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Friday September 30th, 2022 8:52AM

The politicians vying to lead Italy's next government

By The Associated Press
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ROME (AP) — The main candidates in Italy's general election Sunday to elect a new Parliament and determine who next governs the country include some familiar names and some lesser-known ones. They range from from three-time Premier Silvio Berlusconi to far-right opposition leader Giorgia Meloni, who is ahead in opinion polls and intent on becoming Italy’s first woman to hold the premiership.

Here are the main players in the Sept. 25 election:

GIORGIA MELONI

Riding high in voter opinion surveys for weeks now, Meloni might become Italy's first far-right premier since the end of World War II, and its first ever female leader. Her Brothers of Italy party has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity since the vote in 2018, when it polled just over 4%.

In the now-expiring legislature, Meloni refused to have her party, which she co-founded in 2012, join any coalition government, including the pandemic unity government under outgoing Premier Mario Draghi.

At 45, Meloni would also be one of Italy’s youngest premiers. She contends that the European Union is too bureaucratic but has said she wouldn’t push for any “Italexit” – pulling the country out of the shared euro currency — and depicts herself as a staunch backer of NATO. She rallies against what she calls LGBT “lobbies’’ and promotes what she says is Europe’s “Christian identity.”

But in sharp contrast to her fellow leaders on Italy’s right — anti-migrant Matteo Salvini and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who have both openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin — Meloni backs military aid for Ukraine.

She is dogged by contentions she hasn't made an unambiguous break with her party’s neo-fascist roots.

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ENRICO LETTA

Letta, the 56-year-old leader of the Democratic Party, Italy’s main center-left force, is Meloni’s chief election rival.

Letta served as premier in a coalition including center-right forces after a 2013 election failed to yield a clear-cut majority. But he lost the premiership after barely 10 months when an ambitious fellow Democrat, Matteo Renzi, maneuvered to take the office for himself.

Burned by the ouster, Letta headed to teach in Paris at the prestigious Sciences Po university. With infighting chronically plaguing the Democrats, he returned to Italy to take back the reins of the party in March 2021.

Letta was foiled in his quest to build a solid center-left electoral alliance to challenge Meloni and her allies when the populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing Parliament, helped to collapse Draghi’s government this summer.

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MATTEO SALVINI

Salvini, the 49-year-old League party leader, had been the unchallenged face of right-wing leadership in Italy until Giorgia Meloni's far-right party took off.

His party has roots in Italy’s industrial north. In a surprise move, he cut a deal in 2018 to govern with the 5-Star Movement, even after deriding the populist forces. A little more than a year later, he maneuvered to oust 5-Star leader Giuseppe Conte from the premiership, so he could take the office for himself. But Conte outmaneuvered Salvini and cut his own deal with the Democratic Party, forming a coalition government that left the League in the opposition.

As interior minister in Conte’s first government, Salvini pushed his hard line against migrants, especially those arriving by the tens of thousands in smugglers’ boats launched from Libya. Under his tenure, migrants rescued by humanitarian ships were kept for days or weeks aboard the overcrowded vessels because he refused to quickly let them disembark. Prosecutors in Sicily had him indicted on kidnapping charges over his policy. He has been found innocent in one case; another trial in Palermo is still going on.

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SILVIO BERLUSCONI

Berlusconi pioneered populist politics in Italy in the 1990s when he formed his own party and named it Forza Italia after a stadium soccer cheer. With his 86th birthday on Sept. 29, and Forza Italia’s popularity shrinking in recent years, the former three-term premier is not gunning for a fourth term but instead hoping for a Senate seat. Nearly a decade ago, the Senate expelled him because of a tax fraud conviction stemming from his media empire.

Berlusconi promises to exercise a moderating influence on the two bigger parties in the right-wing alliance: those of Meloni and Salvini.

Berlusconi's last premiership ended abruptly in 2011 when financial markets lost confidence that the billionaire media magnate could manage his country’s finances during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

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GIUSEPPE CONTE

A lawyer specializing in mediation, Conte, now 58, was plucked out of political obscurity to become premier in 2018 after the populist, euroskeptic 5-Star Movement he now heads stunned Italy’s establishment by sweeping nearly 33% of the vote to become Parliament's largest party. When neither then-5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio nor right-wing leader Matteo Salvini budged on who would become premier, Conte got the job.

Some 15 months later, Conte’s government collapsed when Salvini made a botched move to take the premiership for himself. But Conte outsmarted Salvini by forming a new government that replaced the League with the center-left Democratic Party.

Early in his second stint as premier, Italy became the first nation in the West to be slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Conte enforced one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns. But in January 2021, 16 months into Conte’s second government, it collapsed after Matteo Renzi, a former premier, yanked his small centrist party from the coalition.

___

Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.

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