Italy shifts to the right as voters reward Meloni's party

ROME (AP) — A party with neo-fascist roots, the Brothers of Italy, won the most votes in Italy’s national elections, looking set to deliver the country’s first far-right-led government since World War II and make its leader, Giorgia Meloni, Italy's first woman premier, near-final results showed Monday.

Italy’s lurch to the far right immediately shifted Europe’s geopolitical reality, placing a euroskeptic party in position to lead a founding member of the European Union and its third-largest economy. Right-wing leaders across Europe immediately hailed Meloni’s victory and her party’s meteoric rise as sending a historic message to Brussels.

Near-final results showed the center-right coalition netting some 44% of the parliamentary vote, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy snatching some 26%. Her coalition partners divided up the remainder, with the anti-immigrant League of Matteo Salvini winning nearly 9% and the more moderate Forza Italia of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi taking around 8%.

The center-left Democratic Party and its allies had around 26%, while the 5-Star Movement — which had been the biggest vote-getter in 2018 Parliamentary elections — saw its share of the vote halved to some 15% this time around.

Turnout was a historic low 64%. Pollsters suggested voters stayed home in part in protest and also because they were disenchanted by the backroom deals that had created the three governments since the previous election.

Meloni, whose party traces its origins to the postwar, neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, sounded a moderate, unifying tone in a victory speech early Monday that noted that Italians had finally been able to clearly determine who they wanted to govern.

“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone, we will do it for all Italians and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people (of this country),” Meloni said. “Italy chose us. We will not betray (the country) as we never have.”

While the center-right was the clear winner, the formation of a government is still weeks away and will involve consultations among party leaders and with President Sergio Mattarella. In the meantime, outgoing Premier Mario Draghi remains in a caretaker role.

The elections, which took place some six months early after Draghi’s government collapsed, came at a crucial time for Europe as it faces Russia’s war in Ukraine and the related soaring energy costs that have hit ordinary Italian pocketbooks as well as industry.

A Meloni-led government is largely expected to follow Italy’s current foreign policy, including her pro-NATO stance and strong support for supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend against Russia’s invasion, even as her coalition allies stake a slightly different tone.

Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While both have distanced themselves from his invasion, Salvini has warned that sanctions against Moscow are hurting Italian industry, and even Berlusconi has excused Putin’s invasion as foisted on him by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.

A bigger shift and one likely to cause friction with European powers is likely to come over migration. Meloni has called for a naval blockade to prevent migrant boats from leaving North African shores, and has proposed screening potential asylum-seekers in Africa, before they set out on smugglers’ boats to Europe.

Salvini has made clear he wants to return to the interior ministry, where he imposed a tough anti-migrant policy as minister. But it’s not clear he would get the post given he is currently on trial in Sicily for keeping migrants at sea.

On relations with the European Union, analysts note that for all her euroskeptic rhetoric, Meloni moderated her message during the campaign and has little room to maneuver given the economic windfall Italy is receiving from Brussels in coronavirus recovery funds. Italy secured some 191.5 billion euros, the biggest chunk of the EU’s 750 billion-euro recovery package, and is bound by certain reform and investment milestones it must hit to receive it all.

That said, Meloni has criticized the EU’s recent recommendation to suspend 7.5 billion euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding, defending Viktor Orban as the elected leader in a democratic system.

Orban's political director, Balazs Orban, was among the first to congratulate Meloni. “In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges,” he tweeted.

French politician Marine Le Pen’s party hailed the result as a “lesson in humility” for the EU.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”

Meloni is chair of the right-wing European Conservative and Reformist group in the European Parliament, which gathers her Brothers of Italy, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Spain’s Vox and the Sweden Democrats, which just won big in elections on a platform of cracking down on crime and limiting immigration.

Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss University and the executive editor of the Journal of European Integration, noted that Italy has a tradition of pursuing a consistent foreign and European policy that is in some ways bigger than individual party interests.

“Whatever Meloni might be up to will have to be moderated by her coalition partners and indeed with the established consensus of Italian foreign policy,” Christiansen said in an interview.

The vice president of the European Parliament, Katharina Barley of the Social Democrats of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said Meloni's victory was “worrying” given her affiliations with Orban and Donald Trump.

“Her electoral lip service to Europe cannot hide the fact that she represents a danger to constructive coexistence in Europe," she was quoted as saying by German daily WELT.

Meloni proudly touts her roots as a militant in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, or MSI, which was formed in the aftermath of WWII with the remnants of Mussolini’s fascist supporters. Meloni joined in 1992 as a 15-year-old.

During the campaign, Meloni was forced to respond after the Democrats used her party’s origins to paint Meloni as a danger to democracy.

“The Italian Right has handed fascism over to history for decades now, unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws,” she said in a multilingual campaign video.

Nicole Winfield, Frances D'emilio And Giada Zampano, The Associated Press