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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 23, 2022
Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni attends the center-right coalition closing rally in Rome on Sept. 22. Italian voters cast ballots on Sunday, Sept. 25 in an election that has been billed as crucial as Europe reels from the repercussions of war in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni attends the center-right coalition closing rally in Rome on Sept. 22. Italian voters will cast ballots on Sunday, Sept. 25 in an election that has been billed as crucial as Europe reels from the repercussions of war in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

A series of tremblors that rumbled across Italy on Sept. 23 may soon be followed by a major earthquake of a political nature. Opinion polls predict that on Sunday, Sept. 25, Italians will elect the most right-wing government since becoming a republic in 1946.

For the first time in the nation’s history, a woman, Giorgia Meloni, 45, could become prime minister. She would lead Italy’s 70th government since 1946. Ms. Meloni is the Roman-born leader of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), described as a “post-fascist party.” Her motto is “God, fatherland and family.”

The election takes place at a time of great crisis in Europe and in Italy. In recent years the continent has witnessed the advance of populism in many countries, including Hungary, Poland, Sweden, France, Spain, Germany and Italy, that is challenging the cohesion of the European Union and its 27 member states.

Ms. Meloni is the Roman-born leader of the Brothers of Italy, described as a “post-fascist party.” Her motto is “God, fatherland and family.”

The last opinion polls in Italy were released on Sept. 9; the nation’s election laws prohibit any polls from being published after that date. But this has not prevented polls of varying quality from being conducted and circulated on social media. All of them predict the victory of the right-wing coalition.

That coalition is composed of three political parties: Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni, who served as minister for youth in Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2008; the League (Lega), a xenophobic, anti-migrant party led by Matteo Salvini, 49, who served as minister of the interior in 2018; and Forward Italy (Forza Italia), the center-right liberal party led by Mr.Berlusconi, 85, a former Italian prime minister and millionaire businessman.

How big will the center-right win be? According to the polls, Ms. Meloni’s party alone could take 24 percent or more of the national vote, with the right-wing coalition gaining as much as 48 percent.

The Economist, in an article published today, writes that this populist advance signals “a powerful shift in the European balance towards the nationalist, hard right. Fed up with the failures of the established parties, voters are plumbing for the untried and untested.”

Pope Francis has spoken out several times since his election in 2013 against the rise of populism. He has warned the public in Italy and in Europe against being misled by self-proclaimed “saviors” and reminded Europeans that Hitler came to power on a similar wave of discontent, by popular vote, at a time of great crisis in Germany. Pope Francis has strongly supported the European Union, while calling for reform in it.

Pope Francis has spoken out against the rise of populism. He has warned the public in Italy and in Europe against being misled by self-proclaimed “saviors.”

The main challenger to Ms. Meloni and her coalition is the center-left Democratic Party, led by Enrico Letta, 56, a former Italian prime minister and currently a member of parliament. His party is predicted to win anywhere from 21 to 24 percent of the vote. The center-left coalition that supports him includes three parties: Europe+ (led by Emma Bonino, long time member of the Italian and European parliaments), the Italian Left (Sinistra) and the Greens. Together this coalition is expected to gain around 28 -30 percent of the vote.

Another important challenger is the Five Star Movement, led by Giuseppe Conte, 58, who was twice prime minister and governed with both the right and the left in the last legislature. The Five Star Movement brought down the government of Mario Draghi on July 21, eight months before the conclusion of the legislature’s term, and it won the most votes in the last election.

But many members in parliament broke off from the movement in July after the decision to bring down the government. The Five Star party could get 10 to 15 percent of the vote, polls suggest, and could have a significant role if Ms. Meloni does not win a majority.

Likewise, the Third Pole (Terzo Polo), a centrist coalition, could play an important role if it gains many seats in parliament. One of Third Pole’s coalition members is Italy Alive, led by Matteo Renzi, 47, a former prime minister and now a senator in parliament. The other member, Action Party, is led by Carlo Calenda, 49, a business executive and member of the European Parliament. The Third Pole coalition may win 8 percent of the vote, according to some polls.

Finally, the Sept. 25 vote includes a wild card—Italians who decide not to vote at all. There is a strong disenchantment with politics among the general population in Italy, and two days before the election, more than one-third of the 51.4 million Italians eligible to vote (including six million in foreign lands) are still undecided.

“I think politics is dead, the whole election is a circus, a spectacle. Politicians are more interested in their popularity levels than in the common good. I’ve had enough. I won’t vote.”

