ROME — Italians will vote on Sunday in what is seen as a crucial election as Europe grapples with the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. For the first time in Italy since the end of World War II, an election could propel a far-right leader to the prime ministership.
Soaring energy prices and rapidly rising prices for food items such as bread — the result of Russia’s incursion into breadbasket Ukraine — have hit many Italian families and businesses hard.
Against this bleak backdrop, Giorgia Meloni and her party’s Italian brothers – with neo-fascist roots and an agenda of God, country and Christian identity – appear to be the frontrunners in Italy’s parliamentary elections.
They could be a test of whether right-wing sentiment is gaining ground in the 27-member European Union. Recently, a right-wing party gained popularity in Sweden by exploiting people’s fear of crime.
No party in Italy has much of a chance of winning enough seats to govern alone, but the center-right and center-right forged a campaign pact that could give Meloni a majority in parliament and take him to power. His main alliance partner is right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini, who blames migrants for crime and has long been a staunch ideological booster of the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland.
“An election in the middle of a war, in the middle of an energy crisis and probably at the dawn of an economic crisis … almost by definition is a crucial election,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based think tank. tank Institute of International Relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, is playing on the “breakdown of Europe” under the weight of economic and energy problems caused by the war, Tocci told The Associated Press.
Salvini, who draws his voter base from business owners in northern Italy, has worn pro-Putin T-shirts in the past. Salvini has also questioned the wisdom of maintaining Western economic sanctions against Russia, saying they could harm Italy’s economic interests too much.
Polls were suspended for 15 days before Sunday’s vote, but before then they showed Meloni’s party winning the most votes, ahead of the centre-left Democratic Party led by former prime minister Enrico Letta.
A campaign alliance linking Meloni with Salvini and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi gives him a clear advantage over Letta in Italy’s complex system of distributing parliamentary seats.
Letta had in vain hoped for a campaign alliance with the left-wing populist 5 Star Movement, which is the largest party in the outgoing legislature.
While this is an anxious moment for Europe, Sunday’s election could have the lowest turnout ever in modern Italy. In the last election, in 2018, the voter turnout was a record low – 73%. Pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco says this time that percentage could drop to 66%.
Pregliasco, who runs polling firm YouTrend, says Italy’s last three different governing coalitions have left Italians “dissatisfied and disillusioned” since the last election. They do not consider their voice important.
The outgoing government is led by the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. In early 2021, Italy’s president invited Draghi to form a unity government after the collapse of another governing coalition led by Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte.
Pregliasco called it an “apparent paradox” that polls show that “most Italians like Draghi and think his government has done a good job.” Yet Meloni, the only major party leader who refused to join Draghi’s coalition, is the strongest.
As Tocci put it, Melon’s party is so popular “simply because it’s the new kid on the block.”
Draghi has said he does not want another term.
Meloni is still frustrated by criticism that he has not made an unequivocal break with his party’s roots in the neo-fascist movement, founded by those nostalgic for the dictator Benito Mussolini after his regime’s disastrous role in World War II. During the campaign, he declared that he was not a threat to democracy.
Some political analysts say that worrying about the fascist question is not their main concern.
“I fear incompetence, not the threat of fascism,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of political science at LUISS, a private university in Rome. “He has ruled nothing.”
Meloni served as youth minister in Berlusconi’s last government, which ended a decade ago.
Instead, it’s his main right-wing coalition partner to worry about, D’Alimonte told the AP.
“Salvini is the disruptor, not Meloni,” he said. “It’s not asking for Meloni to end the sanctions against Russia. It’s Salvini. It’s not asking for higher debt or a bigger deficit for Meloni. It’s Salvini.”
But recent incidents have raised concerns about the Italian brothers.
An Italian Brotherhood candidate in Sicily was suspended by his party after he posted phrases on social media expressing admiration for Hitler. Separately, the brother of one of Melon’s co-founders was spotted giving a fascist salute at a relative’s funeral. The brother denied what he did.
For years, the right wing has fought against rampant immigration, after hundreds of thousands of migrants reached Italian shores aboard smugglers’ boats or vessels that rescued them in the Mediterranean. Both Meloni and Salvini have railed against what they see as an invasion of foreigners who do not share what they call Italy’s “Christianity”.
Letta, who wants to make it easier for the children of legal immigrants to obtain citizenship, has also played the fear card. In his party’s bus advertising campaign, one half of the image shows a serious-looking Letta with the one-word motto “Vali”, while the other half features an ominous-looking image of Putin. Salvini and Berlusconi have both expressed admiration for the Russian leader. Meloni supports the supply of weapons so that Ukraine can defend itself.
With energy bills as much as 10 times higher than a year ago, saving workers’ jobs is a high priority among Italian voters.
But with the possible exception of Salvini, who wants to revisit Italy’s closed nuclear power plants, the candidates have not excelled in offering solutions to the energy crisis. Almost all are calling for a cap on gas prices in the EU.
The dangers of climate change do not loom large in the Italian campaign. Italy’s tiny Green Party, Letta’s campaign partner, is projected to narrowly win a few seats in parliament.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Sabrina Sergi contributed to this report from Rome.