‘Crucial’ vote could move Italy to the right; many might boycott

ROME –

Italians will vote on Sunday in what is 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 propel a far-right leader to the post of prime minister.

Soaring energy costs and rapidly rising prices for staples like bread, the fallout from the Russian invasion of the Ukraine breadbasket, have hit many Italian families and businesses.

Against that grim backdrop, 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 favorites in Italy’s parliamentary elections.

They could be a test case for whether far-right sentiment is gaining strength in the 27-nation European Union. Recently, a right-wing party in Sweden gained popularity by capitalizing on people’s fears about crime.

Meloni’s main alliance partner is the leader of the right-wing La Liga party, Matteo Salvini, who blames immigrants for the crime. Salvini has long been a strong ideological supporter of right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland.

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

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 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 also questioned the wisdom of maintaining Western economic sanctions against Russia, saying they could harm Italy’s economic interests too much.

Publication of polls stopped 15 days before Sunday’s vote, but before that they indicated that Meloni’s party would win the most votes, 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 confers a clear advantage over Letta under Italy’s complex system of allocating 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.

While it is a tense time for Europe, Sunday’s election could see the lowest turnout in modern Italy’s history. The last elections, in 2018, saw a record turnout of 73%. Pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco says that this time the percentage could drop to 66%.

Pregliasco, who runs the polling firm YouTrend, says Italy’s three different government coalitions since the last election have left Italians “disaffected, disappointed. They don’t see their vote as important.”

The outgoing government is headed by the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. In early 2021, Italy’s president turned to Draghi to form a unity government following the collapse of 5-star leader Giuseppe Conte’s second ruling coalition.

In what Pregliasco called an “apparent paradox,” polls indicate that “most Italians like Draghi and think his government did a good job.” However, Meloni, the only leader of a major party who refuses to join Draghi’s coalition, is the strongest in the polls.

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

Draghi has said that he does not want another mandate.

To Meloni’s chagrin, criticism still plagues her because she has not made an unequivocal break with her party’s roots in a neo-fascist movement founded by those nostalgic for dictator Benito Mussolini after his regime’s disastrous role in World War II. During the campaign, she declared that she “is not a danger to democracy”.

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

“I am afraid of incompetence, not of the fascist threat,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at LUISS, a private university in Rome. “She has ruled nothing.”

Meloni served as youth minister in the last Berlusconi government, which ended a decade ago.

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

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

But recent incidents have fueled concerns about the Brothers in Italy.

An Italy Brothers candidate in Sicily has been suspended by his party after he posted phrases on social media showing appreciation for Hitler. On the other hand, he was seen as the brother of one of Meloni’s co-founders giving what appeared to be the fascist salute at a relative’s funeral. The brother denied that this was what he was doing.

For years, the right wing has crusaded against rampant immigration, after hundreds of thousands of migrants washed up on Italy’s shores aboard ships or smugglers’ boats who rescued them in the Mediterranean Sea. Both Meloni and Salvini have criticized what they see as an invasion by foreigners who do not share what they call Italy’s “Christian” character.

Letta, who wants to make citizenship easier for the children of legal immigrants, has also played the fear card. In her party’s campaign bus ads, half of the image shows a serious-looking Letta with her one-word slogan, “Choose,” and the other half features a sinister-looking image of Putin. Salvini and Berlusconi have expressed admiration for the Russian leader. Meloni bets on the supply of weapons so that Ukraine can defend itself.

With energy bills up to 10 times higher than a year ago, how to save workers’ jobs is high on the concerns of Italian voters.

But perhaps with the exception of Salvini, who wants to revisit Italy’s shuttered nuclear power plants, the candidates have not distinguished themselves by proposing solutions to the energy crisis. Almost everyone is pushing for an EU cap on gas prices.

The dangers of climate change have not loomed large in the Italian campaign. Italy’s small Greens party, Letta’s campaign partner, is forecast to win just 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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