Elections will be Italy’s ‘Brexit’ moment, warns PD leader

Italy's election gives voters a choice between such radically different ideas of the country and its place in Europe that it compares to Brexit, the centre-left's leader said on Monday.

Elections will be Italy's 'Brexit' moment, warns PD leader
Leader of Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) Giorgia Meloni speaks in front of a photo of PD (Partito Democratico) leader Enrico Letta. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Centre-left Democratic Party (PD) leader Enrico Letta faced Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right Brothers of Italy, for the only live debate between the two leaders before the September 25 vote.

“This is a crossroads, a sort of referendum, a bit like in Great Britain when they had to choose between Brexit and staying in the EU,” Letta said, calling for “more Europe, not less”.

EXPLAINED: Five key points from the Meloni vs Letta debate

Brussels “must deal with the big issues”, Meloni said in the debate, streamed by the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

But her right-wing coalition – which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant League and Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia party – also believes countries must be able to protect their own interests, she said.

While the PD’s centre-left coalition is pro-Europe, the parties in the right-wing alliance are known for nativist, Eurosceptic views and, in the case of Salvini and Berlusconi, friendly relations with Russia.

Meloni has distanced herself from statements made by Salvini recently in which he criticised EU sanctions against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Who is Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s likely next prime minister?

Giorgia Meloni, leader of far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, is expected to become Italy’s next prime minister. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Meloni, who has wooed Italians with her motto of “God, country and family”, won the debate, according to the left-leaning Domani daily.

“Letta lost, unequivocally. He spent the whole debate, just as in the last few weeks, on fighting an imaginary Giorgia Meloni. The one of past excesses… not the institutional version of today”, it said.

Brothers of Italy is widely expected to be the biggest winner in the election, with Meloni set to become the country’s next prime minister.

The party is polling at 24 percent, with support soaring in recent years – despite it being a political descendant of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), formed by supporters of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.

EXPLAINED: Five ways Italy’s 2022 elections will be different

The right-wing coalition is expected to take around 46-48 percent of the vote, according to polls.

The PD is expected to pocket 21 percent of the vote, and Letta said his is the only party which can prevent Italy from ending up with a government like that led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

In a startling move, Letta admitted defeat last week – but urged undecided voters to choose his party anyway, or risk handing the right a landslide victory and the absolute majority in parliament that would allow it to change the constitution.

Letta – whose party is polling just behind Brothers of Italy, but which has failed to pull together an alliance strong enough to challenge the right – said his rivals posed a threat to immigrants’ rights, to women’s rights, and to LGBT rights.

Meloni said religious identity was fundamental, and said gay couples must not be allowed to adopt – but claimed she had no plans to cut access to abortion.

Find all the latest news on Italy’s election race here.

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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.