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Italian right celebrates rise in historically left-wing Umbria

Italy's right-wing opposition alliance was on Monday celebrating a local election victory in Umbria, a region known as a left-wing “stronghold” for the past 70 years.

Italian right celebrates rise in historically left-wing Umbria
League leader Matteo Salvini speaks in Umbria on October 19th. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Support for the Five Star Movement (M5S) nosedived in the local poll, as did the vote for the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which has been rocked by a health scandal in the region.

READ ALSO: Italian right hopes to conquer left stronghold in key vote

Right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini had vowed to wrest Umbria, a hilly region neighbouring Tuscany, from the left in the first of several key region elections he hopes will bring his party back to power.

Salvini said the results of Sunday's vote were “extraordinary”, expressing his “joy and emotion” after the right's candidate Donatella Tesei won with more than 57 percent, compared to 37 percent for the coalition government's candidate.

It was Salvini's anti-immigrant League party that had swept the board, bringing home 37 percent of the vote in a region which has voted left for 70 years.

The former interior minister's campaign trail allies – the smaller, far-right Brothers of Italy, and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia – respectively won 10 percent and 5.8 percent.

The government coalition of M5S and the PD are former enemies who joined forces for the regional vote in a bid to beat Salvini, but came up short.

File photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The PD won 22 percent, but the M5S took home just 7.4 percent – a poor result which shook the party to its core.

Salvini said the “days are numbered” for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the PD and M5S leaders, who are accused by the right of having “betrayed” Italians by forming an alliance to prevent Salvini forcing snap elections.

ANALYSIS: How Matteo Salvini lost his gamble to become Italy's PM – for now

“The centre-right has the right and duty to govern the country,” Berlusconi said after the Umbria win, while Brothers of Italy head Giorgia Meloni said “if I was Conte, I'd hand in my resignation faster than light”.

Political analysts had said a poor result for the M5S could spark an internal rebellion within the Movement by those who were against the tie-up with the hated PD on a national level, or those who want their leader Luigi Di Maio gone.

“The implosion or endurance of the M5S worries the PD a lot,” political commentator Ilario Lombardo said in the Stampa daily, warning the fallout from the vote for the Movement would be “deeply wounding”.

The centre-right managed to tap into disillusionment over an economic crisis worsened by a series of earthquakes that struck central Italy in 2016, killing hundreds of people and devastating towns and villages.

The region was already suffering from the economic crisis, which hit historic companies like chocolate maker Perugina hard, while Umbria's biggest factory, the Terni steelworks, has struggled for years and periodically risks closure.

“We always considered the civil pact for Umbria to be a test, but the experiment did not work,” M5S said on Facebook.

 

It said a tie-up with the PD at other regional votes was now in question but brushed off suggestions the coalition government could be brought down by the Umbria loss.

The Democratic Party acknowledged it had been hampered at the ballot box by a health sector scandal: Umbria governor and PD member Catiuscia Marini quit in April following a probe into competitive exams for the hiring of hospital staff.

Umbria is the latest historically left-leaning region to swing to the right, after mayoral election votes saw the right-wing coalition surge in areas including Ferrara and Forli earlier this year.

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

ANALYSIS: Italy’s hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Italian election winner Giorgia Meloni may at first glance have much in common with ultra-conservative governments in fellow EU nations Poland and Hungary, but experts say that when it comes to real-world policy any alliance could soon run into limits.

ANALYSIS: Italy's hard right set to clash with EU allies over Russia

Reaction to Sunday’s strong result for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was muted from pillars of EU integration like Paris and Berlin, but Warsaw and Budapest were warm in their congratulations.

“We’ve never had greater need of friends sharing a vision of and a common approach to Europe,” the Hungarian government said, while from Poland came praise for Meloni’s “great victory”.

“Hungary and Poland are more than happy with this election, first because it relieves the pressure on their own countries in the EU, and second because it paves the way for a more united front,” said Yordan Bozhilov, director of the Bulgaria-based Sofia Security Forum think-tank.

READ ALSO: Polish PM hails far-right’s ‘great victory’ in Italian elections

The Italian election follows hard on the heels of a Swedish poll that also produced a surge for the extreme right.

But with the far right in power in one of the EU’s largest countries and founding members, Hungary and Poland could be far less isolated in their battles with Brussels over rule-of-law issues.

What’s more, Rome, Budapest and Warsaw are now set for alignment on social concerns, with anti-Islam, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT positions.

“Together we will defeat the cynical and pampered Eurocrats who are destroying the European Union, breaching treaties, destroying our civilisation and advancing the LGBT agenda!” Poland’s deputy agriculture minister Janusz Kowalski tweeted in a message congratulating Meloni on Monday.

Meloni also shares her prospective allies’ vision of a Christian, white Europe made up of sovereign nations.

EXPLAINED: What’s behind election success for Italy’s far right?

“Hungary and Poland are countries that want to change the EU from within, and they don’t hide it. So far they haven’t succeeded, but there will definitely be an attempt to create a Rome-Budapest-Warsaw axis,” said Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But such parties’ demands have already moderated in recent years from full exit from the EU, “given the absolute cautionary tale that Brexit has been,” she added.

Instead, the axis could become “spoilers, the sand in the gears” in Brussels.

“One step forward, two steps back, they could prevent the EU making progress while continuing to benefit from joint funds,” Varma said.

– Splits over Russia –

 A front based on values could still founder when faced with today’s overriding concern of the war in Ukraine and EU relations with Russia.

While Meloni has so far matched Warsaw in declarations of support for Ukraine and for EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of its neighbour, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban – close to President Vladimir Putin – is
opposed.

“At some point, Meloni will have to choose between Poland and Hungary,” Varma predicted.

The Brothers of Italy leader is not expected to bend her position to match those of her junior coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are friendlier to Moscow.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

“Regarding foreign policy, as far as we know Meloni backs the sanctions against Russia and Brothers of Italy is closer to Poland’s PiS (governing party) than Hungary’s Fidesz,” said Hungarian analyst Patrik Szicherle.

Meloni has “sent the right messages on Ukraine,” said Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund, pointing out Italy’s critical relationship with the US as a reliable NATO ally.

Once elected prime minister, she “has every incentive to have good relations with Brussels, not to enter a pitched battle,” said Paolo Modugno, professor of Italian civilisation at Paris’ Sciences Po university.

Meloni “is very aware of the Italian public’s problems, their fear of inflation and the economic situation. What’s urgent for her is to manage the crisis, not to take ideological risks,” he added.

Analysts suggest that the incoming government’s choice of top ministers, especially in the finance and foreign ministries, will clearly signal how Meloni plans to position herself in Europe.

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