Italians head to the polls this Sunday to choose a new government, after the collapse of the ruling coalition led by Mario Draghi.
A right-wing party with past links to fascism looks set to win the most votes, raising concerns among allies.
Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is leading the polls with around 25% of the vote. The 45-year-old is on course to become Italy’s first female prime minister. She has a simple campaign message.
“My greatest desire is to lift up, to lift our nation up again from decline,” Meloni told Reuters in a recent interview.
Brothers of Italy traces its roots to neo-fascism after 1945. In her teenage years, Meloni was a far-right activist who praised fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. She says she has changed.
“When the election campaign opens, the fascist alarm goes off. As you can understand, it's quite ridiculous to retrieve videos of what I thought when I was 15, 16 or 17,” Meloni said.
Meloni has overseen a sixfold increase in support for her party since the last election.
“In part it's about her policy platform, her socially conservative views, her economic views — which are also quite social in a way in terms of, for example, raising people's pensions or benefits,” said analyst Luigi Scazzieri of the Centre for European Reform.
“But it's also in large part due to her own personal appeal. And I would single out here, for example, her way of talking, which is very down to earth. It’s very effective in connecting with ordinary voters,” Scazzieri added. “Finally, she also benefits from not having been anywhere near government for the past 10 years, and so she can credibly say that she represents something new.”
That’s not true of her likely coalition partners.
Among the coalition partners is Matteo Salvini, the outspoken populist former interior minister and leader of the League Party. While in government, he oversaw a crackdown on migrants arriving on Italy’s southern shores from North Africa.
He is currently on trial on kidnapping charges stemming from an incident in 2019 in which he is accused of preventing more than 100 migrants who were rescued by a charity vessel from landing in Italian ports, which he denies. Salvini has pledged further tougher border controls if his party enters government again.
Political veteran Silvio Berlusconi, who turns 86 four days after the election, will also likely be part of the right-wing coalition as leader of the Forza Italia party. He was thrown out of office 10 years ago after a sex scandal and was stripped of his Senate seat in 2013 over a tax fraud case. He has survived major heart surgery and prostate cancer. In 2021, he nearly died from COVID-19.
On the campaign trail, all three members of the likely right-wing coalition have launched attacks on the European Union and pledged to stand up for Italy’s national interests in Brussels.
The European Union fears Italy could become a political headache, Scazzieri said. The fears are partly due to "the state of Italy’s economy — the fact that its public debt is over 150% of GDP," he said. "There's also concerns because of Meloni’s past in the post-fascist Italian social movement, of whether she might have a very authoritarian streak — for example, whether Italy might become more like Hungary and Poland.”
However, Scazzieri said, the EU fears may be unfounded.
“If you read the coalition program, it's quite clear that they tried to present a very moderate face. They make very clear that this is a government that will stick to its obligations in the EU, in the euro and in NATO,” he told VOA. “The reality is that Italy can ill afford confrontation with the EU because of the relative weak state of its economy.”
In the past, the Italian far right has had close links to Moscow. However, Meloni has repeatedly stated her support for Ukraine.
“Our standing in the Western field is crystal clear, as we have demonstrated once again by condemning — without ifs and buts — Russia's brutal aggression against Ukraine and by helping, from the opposition, to strengthen Italy's position in European and international forums,” Meloni said in a campaign video on August 10.
For many Italians, the economy, jobs and the rising cost of living are the biggest concerns. Food banks report a sharp rise in the number of people needing help just to survive.
In Italy’s south, economic prospects have long lagged behind the richer north. Antonio Mela, a retired barman from the city of Salerno in Campania, started visiting the local soup kitchen run by the Catholic charity Caritas after the price of food increased sharply in recent months.
“I have a very small pension. I pay the rent, the electricity bill, and then I've got nothing left over for food. That's the situation,” Mela told Agence France-Presse.
The centrist coalition led by former Prime Minister Enrico Letta is trailing in the polls by around 15%. The bloc insists it can still win.
The government that emerges from Sunday’s vote will be Italy’s 70th administration since 1945. Many observers say the coalition led by Meloni is already showing signs of political instability — and Italy could soon face another election.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.