Italy’s Parliament has elected a Eurosceptic admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin as its new speaker, stoking fresh concerns about Italy’s foreign policy direction under a new rightwing government.
Lorenzo Fontana, a close ally of Matteo Salvini in his populist League party and a socially conservative opponent of homosexuality, was elected speaker with 222 votes. The vote paves the way for Giorgia Meloni’s fractious three-party rightwing coalition that won September’s election to move ahead with forming a government.
Analysts said Fontana’s election as speaker — the third most powerful position in Italian politics after the president and Senate speaker — is a reminder of the continuing power and influence of the pro-Russia wing of Salvini’s League, on which the stability of the new government will depend.
Meloni, who is expected to be asked by president Sergio Mattarella to become the new prime minister, has vigorously denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and pledged Italy’s continuing support for Kyiv. But during the election campaign, Salvini openly complained about the heavy price that Italians were paying for the economic sanctions against Russia, highlighting the tensions within the rightwing alliance.
Doubts about the new government’s ability and commitment to continue the course followed by Draghi — who has been at the forefront of the tough European response to the invasion of Ukraine — will be amplified by Fontana’s election.
“It’s a very nasty signal,” said Francesco Galietti, founder of Policy Sonar, a Rome-based political risk consultancy. “For all Meloni’s effort to position herself as a staunch Atlanticist, she is not fully in control. We have the third senior ranking figure in Italy’s institutional hierarchy who is a Moscow poodle.”
The deeply conservative Fontana, who is known for his strident opposition to homosexuality and migration and once hailed Brexit as “the start of a new era” that could transform the EU, has called Putin’s Russia a “model” society, describing it as “a shining light, even for us in the west”.
In 2014, Fontana travelled to Crimea as an election observer to oversee Russia’s referendum to annex the occupied peninsula, and has repeatedly denounced EU sanctions against Moscow, Later that year he wore a t-shirt in the European parliament with the slogan “no sanctions against Russia”.
“The Crimean people feel they have returned to their motherland — the EU should take a step back on sanctions against Russia,” he declared.
Fontana has said little about Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has caused widespread revulsion in Italy. But in June he questioned the economic sanctions against Russia, telling a newspaper interviewer that Russians were more likely to be able to endure the sanctions than western societies.
“The Russian people are historically accustomed to difficulties — more used to it than the west,” he was quoted as saying. “I wouldn’t want them to be able to get through difficult times better than us”.
Ahead of the vote in parliament Friday, members of opposition parties held up a banner in parliament saying: “No to a homophobic, pro-Putin speaker.”
The vote came a day after Ignazio Benito La Russa — a collector of fascist memorabilia who recently described all Italians ‘heirs of Il Duce,’ the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — became president of the Senate, or upper house of parliament.