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L’AQUILA, Italy — At a rally in L’Aquila, a medieval university town surrounded by mountain peaks, Giorgia Meloni howled fervently. “On September 25, you will decide if this country is ready to be free.”
The crowd cheered in response and waved tricolor flags as Meloni – flanked by local mayors – sang the national anthem from which his far-right party, Brothers of Italy, takes its name.
Polls suggest the Brotherhood will win the support of one in four Italian voters in the September 25 election, putting Meloni on track to lead a right-wing coalition as Italy’s next prime minister.
Following the resignation of Mario Draghi in July, a victory for Meloni would mark a dramatic change of direction for Italy at a critical time for the country’s economy, as Europe grapples with the dual threat of war at its gate and soaring inflation.
Meloni’s choice of L’Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, for last week’s rally was no coincidence. Historically oscillating between centre-left and centre-right, Abruzzo is now a part of the country where Brotherhood politics can be seen in action. It was the first region to come under party control in 2019, making it a laboratory for far-right power.
So far, the results seem pretty popular. L’Aquila has been governed by a Brethren of Italy mayor since 2017 and he was re-elected in June, winning 54% of the vote in the first round.
Meloni told the crowd that she chose to run in this city as a candidate for parliament because she considers the region “symbolic territory” for her party. “This is the first land we ruled and the symbol of our good governance… This is how we want to rule Italy.”
According to those gathered at the rally, the Brothers demonstrated their competence in responding to two major crises in the region: the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing reconstruction needs after an earthquake in 2009, which killed more than 300 people and left 60,000 homeless. Residents also praised authorities for securing a recent visit from the Pope.
Antonio Pace, a shepherd-turned-policeman, supported Meloni and criticized the way leftist authorities handled the aftermath of the earthquake. “If the right hadn’t come in, we would still be living in containers,” he said.
Giacomo Soccorsi, a firefighter, said he came to see Meloni speak to decide whether or not to vote for her. “Since the right arrived, the city is better every year. The sites are working and the city has come back to life.
The locals seemed to like Meloni’s authenticity and working-class credentials, noting her “spunk”, the fact that she speaks clearly and shows determination. According to a recent poll by GDC Sondaggi, 25% of voters in Abruzzo plan to vote for the Brothers of Italy.
Nationally, far-right populism has gained support after largely technocratic leadership since 2011 led to economic decline and undermined the legitimacy of mainstream party politics, according to Pierluigi Testa of the Rome-based think tank Trinità dei Monti. This meant that Meloni could benefit from his status as a political outsider.
“For a decade, Meloni stayed out of government and never got her hands dirty in coalitions,” Testa said. “More recently, she has reinvented herself as a conservative instead of a Eurosceptic, backing NATO and collaborating with Draghi, which has helped her win the support of more sophisticated voters.”
Stefano Gardelli, owner of a beach club in Pescara, is a longtime Meloni supporter who believes the Brethren’s success in Abruzzo is preparing her well to take national control. “The right won the region because it led L’Aquila well and demonstrated that the Brothers of Italy can govern,” he said. “Now Abruzzo can be a model for the country.”
But not everyone thinks Abruzzo is a good role model for Italy. In fact, it ranked ninth among regions for the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita and fared worse than comparable central regions such as Marche and Umbria. Opponents complain that health care is increasingly in the hands of private companies while the rights of women and minorities have been trampled on.
Both at city and regional level, the Brothers have adopted measures that make it more difficult for migrants to access social housing. It is a pride for the party. “Thanks to the Brothers of Italy, in Abruzzo, the fast track for foreigners for social housing has been removed,” Meloni wrote in 2019. “Italians first is not just a slogan.”
Activists have also filed a lawsuit against the city of L’Aquila after it denied food stamps to immigrants during the pandemic.
“Criminal and Myopic”
Pierluigi Iannarelli, leader of the local centre-left Democratic Party, denounced what he described as “unacceptable discrimination” as “criminal and myopic, in a historic emergency”. He told POLITICO: “The treatment of immigrants has definitely gotten worse since they took power.”
Activists also fear that local authority policies undermine women’s reproductive rights.
The region’s health authority has ignored national government guidelines that allow women to get a medical abortion without a hospital stay. Then last year, three regional Brethren politicians from Italy proposed a law to bury aborted fetuses in a cemetery, even without a request from the woman.
Activists say enforced hospital stays prevent some women from having abortions as they may have to miss work or arrange childcare, while creating cemeteries for aborted fetuses aims to shame women who abort.
Sara Marcozzi, regional councilor of the centrist group Impegno Civico, successfully opposed proposals for such a cemetery. In Abruzzo you don’t breathe fascism in the air, she said, but this proposal “smelt of fascism”.
The left and representatives of minorities fear that the right will become more emboldened if it takes power at the national level.
Patrick Guobadia, a Nigerian-born immigrant rights activist in Abruzzo, said Abruzzo was not a racist place, but “where the right rules in Italy, immigrant issues take a back seat. We know they don’t want immigrants in Italy.
Although Abruzzo is the Brethren’s home territory, not everyone expects the success of the right in Abruzzo or nationally to last long.
Marcozzi, the city councilor, warned that it is “easy to win by making promises and riding the wave of people’s fear. But then you have to do things. Referring to the flame in the Brothers of Italy logo, she said, “I think the flame will go out soon.”