Italy’s far-right PM frontrunner Giorgia Meloni has voiced her support for sanctions against Russia - but the coalition has shown cracks.
Rome, Italy - A right-wing coalition led by the far-right Brothers of Italy party leads the polls ahead of Italy’s September 25 snap election, which follows the resignation of prime minister Mario Draghi in the summer.
The parties in the coalition led by Giorgia Meloni – which include Matteo Salvini’s anti-migrant League party and Silvio Berlusconi’s centrist Forward Italy – have banded together against their left-wing rivals who were unable to form a united front. A photo of Meloni and Salvini with smiles on their faces and hands on each other’s shoulders is just one example of how the two far-right leaders have tried to reassure their voters.
But there are fundamental fractures in the coalition, especially on the margins of foreign policy and support for sanctions on Russia. While all leaders have condemned the war, some – particularly Salvini – have been much less vocal about denouncing the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Former prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, on the other hand, is an old personal friend of the Russian President.
According to the last available polls published on September 10, the centre-right coalition is on course to a comfortable win. Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots, tops opinion polls with 25 percent of the vote share – making Giorgia Meloni the favourite to become Italy’s first female prime minister. Her main challenger is the centre-left Democratic Party, led by Enrico Letta and polling at just over 21 percent.
A whopping 41 percent of voters have declared themselves undecided or were planning to abstain – it remains to be seen how many of them will turn up at the polls on Sunday.
Both Meloni and her rival Letta have supported the European Union’s position on Russia in their campaigns, including sanctions and a cap on Russian gas.
“Meloni is playing a balancing act,” Carlo Ruzza, a professor of political sociology at the University of Trento, told TRT World.
“On the one hand, she is trying to reassure Western leaders, while on the other hand she wants to look different and radical in Italy, particularly to her own followers,” he adds. “As far as the first is concerned, Meloni’s position has been resolutely pro-Western since [the war in Ukraine began] on February 24.”
But Giorgia Meloni’s allies, who have been traditonally close to Russia and Putin, have had to renegotiate their positions in light of the war in Ukraine, and maintain some degree of ambivalence.
Far-right populist leader Matteo Salvini has been vocal in criticising the EU’s sanctions on Russia, calling them “badly executed” and arguing they are damaging European countries more than they are damaging Russia.
Russia’s central bank expects the Russian economy to shrink by 4-6 percent in 2022 as a result of the costs of the war in Ukraine and western sanctions. Russia’s squeeze on gas deliveries to European countries, which has sent energy prices to an all-time high, is set to plunge Europe into recession, economists say.
Salvini, whose party polls at 13 percent, has supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. In 2017, the League signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party.
Back in March when the conflict began, the anti-migrant leader visited the Poland-Ukraine border in a show of support for Ukrainian refugees. The mayor of Przemysl, the border town where the majority of refugees crossed into Poland, confronted the Italian leader by holding up a t-shirt featuring a portrait of Putin – the same Salvini had been photographed wearing in Moscow in 2014.
“There are tensions in the coalition when it comes to Russia. Meloni is embarrassed by her own allies,” Ruzza says.
Silvio Berlusconi has often flaunted his personal relationship with Putin, and the two leaders have in the past exchanged extravagant gifts that include a duvet cover featuring a portrait of the two leaders that the Italian media magnate and former prime minister gifted to Putin.
In 2019, the League was accused of receiving money from Russian investors, after an audio recording emerged of one of his close aides discussing an oil deal with three unidentified Russians.
A week ahead of the Italian elections, a US State Department intelligence assessment claimed Russia has given at least $300 million to political parties sympathetic to Putin in more than two dozen countries, including in Europe.
The report does not name the countries or the parties concerned, but it made headlines for the way it could possibly interfere with the upcoming election.
“A right-wing government would need its two other parts,” Ruzza says. “Salvini could even decide to pull the plug on the government, although it is more likely they would try to negotiate. But those negotiations are already tense,” he argues.