Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni closed her campaign for weekend elections in Naples Friday amid speculation her long-forecast victory may be marred by a shift in support in the south.
The 45-year-old leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy took questions from a mostly young audience at a final rally on the beachfront before a blackout on campaigning ahead of Sunday’s vote.
“I’m a patriot… we are a party of the south, as well as of the nation,” Meloni declared, vowing to work to help a region that has long suffered higher unemployment and poverty than elsewhere.
The last official polls published two weeks ago gave Meloni and her right-wing alliance, including Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, an almost unstoppable lead.
Most analysts still believe they will win on Sunday, forming the first far-right led government in Italy since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini after World War II.
But it may not be the landslide they were expecting thanks to both a fall in support for Meloni’s allies and a surge for her rivals.
The Five Star Movement, which swept to power in the last general election in 2018 on a wave of support in the south, appears to be making gains.
Although its anti-establishment credentials had been damaged after sharing power with most of its main rivals, leader Giuseppe Conte, the former premier, has been fighting back.
“The game is not completely up, because I think that in the south, Five Star… will have more numbers than expected,” said Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome.
He cited the support in the south for the citizen’s income, an anti-poverty measure introduced by Five Star three years ago — which Meloni has pledged to abolish.
She insisted Friday the state should support those who cannot work, for example for health reasons, but said that those who can should find a job.
She “inspires confidence” said one supporter in Naples, 71-year-old Leone Carmelo.
– Russian, European rows –
From winning just four percent in 2018 elections to a predicted 24 percent today, Meloni’s party has enjoyed a meteoric rise.
A self-confessed “Christian woman and mother”, eurosceptic and anti-immigration, she has eclipsed Salvini as the face of Italy’s popular far right.
But if the League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia fail to maintain their support, her route to power could be threatened.
As they wrapped up campaigning on Friday, Salvini and Berlusconi were causing headlines over issues dear to their supporters’ hearts — Europe and Russia.
In a round of media interviews, Salvini expressed his outrage at what he claimed was an attempt by EU chief Ursula von der Leyen to interfere in the election.
Von der Leyen told an audience in the United States overnight that the EU might use “tools” if a far-right government in Rome proved as disruptive as Hungary and Poland.
“What is that, a threat?” Salvini tweeted in response. “Shameful arrogance.”
He called on her to resign or apologise, later announcing a sit-in at the European Commission offices in Rome.
Berlusconi meanwhile was forced to clarify remarks about Vladimir Putin after suggesting the Russian leader had been “pushed” by his entourage into invading Ukraine.
“The aggression against Ukraine is unjustifiable and unacceptable,” he said following an outcry.
Russia is one of several fault lines within the right-wing coalition, which could threaten the stability of any government they form.
While Berlusconi and Salvini have long had ties with Moscow, Meloni strongly backed EU sanctions against Russia and the sending of weapons to Ukraine.
Their main rival, Enrico Letta of the centre-left Democratic Party, has warned that a populist eurosceptic government in Rome would be a risk for the EU.
“All those who have told us the Italian right is moderate are lying,” he said ahead of his final rally in Rome late Friday.
“Two days before the vote, taking Putin’s side and requesting von der Leyen’s resignation… what more needs to happen than this?”
Although his party is polling just behind Meloni’s, without a broad leftist coalition — which he tried but failed to create — he stands little chance of taking power.