Could a politician from Australia help usher in the far right in Italy?

<span>Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Remo Casilli/Reuters

There’s an election in Australia this Sunday and a small, yet passionate, group of voters across the country could determine who leads Italy. The Italian parliament has four overseas electorates, one of which is the vast Africa-Asia-Oceania-Antarctica (AAOA), home to some 250,000 voters who hold Italian passports. Australia is within its borders.

Italian electoral candidates have spent the past six weeks in Australia discussing healthcare, strong borders and the importance of cultural exchanges between the two countries, in an effort to win the votes of Italian-Australians.

Voting is not compulsory – at the last election only 30% of the roughly 140,000 eligible Australian residents sent in their ballot papers.

But this time round, things are different.

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Sunday’s election is expected to usher Italy’s far-right coalition, led by the Brothers of Italy party, into government.

The AAOA has been held by the centre-left Democratic party (PD) since its creation in 2006. But this year the Brothers of Italy’s candidate, Joe Cassari, is hoping support for the rightwing party at home will spread to Australia.

Brothers of Italy espouses traditional family values, has roots in neofascism and last week was forced to oust a candidate for praising Hitler.

The party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, is only 45. If it wins, Meloni would be Italy’s first female leader and its first far-right leader since the second world war.

“It is certain that Giorgia will win,” Cassari told Guardian Australia. “She’ll be the first female PM in Italy since the inception of the republic, which is good. Some people say, ‘oh a woman’ but everyone needs a say, ‘we need a change’.”

On Thursday, as the deadline for postal votes was coming to a close, 75-year-old Cassari was in his back yard in Melbourne, tending to his fig trees. He has been the mayor of Knox city council and is a well-known figure in the city’s Italian-Australian community. He has stood as a candidate for the AAOA several times for different parties.

He shrugged off the suggestion the Brothers of Italy supports fascism and said Meloni did the right thing by booting out a pro-Hitler candidate.

“We get nutters all over the place, don’t we?” he said. “You have to face the reality of the situation. I wouldn’t praise Adolf.”

If elected, Cassari said his priorities would be facilitating a closer relationship between the two countries and helping Italy enact a border protection policy that mirrors Australia’s.

“I say to my fellow Italians, ‘you come into Australia, at customs they want to know who you spoke to, what you did, what you had for breakfast – and after the interrogation, they say ‘have a good day’,” he said. “That’s democracy.”

When the votes are counted on Monday evening Australia time, Cassari will likely be asleep but he has friends who will be acting as election scrutineers in Naples.

“I’m reasonably confident,” he said. “I’m calm, cool, collected and watching my fig trees.”

The overseas electorates have previously played a key role in the formation of Italian governments, most notably in 2006 when they provided the centre-left coalition with a slim majority.

“Should the election not produce a very clear outcome, or Meloni’s coalition collapses, the handful of MPs from overseas could become crucial, if there was a situation where just a few seats were in play,” Swinburne University politics expert Dr Simone Battiston said.

Battiston said Cassari is the only far-right politician in with a chance, but that the electorate favours candidates from the centre left.

“The Democratic party is more entrenched in the Italian-Australian community and the incumbents, they seem to represent the broad church,” Battiston said.

Dario Nelli, the managing editor of Australian Italian-language publication Il Globo, has followed every election in the AAOA closely. He said interest has gradually dropped off but many in the community think it’s still important to have the right to vote.

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“The first campaign had huge interest,” Nelli said. “Now it’s become something like a routine.”

Nelli has watched the candidates perform over the past six weeks, even hosting the official debate. He says the big issues are universal healthcare, teaching Italian abroad and economic ties between the two countries.

The incumbent senator for the PD, 64-year-old Francesco Giacobbe, has been in parliament for two terms and is seeking his third.

He spends about 41 weeks of the year in Rome and the rest visiting his constituents across the AAOA. When he can, he flies home to Sydney to see his wife, children and two new grandchildren.

“My wife should be given an award for coping with me,” Giacobbe said.

Giacobbe has spent the past six weeks flying around the country, campaigning in Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

The former accountant said the Italian government “is strong enough to withstand” fascist forces.

“I’m not worried about the fascists. I think the democracy is mature enough to withstand that threat,” he said. “But it’s the risk of Italy becoming an isolated country closed in on itself that scares me.”