NICOLE WINFIELD, FRANCES D’EMILIO and GIADA ZAMPANO

ROME (AP) – The party with neo-fascist roots, the Brothers of Italy, won the most votes in the national elections in Italy, seeking to form the first far-right government since World War II and make it leader Giorgia Meloni, the first Italian prime minister, showed almost final results on Monday .

Italy’s tilt to the far-right immediately changed the geopolitical reality of Europe, putting the Eurosceptic party at the head of the 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 historic messages to Brussels.

The near-final results showed that the center-right coalition won around 44% of the vote in parliament, and the Meloni Brothers in Italy won around 26%. Its coalition partners split the rest, with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant League winning almost 9% and the more moderate Forza Italia of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi taking around 8%.

The center-left Democratic Party and its allies accounted for around 26%, while the Five Star Movement – which won the most votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections – this time halved its voting share to around 15%.

Turnout was historically low at 64%. Interviewers suggested voters stayed home in part in protest and also because they were disappointed with the behind-the-scenes deal that had created the three governments since the previous elections.

Meloni, whose party traces its roots to the post-war neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, sounded a moderate, unifying tone in its winning speech early Monday, in which he noted that the Italians were finally able to clearly define who they wanted to rule.

“If we are called to rule this nation, we will do it for everyone, we will do it for all Italians, and we will do it to unite the people of (this country),” said Meloni. “Italy chose us. We will not reveal (the country) like never before. “

While the center-right was the clear winner, a few weeks remain to form a government and will require consultations with party leaders and President Sergio Mattarella. Meanwhile, the outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi remains as caretaker.

The elections, which took place about six months before the fall of Draghi’s government, came at a crucial moment for Europe as it faces Russia’s war in Ukraine and the associated soaring energy costs that have hit both ordinary Italian wallets and industry.

The government led by Meloni is expected to largely follow Italy’s current foreign policy, including its pro-NATO stance and strong support for supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend against Russian invasion, even if its coalition allies have a slightly different tone.

Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the two distanced themselves from his invasion, Salvini warned that sanctions against Moscow hurt Italian industry, and even Berlusconi justified Putin’s invasion imposed on him by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.

A major shift that could create friction with European powers is likely to come from migration. Meloni called for a naval blockade to keep migrant ships from leaving the coast of North Africa, and suggested investigating potential asylum seekers in Africa before embarking on smugglers’ boats to Europe.

Salvini made it clear that he wanted to return to the Ministry of the Interior, where he imposed a tough anti-immigration policy as minister. But it is unclear whether he will get a position given that he is currently on trial in Sicily for holding migrants at sea.

Regarding relations with the European Union, analysts note that for all its Eurosceptic rhetoric, Meloni moderated its message during the campaign and has little room for maneuver given the economic surprise Italy is receiving from Brussels as part of its coronavirus recovery funds. Italy has secured around € 191.5 billion, the largest part of the EU’s € 750 billion recovery package, and is bound by some reform and investment milestones it needs to achieve to get it all.

That said, Meloni criticized the recent EU recommendation to suspend € 7.5 billion of funding for Hungary over concerns over democratic backsliding, defending Viktor Orban as the elected leader in the democratic system.

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

The party of French politician Marine Le Pen described this result as a “lesson in humility” for the EU.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right opposition party Vox in Spain, tweeted that Meloni “showed the way to a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations who can work together for the security and well-being of all.”

Meloni is the chair of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament, which brings together her Italian Brethren, Polish Law and Justice, the Spaniards Vox and the Swedish Democrats who have just won elections on a platform to crack down on crime and immigration restriction.

Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science at the University of Luiss in Rome and editor-in-chief of the Journal of European Integration, noted that Italy has a tradition of pursuing a coherent foreign and European policy that is in some respects greater than the interests of individual parties.

“Everything Meloni intends to do will have to be moderated by its coalition partners, and also in line with the agreed consensus of Italian foreign policy,” Christiansen said in an interview.

European Parliament vice-president Katharina Barley of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats said Meloni’s victory was “worrying” given her ties to Orban and Donald Trump.

“Her election lips to Europe cannot hide the fact that it poses a threat to constructive coexistence in Europe,” she was quoted by the German daily WELT.

Meloni proudly touts her roots as a militant against the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) that arose after World War II with the remnants of Mussolini’s fascist supporters. Meloni joined in 1992 as a 15-year-old.

During the campaign, Meloni was forced to react after Democrats used her party’s origins to portray Meloni as a threat to democracy.

“The Italian right has been transferring fascism to history for decades, unequivocally condemning the suppression of democracy and shameful anti-Jewish laws,” she said in a multilingual campaign video.

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