Today’s election is expected to dramatically change the formation of Italy’s parliament. The rising popularity of the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) party – with its neo-fascist roots – has propelled the party’s leader Meloni as a frontrunner candidate for the role of prime minister, sparking fears throughout Europe.
But the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle) are hoping to prevent a right-wing coalition, with FdI at the helm, from taking power. The first exit polls will be expected when voting stops at 11 pm with the first official results to come out overnight.
All Italians aged 18 and over have been called to cast their votes for lawmakers in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The voting system is a hybrid with three-fifths of seats being granted via first-past-the-post while the rest are elected through proportional representation.
A 2020 referendum changed the number of lawmakers, reducing the number of deputies in the Chamber from 630 down to 400, and slimming down the Senate from 315 to 200 lawmakers. An alliance requires a majority in both houses to win. The prime minister is not directly chosen by the electorate but rather by sitting lawmakers. The system often leads to large coalitions, but this has also resulted in political instability – Italy has had 67 governments in the 76 years since the foundation of the republic.
Meloni heads a party that stems from the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), founded by sympathisers of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini after the World War II. She was a member of the movement’s youth wing. She has rejected accusations of being a fascist, and increasingly toned down some of the more far-right rhetoric, but in a speech given in June in Spain, alongside Spain’s own far-right Vox party, she railed against a so-called LGBT lobby, mass immigration, and big international finance. FdI was polling at around 25% before polling was barred in the run-up to the election. Their partners – former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the anti-migrant League – are polling at lower shares of the vote.
The main contender for the right-wing alliance is the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) led by Enrico Letta. PD has been joined by several smaller parties to form a left-leaning alliance, but its hopes are limited following a falling out with several other centrist parties.
The other major player is the M5S, the winner in the 2018 election, which is expected to lose a substantial part of its share.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi triggered the elections with his resignation in July after the M5S – one of the many parties in Draghi’s big tent coalition, which included leftists, right-wing and centrist parties – pulled its support for the prime minister’s economic aid decree. Draghi, who was chosen by the president to form a government after the previous M5S-led government collapsed, has said he will not stand again.
The election comes amid soaring prices of goods and fuel thanks to galloping inflation and exacerbated by the Russian war in Ukraine. The right-wing coalition has been split over its stance on Ukraine, with Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, having previously been seen wearing pro-Putin T-shirts. He has questioned the sanctions against Russia, saying they damage Italy’s economic interests. However, Meloni is pro-Ukraine and pro-NATO. The FdI has also toned down its anti-EU stance, calling instead for a renegotiation of Italy’s massive EU Covid recovery plan. They have also proposed a flat tax of 15% across all brackets, a position opposed by the center-left.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen issued a veiled threat on Friday, saying the EU could work with any democratic government, but “if things go in a difficult direction, I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools”.