traditionalist view of the family that liberals worry will at least freeze in place gay rights and that could, in practice, roll back abortion rights.

Despite the constraints of an Italian Constitution that is explicitly anti-fascist and designed to stymie the rise of another Mussolini, many liberals are now worried that the right-wing coalition will erode the country’s norms. There was concern that if the coalition were to win two-thirds of the seats in parliament, it would have the ability to change the constitution to increase government powers.

On Thursday, during one of Meloni’s final rallies before the election, she exclaimed that “if the Italians give us the numbers to do it, we will.”

But the coalition appeared not to hit that mark.

The main party of the left, the Democratic Party, all but guaranteed its defeat by failing to heal its differences with other liberal and centrist parties, including a new group of moderates. The moderates, backed by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and attracting some former leaders of Berlusconi’s party, who were disillusioned with his following of the hard right, did better than expected but still seemed to remain in the single digits.

What really held the right back from a landslide were their former governing partners, the Five Star Movement, the once anti-establishment movement that triggered the collapse of Draghi’s government when it revolted in July.

In 2018, the party’s burn-down-the-elite rhetoric led it to become the country’s most popular party and largest force in parliament. Years of governing — first with the hard-right Salvini, and then with the Democratic Party, and then under Draghi — exposed its incompetence and infighting and it imploded. It seemed on the brink of extinction. But during the campaign, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the party surged in the country’s underserved south.

That development was mainly because Five Star passed a broad unemployment benefit known as the “citizen’s income,” which, though roundly criticized by moderates and the right as a handout to the lazy and a disincentive to work, has become a cherished benefit.

As a result, Five Star appeared to be becoming the party of the south.

“This is what is emerging,” said Angelo Tofalo, himself a southerner and a leader in the party, as he cheered Conte at a rally in Rome on Friday. He said the party had laid down deep roots in the south but acknowledged that “the citizen’s income is a factor.”

That unexpected strength ate into Meloni’s support, while she devoured the backing of the League party of Salvini. Only years ago, he was the country’s most popular populist. Now, he appeared to sink to single digits. Berlusconi, once the hinge upon which the coalition turned, and who legitimized the marginalized post-fascists and secessionist League in the 1990s, also registered a modest result.

But together they had enough to govern and Meloni had the clearest claim on the office of prime minister during negotiations and consultations with Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, which will take place over the next month. The new government is likely to be seated in late October or early November.

But the message of the end of a period of European taboos, and of new change, has already been sent.

Meloni said in one of her last interviews before the election that her victory would be “a redemption” for all the people who “for decades had to keep their heads down” and who had an “alternative vision from the mainstream of the system of power.”

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