Italy’s right-wing winners inherit poison chalice

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Lega (League) leader Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni gesture during the closing electoral campaign rally of the centre-right's coalition in Piazza del Popolo, ahead of the September 25 general election, in Rome, Italy, September 22, 2022. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

MILAN, Sept 26 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Italian politics has shifted decisively to the right. A coalition of parties led by nationalist Giorgia Meloni, EU-sceptic firebrand Matteo Salvini and convicted former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi secured a clear parliamentary majority in Sunday’s general election. Despite a show of unity on the campaign trail, the allies disagree on issues from Russian sanctions to spending. The rivalries risk undermining the debt-laden nation’s ability to confront an energy squeeze that represents its biggest challenge since the euro zone crisis.

The new government will replace the national unity executive led by former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, which lasted just 18 months. Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy emerged as the largest party. That makes it likely President Sergio Mattarella will pick Meloni to be the country’s first female prime minister.

The 45-year-old, who started in politics at the age of 15 as a member of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, faces an uphill struggle. Soaring energy prices are destabilising large sections of Italy’s economy, possibly leading to rationing and a recession. The crisis threatens 120,000 companies and 370,000 jobs, says business lobby group Confcommercio.

Draghi allocated over 40 billion euros to fight soaring energy inflation. But prolonged high electricity prices would require further action. League leader Salvini, a former eurosceptic who has backed Russian President Vladimir Putin, favours borrowing 30 billion euros to subsidise energy bills. Berlusconi, who has also been close to the Russian leader, would like to lift minimum pensions to 1,000 euros a month, at a potential cost of 31 billion euros a year. With public debt of 2.8 trillion euros, about 150% of GDP, and yields on 10-year government bonds that have doubled to 4% in six months, Italy can ill afford to further stretch its finances.

Meloni, who said on Monday she wanted to unite Italy, supports sanctions against Russia and has stated Italy will stick to EU fiscal rules. Her advisers say the new government could slash a poverty relief scheme to fund tax cuts. But Meloni’s seemingly more prudent approach may falter if her allies push to deliver on their own electoral promises. Though Salvini may be forced out after his poor electoral performance, the League would still seek to differentiate itself from Meloni.

The winning coalition has promised to rule for five years. That would be an achievement in a country where governments last on average about 14 months. Initial rivalries will make it even harder.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. Updates to add graphic.)

CONTEXT NEWS

Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy emerged as the largest party in Italy’s parliament in the general election on Sept. 25. With counting nearly complete on Sept. 26, Meloni’s party had attracted nearly 26% of preferences, according to Interior Ministry data. The party attracted just 4% of the national vote at the last election in 2018.

A rightist alliance combining the Brothers of Italy, the anti-immigration League and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia clinched some 44% of the votes, enough to command a majority in both houses of parliament.

The coalition is expected to form a government by the end of October with 45-year-old Meloni as prime minister, the first female premier in Italy’s history.

The League collected around 9% of the vote, down from more than 17% four years ago. Berlusconi’s party scored around 8%.

Voting turnout collapsed to 64%, a record low.

Editing by Peter Thal Larsen and Oliver Taslic

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