Italians are voting in an election that is forecast to deliver the country’s most radical rightwing government since the end of the second world war, and a prime minister ready to become a model for nationalist parties across Europe.
A coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist origins, is expected by polls ahead of the vote to secure a comfortable victory in both houses of parliament while taking between 44 and 47% of the vote.
Meloni’s party is also set to scoop the biggest share of the votes within the coalition, which includes the far-right League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia, headed by Silvio Berlusconi, meaning she could become Italy’s first female prime minister.
The coalition’s expected victory, however, raises questions about the country’s alliances in Europe as the continent enters a likely winter dominated by high energy prices and its response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Meloni has sought to send reassuring messages, but the prospect of her as prime minister is unlikely to be welcomed in Paris or Berlin.
Germany’s governing Social Democratic party warned last week that her win would be bad for European cooperation. Lars Klingbeil, the chairman of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD, said Meloni had aligned herself with “anti-democratic” figures such as Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
Earlier this month, Meloni’s MEPs voted against a resolution that condemned Hungary as “a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy”. Meloni is also allied to Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats and Spain’s far-right Vox party.
The 45-year-old firebrand politician from Rome received an endorsement from Vox towards the end of her campaign, and in response said the two parties were linked by “mutual respect, friendship and loyalty” while hoping victory for Brothers of Italy would give Vox some thrust in Spain.
“Meloni has an ambition to represent a model not only for Italy, but for Europe – this is something new [for the right in Italy] compared with the past,” said Nadia Urbinati, a political theorist at New York’s Columbia University and the University of Bologna. “She has contacts with other conservative parties, who want a Europe with less civil rights… the model is there and so is the project.”
Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, said Meloni would win thanks to her ability to be ideological but pragmatic, something that has allowed her to pip the French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, to the post of becoming western Europe’s model for nationalism.
However, she is unlikely to rock the boat, at least at the beginning, as she wants to secure continuing flows of cash under Italy’s €191.5bn (£166bn) EU Covid recovery plan, the largest in the EU. The coalition has said it is not seeking to renegotiate the plan, but would like to make changes.
“Ambiguity is the key to understanding Meloni,” Diletti said. “She’s really interested in compromising with the EU on economic politics. But if the EU pushes her too much on the Italian government, she can always revert back to her safe zone as being a populist rightwing leader. She will do what she needs to do to stay in power.”
Salvini’s potential return to the interior ministry will also dampen hopes for a breakthrough in the EU’s long-stalled attempt to reform its migration system by sharing asylum seekers across member states. Salvini, who has close ties with Le Pen, said he “can’t wait” to summarize his policy of blocking migrant rescue ships from entering Italian ports.
On Ukraine, Meloni has condemned Russia’s invasion and supported sending weapons to the war-torn country, but it remains unclear whether her government will back the eighth round of EU sanctions being discussed in Brussels. Salvini has claimed sanctions were bringing Italy to its knees, although he never blocked any EU measures against Russia when in Mario Draghi’s broad coalition government, which collapsed in July.
Voting started at 7am on Sunday, and turnout stood at about 51.8% by 7pm local time. The share of undecided voters was at 25% before voting began, meaning the rightwing alliance might win a slimmer majority than pollsters originally suggested. A leftwing alliance led by the Democratic party is predicted to get 22-27% of the vote.
Several seats in southern Italian regions, such as Puglia and Calabria, are also potentially in play after a mini-revival by the populist Five Star Movement, which regained support after promising to maintain its flagship policy, the basic income, if the party re- enters government.
There was a steady flow of voters to a booth in Esquilino, a multicultural district in Rome, on Sunday morning, but the mood was one of despondency.
“It feels as if we’re on a rudderless boat,” said Carlo Russo. “All we heard during the election campaign was an exchange of insults between the various parties rather than an exchange of ideas. And in moments of confusion such as this, people vote for the person who seems to be the strongest.”
Fausto Maccari, who runs a newspaper stand, said he won’t vote for the right but is unsure who he will back. “The choices are poor,” added Maccari, who is in his 60s. “For example, I look at Berlusconi and he reminds me of a comic character. At his age, he shouldn’t be doing politics. He would be like me, at my age, trying to be a footballer like Maradona. ”
Many Italians who support Meloni are doing so because she is yet to be tried and tested in government, and are attracted by her determination and loyalty to her ideals.
“She presents herself as a capable, but not arrogant, woman,” said Urbinati. “She gets things done and is dedicated, but without this masculine adrenaline that she wants power at all costs.”