Giorgia Meloni led her right-wing allies in a joint rally Thursday ahead of their expected victory in weekend elections, in which the one-time Mussolini supporter hopes to become Italy’s first female prime minister.
But opinion polls put her well ahead, suggesting she will guide what would be Italy’s first far-right led government since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.
“We are ready! You will see on Sunday,” she declared to the packed crowd in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, most of them brandishing Brothers of Italy flags.
Despite the tensions within her alliance, she vowed to govern for five years with a programme that includes low taxes, higher social spending – and strong defence of Italy’s interests on the world stage.
The elections are being closely watched in Brussels, where the prospect of a eurosceptic, populist government heading the eurozone’s third largest economy has sparked concerns.
Meloni, 45, has sought to reassure investors worried about her links with Italy’s post-fascist movement, while at the same time wooing voters disaffected with the status quo.
“I’m voting for Meloni, she’s never betrayed me,” Giuli Ruggeri, a 53-year-old unemployed supporter, told AFP at the rally in Rome.
The event signalled the start of a final sprint for Italy’s politicians before a weekend campaign blackout.
Meloni will head to Naples on Friday, amid indications that the populist Five Star Movement – which won the biggest share of the vote in 2018 – is gaining ground in the poverty-stricken south.
Runaway inflation, a looming winter energy crisis and tensions with Russia over the war in Ukraine have dominated the election campaign in Italy, which has only just recovered from the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic.
Europe has also loomed large, with Italy set to receive almost 200 billion euros ($200 billion) of EU post-pandemic funds by 2026 in return for structural reforms long demanded by Brussels.
Meloni no longer urges an exit from the euro but vowed Thursday to lead an Italy “strong, serious and respected on the international stage”, while the right-wing coalition’s programme calls for a review of EU rules on public spending.
The coalition members do not always see eye to eye, however, raising concerns about the stability of their potential future government.
Meloni and Salvini both pursue a nationalist agenda and demand an end to mass migration, while emphasising traditional family values and Italy’s “Judeo-Christian” past.
But while Salvini has long admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and has criticised Western sanctions over Ukraine, Meloni is strongly supportive of Kyiv and their coalition is committed to NATO.
The Russian embassy in Italy tweeted four photos Thursday showing Putin with almost all the party leaders running on Sunday – with the notable exception of Meloni.
“From the recent history of relations between Russia and Italy. We have some memories,” the embassy wrote, in what was widely viewed as some pre-election trolling.
The rally was the first such appearance for Berlusconi, who turns 86 next week, and he appeared to need help stepping onto the podium.
“Italy does not want to be governed by the left,” the billionaire former premier and media mogul declared, pledging to fight “fiscal oppression”.
Next up was Salvini, who vowed to “protect Italy and the Italians” in a wide-ranging address railing against Europe, migrants, taxes and multinationals.
The League leader has been somewhat eclipsed by Meloni, whose straight-talking style and outsider status have propelled her party to the brink of power.
In the 2018 elections, Brothers of Italy – born a decade ago out of the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Mussolini – won just over four percent of the vote.
Its popularity soared after Meloni became the only main party leader not to join outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi‘s national unity coalition in February 2021 – leaving her the only effective opposition.
Draghi called snap elections in July after his coalition collapsed.
Brothers of Italy was last polling at around 24-25 percent, ahead of the centre-left Democratic Party on 21 or 22 percent, followed by Five Star on 13-15 percent.
With the League around 12 percent and Berlusconi’s party at eight percent, Meloni’s coalition looks on course to secure between 45 and 55 percent of seats in parliament.
But with 40 percent of Italians saying they have yet to decide or will not vote, experts warn there is still room for some upset in a country famous for its unstable politics, with almost 70 governments since 1946.