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L’AQUILA, Italy — At a rally in L’Aquila, a medieval university city surrounded by mountain peaks, Giorgia Meloni bellowed with fervor. “On September 25, it will be you who decides 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 her far-right party, Brothers of Italy, takes its name.
Polls suggest the Brothers will win the backing of one in four Italian voters in the election on September 25, putting Meloni on course to lead a right-wing coalition as Italy’s next prime minister.
After the resignation of Mario Draghi in July, a Meloni victory would mark a sharp change of direction for Italy at a critical time for the country’s economy, as Europe grapples with the twin threats of war on its doorstep and rocketing inflation.
Meloni’s choice of L’Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, for the rally last week was not an accident. Historically swinging between center left and right, Abruzzo is now one part of the country where the Brothers’ policies can be seen in action. It was the first region to come under the party’s control in 2019, making it a laboratory for far-right rule.
So far, the results seem popular enough. L’Aquila has been governed by a Brothers of Italy mayor since 2017 and he was re-elected in June, winning 54 percent of the vote in the first round.
Meloni told the crowd that she had chosen to run in this city as its candidate for parliament because she sees the region as “a symbolic territory” for her party. “This is the first land we governed and the symbol of our good governance … This is how we want to govern Italy.”
According to those gathered at the rally, the Brothers have demonstrated their competence in response to two major crises in the region: the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing reconstruction needs after an earthquake in 2009, which killed more than 300 and left 60,000 homeless. Locals also praised the authorities for securing a recent visit by the pope.
Antonio Pace, a shepherd turned policeman, backed Meloni and criticized the way the left-wing authorities handled the aftermath of the earthquake. “If the right hadn’t got in, we would still be living in containers,” he said.
Giacomo Soccorsi, a fireman, said he had come to see Meloni speak to decide whether to vote for her. “Since the right came in, the city is better every year. The building sites are working and the city has come alive again.”
Locals seemed to like Meloni’s authenticity and working-class credentials, noting her “grit,” the fact she speaks plainly and shows determination. According to a recent poll by GDC Sondaggi, 25 percent of voters in Abruzzo plan to vote for 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 traditional party politics, according to Pierluigi Testa of the Rome-based think tank Trinità dei Monti. That meant Meloni could benefit from her status as a political outsider.
“For a decade, Meloni stayed out of government and never got her hands dirty in coalitions,” said Testa. “More recently, she has reinvented herself as conservative instead of Euroskeptic, by supporting NATO and collaborating with Draghi and this has helped her gain the support of more sophisticated voters.”
Stefano Gardelli, the owner of a beach club in Pescara, is a long-standing supporter of Meloni who believes the Brothers’ success in Abruzzo prepares her well for taking national control. “The right won the region because they ran L’Aquila well, and demonstrated that Brothers of Italy can govern,” he said. “Now Abruzzo can be a model for the country.”
But not everyone thinks Abruzzo is a good template for Italy. In reality, it ranked as the ninth-worst region for the number of COVID-19 deaths per head of population and fared worse than comparable central regions such as Marche and Umbria. Opponents complain that healthcare is increasingly in the hands of private enterprise while the rights of women and minorities have been undermined.
At both the city and regional levels, the Brothers have adopted measures that make it harder for migrants to access social housing. This is a point of pride for the party. “Thanks to Brothers of Italy, in Abruzzo the fast track for foreigners for social housing has been eliminated,” Meloni wrote in 2019. “Italians first is not just a slogan.”
Activists also took legal action against the city of L’Aquila after it refused food vouchers to immigrants during the pandemic.
‘Criminal and shortsighted’
Pierluigi Iannarelli, leader of the local center-left Democratic Party, denounced what he called “unacceptable discrimination” as “criminal and shortsighted, in a historic emergency.” He told POLITICO: “The treatment of immigrants has definitely gotten worse since they took power.”
Campaigners are also concerned that the local authorities’ policies weaken women’s reproductive rights.
The region’s health authority has ignored national government guidelines that allow women to obtain a pharmaceutical abortion without a hospital stay. Then last year, three regional Brothers of Italy politicians proposed a law to bury aborted fetuses in a cemetery, even without a request from the woman.
According to activists, enforced hospital stays prevent some women from getting abortions as they may have to take time off work, or arrange childcare, while the creation of cemeteries for aborted fetuses is intended to shame women who abort.
Sara Marcozzi, a regional councilor in the centrist Impegno Civico grouping, successfully opposed the proposals for such a cemetery. In Abruzzo, one doesn’t breathe fascism in the air, she said, but this proposal “smelled of fascism.”
Left-wingers and representatives of minorities are concerned that the right will be further emboldened if they take power at the national level.
Patrick Guobadia, an activist for immigrant rights in Abruzzo of Nigerian origin, said that Abruzzo is not a racist place, but “where the right govern in Italy, immigrant issues are second place. We know they don’t want immigrants in Italy.”
While Abruzzo may be the Brothers’ home territory, not everyone expects the right’s success in Abruzzo or at the national level to last for long.
Marcozzi, the councilor, warned that it is “easy to win making promises and riding on a wave of people’s fear. But then you have to do things.” Referencing the flame in the Brothers of Italy logo, she said: “I think the flame will go out soon.”