“Closing” vote could move Italy to the right; many may boycott

ROME (AP) – Italians will vote on Sunday in what is being billed as a crucial election as Europe reels from the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine. For the first time in Italy since the end of World War II, the election could produce a far-right leader into the premiership.

Skyrocketing energy costs and rapidly rising prices for commodities such as bread – the consequences of Russia’s invasion of breadbasket Ukraine – have hit many Italian families and businesses.

On the gloomy background Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party – with neo-fascist roots and an agenda of God, homeland and Christian identity – appear to be the frontrunners in Italy’s general election.

They could be a test case for whether the hard-right sentiment gains more traction in the 27-nation EU. Recently, a right-wing party in Sweden rose in popularity by exploiting people’s fear of crime.

Meloni’s main alliance partner is right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini, who blames migrants for crime. Salvini has long been a staunch ideological booster of right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland.

“Elections in the middle of a war, in the middle of an energy crisis and the beginning of what is likely to be an economic crisis … almost by definition are decisive elections,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs think tank.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, is betting that “Europe will break” under the weight of economic and energy problems brought on by the war, Tocci told The Associated Press.

Salvini, who draws his voter base from business owners in northern Italy, has previously worn pro-Putin T-shirts. Salvini has also questioned the wisdom of maintaining Western economic sanctions against Russia, saying they could harm Italy’s economic interests too much.

The publication of opinion polls was stopped 15 days before Sunday’s vote, but by then they showed that Meloni’s party would be the biggest vote-getter, just ahead of the center-left Democratic Party led by former prime minister Enrico Letta.

A campaign alliance linking Meloni with conservative allies Salvini and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi gives him a clear advantage over Letta under Italy’s complex system of sharing seats in parliament.

Letta had hoped in vain for a campaign alliance with the left-wing populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing legislature.

Although it is a busy moment for Europe, Sunday’s election could see modern Italy’s lowest turnout ever. The last election, in 2018, had a record low turnout of 73%. Pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco says this time the percentage could drop to as low as 66%.

Pregliasco, who heads the YouTrend polling firm, says Italy’s last three different governing coalitions since the last election have left Italians “dissatisfied, disappointed. They don’t see their vote as something that matters.”

The outgoing government is led by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. In early 2021, Italian President Draghi tapped to form a unity government following the collapse of the second governing coalition of 5-star leader Giuseppe Conte.

In what Pregliasco called an “apparent paradox,” polls show that “most Italians like Draghi and think his government did a good job.” Still, Meloni, the only major party leader refusing to join Draghi’s coalition, is the strongest pollster.

As Tocci put it, Meloni’s party is so popular “simply because it’s the new kid on the block.”

Draghi has said he does not want a new term.

To Meloni’s chagrin, criticism still haunts her that she has not made an unequivocal break with her party’s roots in a neo-fascist movement founded by nostalgics for dictator Benito Mussolini after his regime’s disastrous role in World War II. During the campaign, she declared that she “no danger to democracy.”

Some political analysts say that concerns about the fascist issue are not their main concern.

“I fear incompetence, not the fascist threat,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of political science at LUISS, a private university in Rome. “She hasn’t managed anything.”

Meloni served as youth minister in Berlusconi’s last government, which ended ten years ago.

Instead, her main right-wing coalition partner is worth worrying about, D’Alimonte told the AP.

“Salvini will be the troublemaker, not Meloni,” he said. “It is not Meloni who is calling for the end of the sanctions against Russia. It’s Salvini. It is not Meloni who demands more debt or more deficit. It’s Salvini.”

But recent incidents have raised concerns about the Brothers of Italy.

A candidate from the Brothers of Italy in Sicily was suspended by his party after he posted phrases on social media showing appreciation for Hitler. Separately, a brother of one of Meloni’s co-founders was seen giving what appeared to be the fascist salute at a funeral for a relative. The brother denied that this is what he did.

For years, the right has crusaded against unrestrained immigration after hundreds of thousands of migrants reached Italy’s shores aboard smugglers’ boats or vessels rescued in the Mediterranean. Both Meloni and Salvini have thundered against what they see as an invasion of foreigners who do not share what they call Italy’s “Christian” character.

Letta, who wants to ease citizenship for children of legal immigrants, has also played the fear card. In his party’s campaign ads on buses, half of the image shows a serious-looking Letta with his one-word motto, “Choose,” while the other half features an ominous-looking image of Putin. Salvini and Berlusconi have both expressed admiration for the Russian leader. Meloni supports supplying weapons so that Ukraine can defend itself.

With energy bills as much as 10 times higher than a year ago, how to save workers’ jobs ranks high among Italian voters’ concerns.

But perhaps with the exception of Salvini, who wants to revisit Italy’s closed nuclear power plants, candidates has not excelled in proposing solutions to the energy crisis. Almost everyone is pushing for an EU ceiling on gas prices.

The dangers of climate change have not been big in the Italian campaign. Italy’s small Green party, a campaign partner of Letta, is expected to capture barely a few seats in parliament.

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Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Sabrina Sergi contributed to this report from Rome.

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