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Italy's Election, A Sign That Trump Could Pay For COVID-19

Italian populist party leader Matteo Salvini's disappointing results in regional elections is being blamed on his erratic handling of the health crisis in one of the worst-hit countries.

In Gragnano, Italy, on Sept. 11, 2020
In Gragnano, Italy, on Sept. 11, 2020
Alessio Perrone

In what some are calling the most consequential U.S. presidential election ever, the coronavirus crisis will no doubt play a role in who voters choose. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the handling of the pandemic is the top issue for 20% of the American electorate, behind only the economy.

Donald Trump's decidedly haphazard, often anti-science response to the health crisis has included his admitting that he intentionally downplayed its severity, scoffed at the use of masks, and regularly compared COVID-19 to the common flu. And as the U.S. tops 200,000 deaths, many are wondering whether he will pay a price at the polls for his coronavirus response.

Now, one possible indication may have arrived this past week from Italy: Right-wing Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, who has largely followed Trump's playbook on the COVID-19 response, suffered a resounding defeat in regional elections.

Make Italy great again? Salvini rose to prominence in March 2018, when a general election propelled him into a power-sharing government and a place atop the polls of Italy's most popular politician.

• The scruffy 47-year-old shares many traits with Trump, whom he called "one of his models': an emphasis on immigration and nationalism, a reluctance to distance himself from neo fascists and white supremacists, and aggressive, populist tirades against the media and the "establishment."

A quick fall: After a falling out with his coalition partner, Salvini continued to garner headlines opposing the government — including the response to the coronavirus that hit Italy particularly hard.

Salvini on the health crisis often sounds like Trump, flailing and full of U-turns and attempts to focus on other issues, like immigration. He protested against mandatory mask-wearing, then backtracked saying masks should be worn when necessary. He called for Italy's Prime Minister to be arrested for not imposing local lockdowns sooner, then claimed that "migrants are the only problem" and that the coronavirus was not an emergency.

Trump and Salvini in 2016 — Photo: Archives

Paying the price: Salvini's fumbling, freestyle approach to COVID-19 seems to have hurt him in a series of regional elections and a national referendum held this past Sunday and Monday.

• Salvini predicted that his party would win all six contended regions, but it took three — and only in coalition with two other major right-wing parties.

• In the contended Veneto region, incumbent governor Luca Zaia, a Lega dissident who openly defies Salvini's leadership, won 75% of the vote on the wings of his measured performance during coronavirus. Veneto saw one of Italy's first coronavirus hotspots, but Zaia heeded scientists and led the region to be among Europe's fastest to defeat the outbreak. Less than 17% of the votes went to Salvini's party.

• A growing number of right-wing Italians have ceased to see Salvini as a leader after the pandemic, preferring another far-right politician, Giorgia Meloni, who provided more leadership during the emergency.

• "Populists haven't been able to capture the need for protection during the COVID-19 emergency," Massimo Giannini, editor-in-chief of La Stampa, commented. "When the pandemic exploded, Salvini got flustered."

Not just Italy: There are indications that COVID-19 could have hit the stock of other populists with unconvincing performances during the pandemic, leaving open the question of whether it will also hurt Donald Trump:

• In the UK, only 30% of Brits approve of the coronavirus management of Boris Johnson, who initially said the UK wanted to achieve herd immunity, waiting to impose a lockdown and making the crisis worse, according to the latest YouGov poll.

• In Germany, the far-right populist party AfD, which embraced conspiracy theories about the virus, has plummeted, according to Die Welt.

• A Brazilian exception: although president Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly sneered at the advice of health professionals and led the country to one of the world's worst death tolls, his approval ratings recently set a new record high, according toFolha de São Paulo.

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Geopolitics

Patronage Or Politics? What's Driving Qatar And Egypt Grand Rapprochement

For Cairo, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil,” with anger directed at Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, and others critical of Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood ouster. But the vitriol is now gone, with the first ever visit by Egyptian President al-Sisi to Doha.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with the Emir of Qatar in June 2022 in Cairo

Beesan Kassab, Daniel O'Connell, Ehsan Salah, Hazem Tharwat and Najih Dawoud

For the first time since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi traveled to Doha last month on an official visit, a capstone in a steadily building rapprochement between the two countries in the last year.

Not long ago, however, the photo-op capturing the two heads of state smiling at one another in Doha would have seemed impossible. In the wake of the Armed Forces’ ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar and Egypt traded barbs.

In the lexicon of the intelligence-controlled Egyptian press landscape, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil” working to undermine Egypt’s stability. Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, was banned from Egypt, but, from its social media accounts and television broadcast, it regularly published salacious and insulting details about the Egyptian administration.

But all of that vitriol is now gone.

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