Italy’s right puts on united front in final days of election campaign

Italy’s would-be prime minister Giorgia Meloni pledged to restore Italians’ “pride” and deliver five years of strong government in a rare shared appearance with her rightwing partners before a general election on Sunday.

At their only joint rally of the campaign, Meloni and her allies Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, and billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi set aside their personal rivalry as they sought to present a united front and appeal to Italians’ hunger for political stability and effective government.

“We are ready to give freedom, pride and greatness back to Italy,” Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, thundered to cheering supporters in Rome’s historic Piazza del Popolo. “We are free citizens and not subjects. The Italian state has treated people as subjects for too long.”

Salvini expressed confidence a coalition of their parties could deliver a stable government — something that has long eluded Italy — insisting it would not take orders from abroad. “We will win and govern for five years together,” he said. “Paris and Brussels will have to deal with it.”

The rally follows a bad-tempered campaign that could have hardly come at a worse time to for the country, triggered by the premature collapse of prime minister Mario Draghi’s national unity government this summer.

When they vote on Sunday, after one of the shortest campaigns in the country’s history, Italians are expected to deliver a decisive mandate to a Meloni-led rightwing coalition, whose fractious rivals failed to forge a united front to put up a more effective fight.

But the results — expected on Monday — could hold some surprises: the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which was on the verge of collapse, has recently clawed back some lost ground, vowing to defend its flagship “citizens’ incomes” welfare scheme threatened by the right

Many pollsters expect an all-time low voter turnout, reflecting Italians’ disillusionment with the political choices on offer and pessimism over the state of their democracy.

Giorgia Meloni supporters gather at a rightwing rally in central Rome on Thursday © Alessandra Tarantino/AP

“People are disenchanted and angry,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political-science professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “In the last 15 years, they’ve seen their economic situation has not really improved. People are fed up and say, ‘Nothing has changed so why bother going to vote.’”

While Italy’s rising energy bills and living costs are voters’ biggest concerns, parties have struggled to offer any coherent response to the crisis during the campaign.

Instead centre-right parties have pledged to stop illegal immigration, cut taxes and defend Italian identity, while several centrist and leftist parties tried to suggest that a vote for them was a vote to keep Draghi, though he himself has ruled out any return to the premiership.

“The cost of energy is top of mind for everybody, but it’s not an issue that creates a division between parties,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, founding partner of You Trend, a political polling agency. “Every party says the same but they don’t give precise recipes. It’s quite difficult to read this campaign through the lens of issues.”

Draghi, a former European Central Bank president tapped to lead Italy in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, still held high public approval ratings and the confidence of most Italians when his government collapsed in a political crisis in July.

That drama had significant repercussions for the dynamics of this election, as Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic party (PD) and a staunch Draghi supporter, scrapped a long-planned alliance with Five Star, whose leader Giuseppe Conte triggered the series of events that led to the government’s fall.

Divisions among the centre-left have given a major structural advantage to the rightwing grouping given that a third of the seats in Italy’s parliament are won through first-past-the-post races.

During his campaign, Letta sounded what he called “an alarm for democracy”, urging Italians fearful of the implications of a rightwing government to support the PD as “the only alternative”.

Carlo Calenda, leader of the small, centrist Azione party — who had initially agreed to ally with the PD before changing his mind — claimed a vote for his centrist party could also extend Draghi’s tenure by ensuring paralysis in the new parliament.

“Mario Draghi will be in charge until there is another government. If I get 12 per cent [of the vote], nobody is going to win,” he told the FT earlier this month. “My proposal will be, there is a stalemate, let’s go on with Draghi. What are you going to do? It’s the only solution.”

In her rally appearance on Thursday, Meloni accused the left of failing to focus on substantive issues, instead trying to whip up fears about what a rightwing government would mean. “We mounted a campaign trying to describe our vision for the country for the next five years,” she said. “The left only talked about us.”

However, the putative centre-right allies have also sniped at each other as much as at rivals across the political spectrum. “I have been surprised by some of Salvini’s statements,” Meloni told an Italian TV interviewer recently. “He sometimes seems more polemical with me than with our opponents.”

Additional reporting Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome

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