Italy heads to the polls in election that could see the far-right come to power

In Italy, the polls opened on Sunday morning, as the country votes in a snap general election that could shift its politics sharply to the right at a critical time for Europe, with the war in Ukraine causing energy bills to skyrocket and testing western unity.

The right-wing alliance is formed by Fratelli d'Italia or Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, Lega leader Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time prime minister who heads the Forza Italia party, which he created in 1994.

In the run-up to Sunday's election, opinion polls had suggested that Meloni, a far-right politician whose Fratelli d'Italia party are known for their neo-fascist roots, was leading in popularity.

If she wins, she'll be the first woman in Italy to hold the office and head the country's first far-right government since World War II.

Salvini is known for his anti-immigration stances, while both he and Berlusconi have been heavily criticised for their links to and support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While in the final days of the election campaign Salvini criticised Russian atrocities in Ukraine, Berlusconi raised eyebrows by saying Putin merely wanted to put “decent” people in government in Kyiv after Moscow-supported separatists in Donbas complained they were being harmed by Ukraine.

Former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte heads the populist Five Star Movement, which eschews Italy's left-right political binary, after succeeding Luigi di Maio as leader two years ago.

Enrico Letta, leader of the Democratic Party, is Italy's principal centre-left force and Meloni's main rival.

'What is important is that it is someone competent'

Polls opened at 7 am CEST. The counting of paper ballots was expected to begin shortly after they close at 11 pm, with projections based on partial results coming early Monday morning.

Nearly 51 million Italians are eligible to vote. Pollsters, though, predicted turnout could be even lower than the record-setting low of 73% in the last general election in 2018.

They say despite Europe’s many crises, many voters feel alienated from politics since Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election — each led by someone who hadn’t run for office.

Early voters in Rome expressed concerns about Italian politics as a whole.

“I hope we’ll see honest people, and this is very difficult nowadays,” said Adriana Gherdo, at a polling station in the city.

“I accept very well that (the premier) could be a woman, but what’s important is that it’s someone competent," added voter Clara Invrea.

The election in the eurozone’s third-largest economy is being closely watched in Europe, given Meloni’s criticism of “Brussels bureaucrats” and her ties to other right-wing leaders.

She recently defended Hungary’s Viktor Orban after the European Commission recommended suspending billions of euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU money.

Elections are being held six months early after Mario Draghi’s pandemic unity government collapsed in late July. Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella saw no alternative but to have voters elect a new Parliament.

Opinion polls found Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief, hugely popular. But the three populist parties in the coalition boycotted a confidence vote tied to an energy relief measure.

Their leaders, Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, a former premier whose party is the largest in the outgoing Parliament, saw Meloni’s popularity growing while theirs slipped.

Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy in the opposition, refusing to join Draghi’s unity government or Conte’s two coalitions that governed after the 2018 vote.

She further distanced herself from Salvini and Berlusconi with unflagging support for Ukraine, including sending weapons so Kyiv could defend itself against Russia, as her party champions sovereignty.

"I play to win, not to participate," said Salvini, on his way to vote, who sees his party "on the podium: first, second, at worst third" after the election.

"I am eager to return from tomorrow to the government of this extraordinary country," added Salvini.