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Far-right Meloni wins Italian elections, set to be first female prime minister

Italy has a new face at the top of its politics: Her name is Giorgia Meloni and she's set to become prime minister. But her victory may bring with it powerful shocks both at home and across the EU because of her roots in Italy's post-fascist political movements.

(CN) — European Union politics took a huge lurch to the right on Sunday after an Italian neo-fascist party won parliamentary elections, an outcome showing Italians are ready to see if a new formula can turn around a country beaten down by economic stagnation, high unemployment and geopolitical frustrations.

Giorgia Meloni, the outspoken and energetic leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, is set to become Italy's first female prime minister and also its first far-right leader since Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was killed at the end of World War II.

Her party's victory was expected, but the result was nonetheless a stunning development for both Italy and the EU. Her victory signals a watershed moment for Europe and one that could have troubling ripple effects across the 27-nation bloc.

Meloni's Brothers of Italy – Fratelli d'Italia in Italian, the same name as the national anthem – is an offshoot of post-fascist parties that sprang up during Italy's post-war transition into a republic.

During her political career, she has expressed admiration for Mussolini as a youth, consistently spoken out against the EU's supranational integration goals, called for a blockade against migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea to southern Italy, opposed allowing gay couples to adopt children, advocated a stronger role for the Roman Catholic church in public life, pushed for lowering business taxes and spoken about the need to look out for Italy's interests first and foremost.

“This is a time for responsibility,” Meloni said after her victory, as reported by ANSA, the Italian state news agency. “If we are called on to govern the nation, we will do it for everyone, to unite a people, by making the most of what unites, rather than what divides.”

Her party picked up about 26% of the votes in the Senate and House of Deputies, the most among Italy's fractured political parties. In previous general elections in 2018, the Brothers of Italy won only about 4% of votes, making this success all about Meloni and her appeal. She's a crowd-pleaser who combines humor, catchy slogans, combativeness and wit to impose herself on people.

The center-left Democratic Party – a pro-EU group that's had a hand in governing Italy for much of the past decade – came in second with a disappointing 19% while the maverick left-leaning 5-Star Movement, the winners of the 2018 general elections, came in third with about 15%.

Turnout was the lowest ever for an Italian general election at about 64%. It was the first time Italians went to the polls in the fall. Elections were called after a technocratic government led by former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi collapsed in July. Regardless, elections were scheduled for next year.

Meloni will rely on the backing of Matteo Salvini's far-right League party and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi's business-friendly Forza Italia to form a right-wing government with a comfortable majority.

Together, the coalition of right-wing parties picked up about 44% of the vote; fractures among center-left and left-wing parties opened the way for Meloni and her allies to form a government.

If chosen to be prime minister, as expected, Meloni would become the first leader from a party with neo-fascist roots to lead any of the six nations that founded the EU – Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Until more recently, far-right nationalist parties mostly survived at the margins of EU politics, but in recent decades far-right parties, often run by charismatic and iconoclastic leaders, have made inroads in many European nations.

In Great Britain, Nigel Farage's anti-immigrant and nationalist political movement played a big role in pushing the country out of the EU. Besides Italy, France is another major country with a formidable far-right presence in the shape of Marine Le Pen and her National Rally. Le Pen has pushed French politics – and French President Emmanuel Macron – to the right.

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Even in Germany, a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, has established itself as a perennial opposition party with a small but dedicated following and exerted considerable pressure on Germany's mainstream conservatives.

Also, ultra-nationalist, far-right governments are entrenched in Hungary and Poland, two former communist countries now ruled by anti-EU politicians who view the rules and laws coming out of Brussels as anathema. The EU is in long-running political and legal battles with both Warsaw and Budapest over allegations that their governments are violating the EU's core liberal democratic principles.

Following her victory, far-right leaders across the bloc congratulated her.

“Italians offered a lesson in humility to the European Union, which, through the voice of Mrs. von der Leyen, claimed to dictate their vote,” Jordan Bardella, a French parliamentarian close to Le Pen, said on Twitter. “No threat of any kind can stop democracy: the peoples of Europe raise their heads and take their destiny into their own hands!”

His tweet referred to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the unelected head of the EU's executive body. Far-right leaders allege von der Leyen and the EU apparatus are trying to squash the democratic will of voters by fighting to toss out laws and policies adopted in Poland and Hungary.

The EU is withholding billions of dollars in coronavirus recovery aid from reaching Poland and Hungary unless they take steps to abide by European Court of Justice rulings and EU mandates.

“Italy marks the path of a new Europe of free and sovereign nations,” tweeted Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party in Spain, a new force in Spanish politics. Meloni has been jubilantly welcomed at Vox rallies.

“The people will decide their future without asking permission from any oligarch,” he added, a clear reference to EU bureaucrats like von der Leyen.

Last week, von der Leyen issued what many saw as a threat to Meloni during an appearance at Princeton University.

“My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we're working together," von der Leyen said, responding to a question about whether she was concerned about the upcoming elections in Italy.

"If things go in a difficult direction, I've spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools,” she said.

“What is this, a threat?” Salvini wrote on Twitter. “Respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people!”

Thus, Meloni's success is remarkable – and worrisome for many – because Italy is one of the EU's central pillars due to its historically vibrant economy, key political leadership, iconic history and culture and geostrategic position on the Mediterranean Sea.

There are fears that Meloni's win could become a model for other European countries and usher in an era where far-right politicians become normalized.

Already, there were signs that financial markets and European elites were ready to treat Meloni's win as not all bad. Italy's stock market, the Bourse, was up and many political commentators inside Italy and out have tried to tamp down fears over what a Meloni victory will mean.

During her campaign, Meloni has appeared moderate and spoken in favor of the EU and vowed to support NATO and Western support for Ukraine. But serious doubts surround her because of her past as the leader of a neo-fascist party.

“The key question is whether Meloni, as PM, will continue to pursue the careful and audacious balancing act that has allowed her to enjoy a meteoric rise over the past few years,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a co-president of London-based Teneo, a political risk firm.

For now, he said it appears she will do just that in order to consolidate the rightist bloc, but he said the composition of her cabinet will be a first indication of Meloni's “willingness to compromise and pursue a moderate policy stance.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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