ROME – Italy’s electoral winner Giorgia Meloni faces severe economic and diplomatic constraints as she attempts to chart a new course with her right-wing coalition.
Italy’s high debt and weak growth leave Ms Meloni’s coalition with limited scope for its tax cut agenda. Meanwhile, the need to work closely with the European Union to deal with the region’s energy crisis and approaching recession will make it difficult to take a more nationalistic, Eurosceptic tack.
Ms. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party came first in Italy’s national elections on Sunday with around 26% of the vote, after a campaign that combined hard-line rhetoric on immigration, gay rights and other cultural identity issues with mostly pro-establishment business leaders and Political Affairs Combined Foreign Policy. The latter included pledges of fiscal prudence and unwavering support for Western sanctions against Russia and military aid to Ukraine.
As leader, Ms Meloni will face the challenge of reassuring the EU – which she has previously criticized for interfering in national affairs and undermining national identity – that it will not be a destabilizing force in the bloc. She has vowed to work with the EU to tame energy prices and secure continued economic funding from the bloc.
The right-wing alliance led by the Brothers of Italy, which won 44% of the vote and a comfortable majority of seats in both houses of Parliament, brought the centre-right party’s European conservatism, with its focus on pro-business policies such as lower taxes and the far-right Continent’s populism, which emphasizes nativism, law and order, and traditional Christian values. Brothers of Italy’s roots stretch back to post-war Italian neo-fascism, and its supporters still include some admirers of the dictator Benito Mussolini.
Ms Meloni has struggled to distance herself from that legacy and reassure moderate voters that she is a Democrat and a safe pair of hands. She has also worked hard to convince EU partners and financial markets that she will not destabilize Italy’s fragile public finances. The election result and muted market reaction on Monday suggest their efforts are having an impact so far.
“Giorgia Meloni sent reassuring messages on fiscal policy and Italy’s relationship with the EU,” said economists at ING Bank. “Investors will now need some time to assess whether it intends to deliver on those promises.”
Ms Meloni is expected to become Italy’s prime minister in the coming weeks once a new parliament convenes and she gains the support of her junior coalition partners. This would make her Italy’s first-ever female leader and Western Europe’s first national leader with a far-right background in recent decades.
She has vowed to bolster Italy’s role on the world stage after long blaming the political establishment in Rome for not fighting for national interests. She has often criticized the German and French EU leaders and has maintained cordial relations with the nationalist, EU-sceptical leaders of Poland and Hungary.
The looming recession in Europe and sky-high energy costs caused by Russia cutting off natural gas supplies limit Ms Meloni’s options. Italy and other EU countries are seeking an agreement on how to rein in gas and electricity prices and protect homes and businesses from ruinous heating and electricity bills this winter.
“As Prime Minister of Italy, you interact with the member states that you have to do business with to advance your national interests, and of course that starts with France and Germany, not Hungary,” said Nathalie Tocci, head of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. a non-partisan research group.
“She may be a nationalist and eurosceptic at heart, but she is not stupid,” Ms Tocci added.
Ms Meloni will also have to continue many of the economic restructurings she inherited from her predecessor, outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, to ensure the continued flow of tens of billions of euros of EU funds to help Italy and other EU countries recover help from the pandemic.
Despite a campaign promise to cut taxes, Italy’s high national debt and chronically low economic growth leave little room for maneuver.
Ms Meloni said on Monday that Italy must be governed with responsibility, noting that her future government must work with the EU and its political rivals to meet its challenges.
“We are in a particularly complex situation that requires everyone’s help,” she said, calling for national unity.
Many European officials and observers remain skeptical of Ms Meloni, citing her far-right background and ongoing friendship with nationalist leaders in the east of the EU.
“She will have to work hard to break down prejudices against her, to explain that she is not far-right and not a fascist and to establish her credibility,” said Lorenzo Castellani, political scientist at LUISS University in Rome.
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