Rome, Italy – Italians cast their ballots in a national election that could bring the country’s most right-wing government to power since World War II.
The electoral campaign kicked off after political infighting led to the collapse of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government in July. Sunday’s election takes place against the background of an energy crisis, widespread voter disillusionment and questions about Italy’s future stance towards the European Union.
“I hope something will change for the better, but I am not very confident,” retiree Marinella Faccioli, 75, told Al Jazeera after casting her ballot at a polling station in central Rome.
Andrea Cocitanti, 25, agreed with the assessment. “We need a change but whatever you choose you get it wrong – the ruling class is the issue. We have to vote, it’s a must, but I wouldn’t vote for any of those I voted for if I had a better choice”.
More than 50 million voters are eligible to pick representatives of a slimmed-down parliament: 200 members for the Senate and 400 for the Chamber of Deputies. Polls opened at 7am and will close at 11pm local time (05:00 – 21:00 GMT) – after which exit polls are expected.
Although official results are expected on Monday, it will take weeks before a new government is installed. By mid-October the newly elected legislators will vote for the presidents of the two chambers, who along with party leaders will start consultations with President Sergio Mattarella.
The head of state will then put in charge a premier to present a list of ministers who will have to be confirmed by the president and then approved by parliament via a confidence vote. This means Italians will only likely see a new government by mid-November, analysts say.
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), has been dominating the campaign, polling at 25 percent, according to the last survey published before a pre-election ban on September 10.
This would put her on track to become Italy’s first-ever female prime minister at the head of a right-wing coalition that includes anti-immigration populist Matteo Salvini and octogenarian media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
The coalition’s proposal have been focusing on stopping immigration flows, renegotiating how to spend recovery funds the country is receiving from the EU, cutting taxes and abolishing a poverty relief scheme mostly popular in the south.
Italy’s current electoral system favors broad coalitions, giving Meloni and her partners the upper hand in the race, contrary to the left-leaning Democratic Party (PD) who has failed to forge a strong alliance with other left and centrist groups.
The PD Enrico Letta, polling at 22 percent, has focused its messaging on boosting economic opportunity for young Italians, with a focus on renewable energy, civil liberties and social policies.
The Five Star Movement of Giuseppe Conte, which observers considered a moribund party, was polling at 13 percent after a strong campaign in the country’s south pushing for the establishment of a minimum hourly wage and stronger welfare measures.
Concerns over a far-right coalition taking power in Italy rattled some voters.
“I must vote, it’s a duty in such a historical moment. I fear for the country swinging towards the right, I am very worried,” said Mariaclotilde Malatesta, 60.
But others said they would welcome Meloni’s leadership: “In my opinion, Meloni is the only politician who can turn the tide of Italy. She is a politician who has always put Italians’ interests first,” said Luciano Scarinci, 79, a former bank employee.
While Meloni’s coalition has maintained a united front on certain flagship policies, cracks have appeared among its leaders on fiscal and foreign affairs policies.
On the fiscal front, Meloni has stuck to Draghi’s line – refusing to increase Italy’s record-high debt while insisting on capping the price of gas and decoupling it from energy costs.
Salvini is of a different view, pushing for 30 billion euros ($29bn) of more debt to help struggling businesses and families.
The coalition also appears divided over Italy’s approach to Russia. Meloni has staunchly supported sanctions against Moscow, while Salvini insisted they should be reconsidered.
Berlusconi, a longtime friend to President Vladimir Putin, came under fire on Thursday night after suggesting the Russian leader only wanted to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a government “made up of decent people”.
Another point of contention is Meloni’s position on the EU.
The far-right leader, who co-founded Brothers of Italy in 2012 out of the ashes of a post-fascist party, had for years delivered high-decibel speeches against the EU and international financial markets, which she portrayed as enemies of Italy’s national interests.
But as the prospect of becoming prime minister nears, at a time when Italy is receiving much-needed EU funds to shore up its underperforming economy, the 45-year-old has softened her tone.
She has repeatedly pledged her commitment to the bloc and her support for Ukraine, including by keeping the sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded its neighbor in February.