GGeorge Meloni leaps onto a platform in the shadow of a medieval tower at the end of a grueling day’s campaign. She has already spent two cities, but this one is special. Mestre, the mainland part of Venice, is in Veneto. And Veneto is the region that gave birth to the Northern League. The league is affiliated with Ms Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy (edi), in the alliance expected to win Italy’s September 25 election. Under its leader Matteo Salvini, the League no longer flirts with separatism. But regional autonomy remains very popular in the Veneto. Ms Meloni, who is Roman, leads a strident nationalist movement rooted in neo-fascism. If anywhere she should be unwanted, it’s here.
But the long square in front of her is full. Party with edi loyalists hold a huge flag 25 meters long in the national colors of green, white and red. A disproportionate number of men are in the crowd – more than a quarter in the section counted Economist— dressed in black shirts, which Italians still associate with fascist militias.
Still, the tone of Ms. Maloney’s speech is sober. “I’m not here to tell you everything is fine,” she says, before outlining her plans for the economy. Veneto is a region of mostly small businesses that developed later than other parts of the north. Its inhabitants are proud of their hard work. The brothers, she said, would cut employers’ social security contributions, adjust the corporate tax to encourage them to hire more workers, and change the education system to make it more in line with what the labor market needs. They would also stop foreign companies from buying Italian ones – “absolute nonsense”, Ms Meloni calls it.
This is applauded. The warmest response, however, has come from her advocacy of ending illegal immigration, which she links to drug trafficking and prostitution. The leader of the “Brothers” has the ability to express radical views in a way that makes them sound sane. That’s one reason her party has surged in the polls, from 7% three years ago to nearly 25% in the latest polls, before the polling shutdown took effect on September 10. The edi‘s the success was almost entirely due to the League. Her support fell over the same period from 33% to 12%. In the heart of the League, the imbalance between the two parties is even greater.
All this makes the already strained relationship between Ms. Meloni and Mr. Salvini even more fragile. They drowned out their differences to contest the election in a tripartite alliance with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. And they supported the understanding that the party with the most votes should lead the next government (although the appointment of the prime minister is the prerogative of President Sergio Mattarella).
Since then, however, Ms. Meloni and Mr. Salvini have diverged on both of the company’s most important issues. Ms. Meloni gave her unreserved support to the Western alliance supporting Ukraine. Her ally, a longtime supporter of Vladimir Putin, faltered, posing as a peacemaker, announcing and then canceling a trip to Moscow and questioning the value of sanctions against Russia. While Mr Salvini is calling for a €30 billion package of measures to ease the cost of living, even if it means more debt, the brothers’ leader is in favor of fiscal prudence. Mr Salvini met Mr Berlusconi on September 11, reportedly without informing Ms Meloni, amid speculation the two warring party leaders may be plotting to prevent their ally from becoming prime minister.
None of this bodes well for the stability of Italy’s next government. If the election results match the polls, the right will gain a large parliamentary majority, comparable to that obtained by a similar alliance led by Berlusconi in 2001. This kept him in power for the next five years. But, unlike Ms. Meloni, the media mogul could count on enormous financial resources and influence over the media. And it’s always worth remembering that the average Italian government in the last 30 years has lasted less than 20 months. ■
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