Polls suggest the abstention rate could be around 30 to 40 percent. Many Italians did not welcome an election at this time of crisis; others have little or no trust in the present political parties.

Among the latter is Raffaela Moroni, a 54-year-old Roman woman who works in the tourist industry. She told America, “For the first time in my life, I do not cast my vote. I think politics is dead, the whole election is a circus, a spectacle. Politicians are more interested in their popularity levels than in the common good. I’ve had enough. I won’t vote.”

It is not clear which party benefits most if many other Italians follow her lead and sit the election out.

Mr. Letta, the social-democrat leader of the Democratic Party and former dean of studies at Sciences Po in Paris, listed four crises that have hit Italy over the past 12 years and provoked much fear among its people in a recent interview with La Nación: the financial crisis (2008), the ongoing immigration crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and now the war in Ukraine.

He said fears linked to these crises have led many Italians to turn to populist parties. That has already resulted in the triumph of The Five Star Movement and the League in the 2018 Italian elections.

Mr. Letta claims that Russia has used its energy policy to drive up the price of gas and oil for Italian households, seeking to influence the outcome of the Italian election in its favor. He, like many others, notes that both Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Salvini are friends of Mr. Putin, while Ms. Meloni is a strong supporter of Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, a close ally of Putin.

Enrico Letta: “A victory of Meloni and the right would be a great result for Putin. He would be the happiest of all.”

“From the perspective of international politics, a victory of Meloni and the right would be a great result for Putin. He would be the happiest of all,” Mr. Letta said.

He believes that a victory of the center-right coalition in Italy could have an impact not only on the unity of the European Union, but also on the support it is offering Ukraine with arms, humanitarian aid and sanctions against Russia. Ms. Meloni insists that she would support Ukraine if elected, but several analysts wonder if her recent declaration to this effect is merely a tactical stance to calm the fears of European and North American leaders. All this is happening as Russia’s war against Ukraine, now in its 211th day, continues with no end in sight.

Ms. Meloni’s right wing coalition emphasizes “Italians first” and promises to put Italy back on its feet by increasing employment, standing up for Italy in the European Union, strictly controlling immigration and reducing taxes. Her coalition is also against giving Italian citizenship to the children of migrants who have done all their studies in Italian schools.

Her coalition partner, Mr. Salvini, identifies as a Catholic but strongly disagrees with Pope Francis’ stance on immigration. Like Ms. Meloni, he frequently cites John Paul II in speeches.

Ms. Meloni, who speaks with a strong Roman accent, identifies herself as a conservative Catholic. She is an unmarried mother, with a partner and one child. She has reached out to the African cardinal Robert Sarah, seeking to gain Vatican support in case she becomes prime minister. She professes her belief that marriage is between a man and a woman and challenges further progress on legislation regarding L.G.B.T. persons.

Ms. Meloni has reached out to the African cardinal Robert Sarah, seeking to gain Vatican support in case she becomes prime minister.

Mr. Letta and his coalition strongly support the European Union, the Atlantic Alliance and assistance for Ukraine. Like Ms. Meloni, he seeks a cap on gas prices, but he wants this done in agreement with the European Union.

He advocates universal health care and offering citizenship to children of migrants that have studied in Italian schools and seeks to create more opportunities for employment for young people. He supports reform of the Italian tax system and providing a “dowry” of up to 10,000 euros ($9,950) for teenagers when they turn 18.

He hopes to gain a high percentage of the vote of the 4.1 million young people who are voting for the first time for both the Italian Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Up to now, one could vote for the latter from the age of 18, but had to be 25 years of age to vote for the Senate.

Mr. Renzi and Mr. Calenda’s program is not that different from Mr. Letta’s. They had in fact pursued a coalition with Mr. Letta, an effort that broke down when Mr. Letta brought smaller parties into the coalition.

Mr. Conte has been described as a chameleon. As prime minister, he entered into alliances with both the League and the Democratic Party. Then, seeking to boost his party’s chances in the elections, he brought down the government of Mr. Draghi in July. He appears to be gaining support, as many recall that he governed the country well during the pandemic. However, he has equivocated on sending arms to Ukraine, insisting on a negotiated path to peace.

Polling stations open across the country on Sept. 25 at 7 a.m. and close at 11 p.m. Italians will vote for the first time according to a new electoral system that has reduced by half the number of seats in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

Each voter will receive two ballot sheets, one for each chamber of parliament, and they will elect candidates directly and through proportional allocation. Some surprises could result.

The first projected winners, based on exit polls, are expected to be announced soon after 11 p.m. on Sunday, but the final, official tally is almost certain to take much longer to come in.

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