Polls opened in Italy on Sunday in an election that is forecast to return the country’s most right-wing government since World War Two and also herald its first woman prime minister. Voting began at 7am (0500 GMT) and will continue until 11pm (2100 GMT) when exit polls will be published. However, the complex calculations required by a hybrid proportional/first-past-the-post electoral law mean it may be many hours before a precise seat count is available.
A far-right alliance led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party appeared on course for a clear victory when the last opinion polls were published two weeks ago. But with a polls blackout in force in the two weeks before the election, there is still scope for a surprise. Meloni would be the obvious candidate for prime minister as leader of an alliance also featuring Matteo Salvini’s League party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
The outcome of the vote will be watched nervously in Europe. Statements made by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, provided a glimpse of the tension underlying the outcome of Sunday’s poll.
“My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we’re working together. [...] If things go in a difficult direction, I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools,” she said Friday during a keynote speech at Princeton.
Matteo Salvini, leader of La Liga and an ally of Meloni, leader of the League, one of the members of the three-party coalition, was quick to respond on Twitter. “Shameful arrogance. Respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people! Friends of all, servants of none,” he said.
While EU institutions and European leaders have avoided making comments about the possible outcome of Italy’s election, it is clear that they expect relations with Rome to be much more difficult under Meloni than with former prime minister Mario Draghi, whose government was brought down by party infighting. But as Von der Leyen pointed out, the European Commission has tools to address conflicts, namely by withholding transfers from the EU’s Covid recovery fund. Within Italy too, there are also checks and balances, such as the president of the Republic and the Constitutional Court, which are both respected institutions.
Here is a review of what a possible Meloni victory and her coalition could mean for Europe.
War in Ukraine
Meloni portrays her party as a mainstream conservative group, even though it is a descendant of the neofascist Italian Social Movement. She has pledged to support Western policy on Ukraine and not take undue risks with an economy hit hard by rising prices. But her coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi, who has a long relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has expressed different views.
In a recent television interview, Berlusconi said: “Putin was pushed by the Russian population, by his party and by his ministers to invent this special operation. The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace Zelenskiy’s government with decent people and then leave.”
In 2016, Berlusconi also joined Putin on a visit to Crimea, after it was illegally annexed by Russia.
Salvini, Meloni’s other coalition party, also has close ties to Moscow: in 2019, he was investigated for covertly channeling tens of millions of dollars of Russian oil money to his party. Salvini has also described Putin as one of the best leaders in the world, posed in Moscow with a T-shirt of the Russian president’s face and called for sanctions against Russia to be dropped.
As the EU prepares more sanctions against Russia, this far-right alliance could pose problems.
Meloni has a hardline stance on immigration, and has proposed a “naval blockade” to stop migrants from entering Italy. Her coalition partners have similar anti-immigration rhetoric. When he was interior minister, Salvini signed two decrees that stopped migrants saved at sea by rescue boats from disembarking in the country.
Today, irregular immigration is once again reaching peak numbers: 61% more arrivals were registered in August than the same month of the previous year. Meanwhile, the passage of EU immigration reforms is being held up due to serious discrepancies between countries on the frontline of the crisis and those that do not wish to address it.
Italy is entitled to receive more than €200 billion in loans and grants from the EU’s Covid recovery fund. But how these funds are used and what Italy must do to secure the money may turn into a source of conflict.
Draghi, a former chief of the European Central Bank, drafted a national recovery plan (PNRR) that was approved by Italy’s parliament and the EU. But Meloni wants to renegotiate the document, arguing that priorities have changed with the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis. The leader of Brothers of Italy suggested that a small part of the funds might be diverted towards supporting measures such as decoupling the price of electricity from gas prices at a local level to help Italian consumers. She also wants to redirect funds that were earmarked for environmentally-sustainable development.