ROME (AP) — Italians will vote on Sunday in what is being billed as a crucial election as Europe reels from the repercussions of 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 aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s breadbasket — have hit many Italian families and businesses.

Against this bleak background, Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party – with neo-fascist roots and a program of God, Fatherland and Christian identity – seem to be the favorites in the Italian legislative elections.

They could be a test of whether far-right sentiment is gaining ground in the EU-27. Recently, a right-wing party in Sweden has gained popularity by capitalizing on people’s fears of crime.

No party in Italy has much chance of winning enough seats to govern alone, but centrists right and right have forged a campaign pact that could secure Meloni a parliamentary majority and propel her to power.

His main alliance partner is right-wing party leader Matteo Salvini, who blames the crime on migrants and has long been a strong ideological supporter of right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland.

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

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

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

Publication of the polls was halted 15 days before Sunday’s vote, but before that they indicated Meloni’s party would be the biggest voter, just ahead of the centre-left Democratic Party led by former Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

The campaign alliance linking Meloni to Salvini and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gives 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.

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

Pregliasco, who runs polling firm YouTrend, says the last three Italian governing coalitions since the last election have left Italians “unhappy, disappointed. They don’t see their vote as important.

The outgoing government is led by the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. In early 2021, the Italian president called on Draghi to form a unity government after 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 has done a good job”. Yet Meloni, the only major party leader to refuse to join Draghi’s coalition, is the strongest.

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

Draghi said he didn’t want another term.

Much to Meloni’s chagrin, criticism still dogged her that she did not unambiguously 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 the Second World War. During the campaign, she said she was “not a danger to democracy”.

Some political analysts say worries about the fascist question 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 ruled nothing.”

Meloni served as youth minister in Berlusconi’s last government, which ended ten years 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 asking for an end to sanctions against Russia. It’s Salvini. It’s not Meloni asking for more debt or more deficit. It’s Salvini.

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

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

For years, the right has waged a crusade against unbridled immigration, after hundreds of thousands of migrants reached Italian shores on smugglers’ boats or rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Both Meloni and Salvini have thundered against what they see as an invasion of foreigners who don’t share what they call Italy’s “Christian” character.

Letta, who wants to facilitate citizenship for the children of legal immigrants, has also played the card of fear. In his party’s campaign bus ads, half of the image depicts a serious-looking Letta with his one-word motto, “Choose”, the other half features an ominous image of Putin. Both Salvini and Berlusconi have expressed their admiration for the Russian leader. Meloni supports the supply of arms 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 minds of Italian voters.

But perhaps with the exception of Salvini, who wants to revisit Italy’s closed nuclear power plants, the candidates have not distinguished themselves by offering solutions to the energy crisis. Almost all of them are pushing for a European cap on gas prices.

The perils of climate change have not figured prominently in the Italian countryside. The small Italian Green Party, Letta’s campaign partner, is expected to win just a few seats in parliament.


Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Sabrina Sergi contributed reporting from Rome.