Far right looks for victory as Italy goes to the polls


Italians are voting Sunday on whether to usher in the country's most right-wing government since World War II. The election, which could bring eurosceptic populists to the heart of Europe, is being closely scrutinised across the EU.

Close to 51 million Italians are eligible to vote in Sunday's poll. 2.6m are first-time voters and 4.7 million are voting abroad.

They have until 23:00 local time to cast their votes for both the Chamber and Senate.

Turnout was around 19 percent by 12:00 local time, according to the interior ministry, in line with the last elections in 2018.

The Brothers of Italy party, headed by one-time Mussolini supporter Giorgia Meloni, has led opinion polls and looks set to take office in a coalition with the far-right League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia parties.

Salvini cast his ballot in Milan, President Sergio Mattarella voted in the Sicilian capital Palermo while Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party and Meloni's main rival, voted in Rome.

Many voters are expected to pick Meloni, "the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried", Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP.

Meloni has abandoned her calls for Italy to leave the EU's single currency and has toned down her rhetoric on Europe, at least in public, but she campaigned on the old slogan adopted by the fascists: "God, fatherland and family".

Concern in Europe

Brussels and the markets are watching closely, amid concern that Italy – a founding member of the European Union – may be the latest country to veer hard right, less than two weeks after the far right outperformed in elections in Sweden.

Meloni has softened her image but has called for a naval blockade of Libya to halt migration, opposes abortion and has spoken out against the "LGBT lobby".

If she wins, Meloni will face challenges from rampant inflation to an energy crisis linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, rebounded after the pandemic but is saddled with a debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product.

The country has benefited from a staggering €200bn in post-Covid recovery grants and loans from the EU – more than any other member of the bloc.

The grants are, however, conditional on reforms agreed by Mario Draghi's outgoing unity government.

Her coalition wants to renegotiate the plan, arguing the EU funds should take the energy crisis into account.

She insists her country must stand up for its national interests, backing Hungary in its rule of law battles with Brussels.

Meloni strongly supports the EU's sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.

Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after suggesting the Russian president was "pushed" into war by his entourage.

Undecided voters

The centre-left Democratic Party says Meloni is a danger to democracy.

It also claims her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.

On the economy, Meloni's coalition pledges to cut taxes while increasing social spending, regardless of the cost.

The last opinion polls two weeks before election day suggested one in four voters backed Meloni.

However, around 20 percent of voters remain undecided, and there are signs she may end up with a smaller majority in parliament than expected.

In particular, support appears to be growing for the populist Five Star Movement in the poor south.

The next government is unlikely to take office before the second half of October, and despite pledges from Meloni and Salvini to serve five years, history suggests they may struggle.

Italian politics are notoriously unstable. The country has had 67 governments since 1946.

Even if Brothers of Italy come out on top, and Meloni's allies hand her an overall majority, it is up to President Mattarella, back by parliament, to decide who becomes prime minister.

(with newswires)