ROME – Now that Italy’s left/right populist ruling coalition has gone the way of so many Italian governments before – meaning, it’s ended in paralysis, bickering and blame – it looks like Italians may be headed to the polls sometime soon.

When they do, arguably the single most important opposition figure won’t be on the ballot and probably won’t campaign at all, even in the most indirect sense: Pope Francis, one of whose titles, after all, is “Primate of Italy.”

The race shapes up as a referendum on Matteo Salvini, currently the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League party, who’s become the most popular and polarizing figure in Italian political life since the heyday of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Since 2018, Salvini has dominated political life in his role as Interior Minister, which afforded him authority to impose a steadily harder line on immigration, among other things refusing permission for boats loaded with refugees even to dock in Italian ports. That’s proved wildly popular with Italians fearful of being overrun, and resentful of the EU for not doing more to help.

It also, of course, is a deeply ironic tack for the pope’s own backyard to take under a pontiff who’s the world’s best-known pro-immigrant figure.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for the current government turned out to be a project for a high-speed train linking Turin with Lyon in France, which Salvini supports and the Five Star movement opposes as a multibillion-dollar boondoggle with damaging environmental consequences. When he lost a parliamentary vote this week on the train, Salvini declared the coalition dead.

It’s now up to Italian President Sergio Mattarella to decide what happens next, but it’s hard to image any outcome other than new elections.

In many ways, the looming contest for the heart and soul of Italy comes down to a choice between the two most visible and influential figures here: Salvini and Francis.

Salvini represents a strong nationalist impulse, one that’s never really gone away since the era of Mussolini. (Recently the mayor of Predappio, a small northern town in Italy’s Appenines, announced plans to open Mussolini’s tomb there year-round because it attracts so many visitors and devotees.) Salvini also appeals to cultural conservatives and traditionalist Catholics, often appearing in public brandishing a Bible or a rosary and insisting that he defends Western Christian values.

Above all, Salvini is a hero to the “Italy for the Italians” constituency – what you might call the Basta! party, invoking the Italian word for “Enough!” Four years into the European refugee crisis, a humanitarian catastrophe for which Italy has been forced to carry a disproportionate burden due to EU ineptitude, that party is understandably growing.

Pope Francis – whose own roots, let us recall, are in the Piedmont region of northern Italy – incarnates the other Italy.

He appeals to the Social Gospel wing of Catholicism, based on a sense of vocation about caring for the weak and marginalized, which has been a massively influential force in Italy since the era of St. Francis himself, and which crystallized doctrinally beginning with Pope Leo XII in the late 19th century. (The tiny oratory in my neighborhood where I go to Mass on Sunday belongs to a lay movement founded in the mid-20th century called the “Silent Workers of the Cross”, which is dedicated to caring for the sick, and which comes straight out of that tradition. These are Pope Francis people.)

Francis evokes the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, open ethos of Italy, the idea of Italy as the crossroads of the world, which is a reputation that has always filled people here with pride. He appeals to the basic generosity of Italians, who may have a hard time running systems but who generally are gold medalists in human relations.

Most importantly for Italian politics today, Francis stands for welcome and compassion in the face of the country’s swelling migrant and refugee population, reminding Italians of their long history as both a destination for immigrants and also as immigrants themselves.

At the moment, polls suggest Salvini’s League party could capture as much as 40 percent of the vote, which is not enough to govern alone, but it’s far more than any other political faction commands. His erstwhile coalition partner, the Five Star movement led by Luigi Di Maio, only has about 17 percent, and the center-left mainstream Democratic Party has about 22.

Most observers here think Salvini will craft a coalition with two other right-wing parties. One is Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”) led by Giorgia Meloni, the main heir to the country’s post-fascist conservative tradition, and the other is Popolo della Libertà (“People of Liberty”) led by Berlusconi. Both are polling between six and eight percent, and, adding those totals to the vote for the League, you can get to around 52 percent or so.

Such projections, however, are based on how things stand before a campaign, and Salvini may not be off to the most auspicious start. Many Italians are already upset that he didn’t wait until after ferragosto, the country’s traditional mid-August holiday, to trigger upheaval and force the political and media classes back to work.

Though without any specific reference to the Italian situation, Francis himself came out out swinging on Friday with a new interview in which he appeared to compare Salvini-style populism to the Nazis.

“I am worried because you hear speeches that resemble those by Hitler in 1934. ‘Us first, We… We ….'” Such thinking, he said, “is frightening.”

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Perhaps the most important variable is this: Assuming Francis himself maintains his usual hands-off stance with regard to internal Italian politics, will someone else – a churchman, perhaps, or a politician, or some other opinion-maker – emerge as an effective translator for the pontiff’s vision?

Another interesting element is the addition of a compelling new papal mouthpiece between the last election and this one, in the form of veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli as the Vatican’s editorial director. It will be interesting to see if Tornielli is able to resist the lure of being dragged into the campaign cycle — or, for that matter, if he’s even inclined to resistance.

This summer began with the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso running a cover story with Pope Francis dressed as Zorro, since Salvini opponents have taken to showing up at his rallies dressed as the legendary swordfighter. The conceit was that Francis is the inspiration, the de facto commander-in-chief, of the Italy that doesn’t stand with Salvini and the League.

As it turns out, this fall may give us an x-ray of just how large that “other Italy” really is, and how it fares in a straight up-or-down vote.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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