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A far-right group with neo-fascist roots wins big in Italy's election

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Giorgia Meloni is set to become Italy's new prime minister. She's the head of the Brothers of Italy Party, a far-right group with neo-fascist roots. And until recently, it was on the fringes of Italian politics. Just four years ago, the party won just 4% of the votes. Now it's become Italy's largest political party, claiming the greatest percentage of the vote in this week's elections. To talk about the implications of this result, we turn to Max Bergmann. He served in the State Department under President Barack Obama. He now directs the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

MAX BERGMANN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How much of this party's rapid success is because of Giorgia Meloni herself?

BERGMANN: I think a lot of it. I mean, she has ran a really excellent campaign. I think the other thing to realize is that she was not in government. There was a national unity caretaker government headed by a former chairman of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. And she was in the opposition, which allowed her to sort of grow her profile and to really sort of professionalize her party. And she has, you know, shown that she's a really adept politician. And the efforts of the opposition to portray her as sort of neo-fascist frankly didn't work because the Italian voters didn't really believe it. And she had done a lot to try to moderate the way she (inaudible) across and many of her policy positions. So I think she sort of deserves a lot of credit for successfully winning this election and really coming out of nowhere in terms of Italian politics.

MARTIN: There's a speech from 2019 that she gave that's been circulating widely on social media. And in it, she talks about protecting God, country and family. And she also talks about fears of becoming, quote, "slaves and simple consumers at the mercy of financial speculators." What's that about?

BERGMANN: Well, I think part of the roots of her party and part of her appeal in Italy is that there's a lot of concern about social change. You know, Italy has been known as a very Catholic, conservative country, and they have experienced a lot of the progressive change in Italy that we've experienced here in America and has taken place across Europe. And so in that sense, she is very much a social conservative that we would know in sort of Christian conservative roots. But when that comes to actual implementing policies, reversing abortion, for instance, is not popular in Italy. So there's a real question of how far she will actually go in sort of trying to turn back the social clock in Italy. And so I think some of this is that's part of her populist appeal that has helped gain her a legitimate base of voters. And then she sort of moved away from that in - to expand her appeal further to actually win the election and become the next prime minister.

MARTIN: How do the Brothers of Italy compare to other far-right political parties that are on the rise in Europe?

BERGMANN: Well - so there's sort of a collection of three far-right or center-right parties that are going to form a government. And I think the one thing I'd say is that I think it's a relief, especially to the Biden administration and probably to the United States, that it's her that will lead the government and not the two others, Matteo Salvini, who - from the League Party, who has very close ties to Russia and has opposed sanctions. And then Silvio Berlusconi, who's a former Italian prime minister who was wrapped up in scandal throughout his tenure and also has ties to Putin, has said negative things about sanctions. So with Meloni, at least she has advocated a pro-trans-Atlantic stance, has opposed Russia. And so it looks like Italy will remain a solid member of the trans-Atlantic alliance, at least when it comes to Ukraine.

MARTIN: And that's different than other far-right political parties that have been resurgent in Europe.

BERGMANN: Yeah, I think there's a lot of question about sanctions in - support for European sanctions, and Salvini, who will be part of her coalition, has spoken out against sanctions repeatedly. So this could be a major wedge.

MARTIN: Sanctions against Russia for the war in Ukraine, right?

BERGMANN: Yes. Against the European sanctions that have been put in place against Russia. And Salvini has spoken out against them. So I think at the very least, this will be a major wedge issue within the coalition. But the hope is that Meloni will hold the line and support European sanctions against Russia.

MARTIN: Max Bergmann with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, we appreciate you. Thanks.

BERGMANN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.