This week’s guest columnist is David A. Andelman, a veteran foreign correspondent, formerly for The New York Times and CBS News, author, commentator and foreign affairs columnist for CNN Opinion. This article was originally published on his SubStack page, Andelman Unleashed. To submit a guest column, please email it to our Marketing Coordinator, Nicole Mailhoit at [email protected]
It’s Giorgia Meloni, the new prime minister….Italy’s first woman and the first avowedly fascist since Benito Mussolini. Europe quakes. Putin celebrates?
Continuing our pledge that Andelman Unleashed will chronicle every presidential or national leadership election around the world, the focus today is on Italy. The potentially catastrophic stakes for Italy, Europe, and democracy.
[UPDATES at 9 am US Eastern time / 3 pm in Italy with the near final results of Sunday’s elections]
Italian voters have confirmed the West’s wildest fears and given Vladimir Putin a new and powerful foothold in Europe at the very moment he needs it the most.
With more than 97% of the vote tabulated on Monday, Giorgia Meloni and her far-right coalition won 44% of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies, a controlling majority, though short of the two-thirds that would be needed to amend the constitution.
The government she assembles will likely be as frightening as the views of its new prime minister. First, there’s Meloni’s coalition—her running mates. She is relying on two other parties and their candidates to assume leadership of the parliament and by extension the government. Each of them shares a host of toxic views from turning off all immigration to backing Vladimir Putin and his war on Ukraine. As Meloni’s principal foe, Enrico Letta, himself a former Italian prime minister and leader of the Democratic party, charged, “The first person to celebrate will be Putin if the right wins.”
Meloni has two fellow and utterly like-minded coalition partners with whom she will be expected to form a new government. On the far right—in many respects even further to starboard, or at least more outspoken than Meloni—is Matteo Salvini and his Lega (the League), a group of ultra-nationalists assembled largely to support his own ambitions. There is a host of dark shadows that he brings to the party. First and foremost is his skepticism over any expansion or even renewal of sanctions against Putin for his invasion of Ukraine. “I would not want the sanctions to harm those who impose them more than those who are hit by them,” has been a constant refrain of his campaign.
Salvini tweeted simply “thank you” moments after state television flashed the first results of the exit polls late Sunday night, apparently positioning him to make good on his vow to preserve Italy from becoming “the refugee camp of Europe.” Meloni has raised the prospects of a full naval blockade of any refugee vessels seeking the shortest route from Africa to Europe—from Libya to the boot of Italy. But Salvini, who held the powerful job of interior minister for 15 horrific months during a previous Italian government, beginning in June 2018 he successfully stopped all refugee boats from landing in Italy. This time, he observed to cheers during this campaign: “I have done it before, and I can’t wait to do it again.”
The other coalition member is a familiar figure in Italian politics where he’s been in and out of a host of regimes—85-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza Italia (Forward Italy) party. Three times prime minister, with perhaps the most flamboyant lifestyle of any leader in Europe, he’s paid for his excesses with a conviction for tax fraud and a six-year banishment from politics. Now back in action. During this campaign, he has hardly seemed prepared to restrain himself. “In Ukraine,” Berlusconi declared, “Putin just wanted to replace the Zelensky government with decent people.” Having provoked a firestorm of outrage by this comment, Berlusconi tried to explain he was simply expressing what others have said.
Still, there is the reality that the results of this election have hardly been a ringing endorsement of Meloni, her partners and their agenda. Barely 64% of eligible Italians cast votes—9% below the previous record low. With the coalition accumulating less than 50% of those voting, this means that less than a third of Italy seems to have cast their ballots for the new government.
So, it will be interesting to see just how long the Meloni government lasts. It will be Italy’s 68th in the 76 years since the republic was formed on the post-war ruins of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. Moreover, there is widespread disgust over how unceremoniously Meloni’s predecessor, Mario Draghi, was drummed of office. The consummate technocrat, known as Super Mario for his Herculean efforts at solving a host of crises in the Eurozone as president of the European Central Bank, Draghi more than any other Italian leader understood the depths of his country’s financial morass and was beginning to chart a path out of it.
Just a year ago, The Washington Post headlined: “Mario Draghi, hosting the G-20, has put Italy in enviable shape.” It was a painful path he had chosen, however, and Draghi fell victim to incessant bickering in parliament, finally throwing up his hands in July and resigning, touching off this latest election.
Indeed, the nation’s economic woes are a particular reason for this latest round of Italian balloting. Meloni has promised to solve the problems of inflation now hovering above 9%— a nearly four decades high—and rising. And then there’s the nation’s massive indebtedness—the second highest debt-to-GDP burden in Europe. But Meloni hardly seems prepared with any sweeping solutions. Moreover, as the ECB continues to raise interest rates to fight inflation and bankers lose faith in Italian government debt offerings, raising the rates the government must pay to finance itself, Meloni is hardly one to inspire the kind of confidence in financial circles the nation so desperately needs.
Nor are she or her views inspiring much confidence in the rest of the European Union. Its foundations have already been shaken two weeks ago when Swedish voters swung dramatically toward the right giving Jimmie Åkesson and his neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats party the largest single bloc in the nation’s parliament, as we’ve chronicled in Andelman Unleashed. The modestly more moderate Ulf Kristersson is still struggling to assemble a government avoiding Åkesson and his like-minded parliament members who refuse to be benched.
European Union where the votes of Italy, Sweden and Putin’s long-time apologist—Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban—will be required under the EU’s rule of unanimity. The regular six-month renewal of sanctions will be coming in January, then there are pending sanctions ranging from Russian diamonds to Gazprombank.
Already, Hungary vetoed a block-wide request of the U.N. to appoint a special rapporteur for Russian human rights violations. Then there are the questions of how to deal with tens of thousands of Russian men hammering on the doors of Europe to escape Putin’s military draft and how to respond to the bogus annexation referenda being held across southern and eastern Ukraine. “I think this calls for sanctions from our part, again,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week.
And all of that without a single dissent yet from Sweden or Italy. Stand by.
Next up on Andelman Unleashed, there’s the bitter election campaign unwinding in Brazil where the quasi-autocratic incumbent Jair Bolsonaro is being challenged by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who himself has spent time in jail on corruption charges. And in truly Donald Trump fashion, Bolsonaro has refused to say if he’ll even leave office if he’s beaten. Stay tuned.