A conservative coalition forecast to glide into power in the Italian general election on Sunday has wrapped up its campaign to a packed square in central Rome, filled with supporters old and new, young and not so young, a smattering of anti-abortion activists and a descendant of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
The trio – led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist origins, and including Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – has experienced loud and robust support over the past months and remained relatively close-knit, in stark contrast to a campaign by its main rival, the centre-left Democratic party, that has been so lacklustre it managed to breathe new life into the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) in southern Italy.
The first to take to the stage at the Rome closing rally on Thursday evening was the three-time former prime minister Berlusconi, who rattled off a list of his past achievements. Then came Salvini, who said that in office he would resume a policy of blocking migrants from landing at Italian ports. The most rapturous applause was reserved for Meloni, the 45-year-old from Rome who could become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Ask Meloni’s supporters why they like her, and the recurrent reply is: “She’s coherent”. “The ideas of Meloni are always the same, they haven’t changed over the years,” said Francesca De Acutis. “To get this far, she never made compromises.”
Maria Rachele Ruiu, a Brothers of Italy candidate who hails from the anti-abortion lobby group Pro Vita, said Meloni has been rewarded for her coherence. “She can be trusted,” she added. Ruiu said she was running in the elections to help bring forward policies that would “help women in financial difficulty to carry through their pregnancy” instead of choosing to abort.
Caio Mussolini, the great-grandson of the dictator who ran as a candidate for Brothers of Italy in the 2019 European parliamentary elections, was also in the crowd to lend Meloni support.
He criticised the left’s campaign, saying “the ghost of fascism is the only thing they have […] This has been one of the worst campaigns, filled with insults and attacks because they have no projects or ideas. They are making my great grandfather immortal. In my opinion, fascism ended with his [death] in 1945.”
Final polls before the blackout period two weeks ago forecast a landslide victory for the group. However, more recently there has been a surprise bounce in support for M5S in Italy’s poorer southern regions, where voters have responded to leader Giuseppe Conte’s promise to retain the party’s flagship policy, the citizens’ income for the poor.
Meloni’s plan to scrap the controversial policy, which cost the Italian government €7.1bn in its first year, has been vulnerable to fraud and has not created the jobs it was intended to, has unleashed fury among voters whose livelihoods have come to depend on it.
Three million Italians benefit from the income, of whom 70% are in the south. In Sicily, Italy’s poorest region, almost 300,000 families receive the subsidy.
During a rally by Meloni in Palermo last week, many voters carried signs that read: “Don’t touch the citizens’ income”.
Conte told the Guardian that the income had “set off a social storm”. “When people carry signs like that, it’s as if those voters are saying, ‘our dignity is untouchable, our freedom is untouchable’,” he said.
Further north, however, Meloni’s stance over the income has attracted support from employers, especially bar and restaurant owners, who blame the policy for their struggles with hiring staff.
Still, experts have been taken back by M5S’s revival in the final stage of the electoral campaign, citing “secret polls” in recent days that forecast a boost for the party to around 15 or 16% of the vote, potentially enough to give the rightwing coalition a thinner majority and tamper with its unity, especially if the League, which polled at around 12% before the blackout period, scores less than M5S.
M5S won 32% in the 2018 elections, but support rapidly depleted after a failed government coalition with the League, waning even further during subsequent alliances with the Democratic party and Mario Draghi’s broad unity government. The collapse of Draghi’s government in July was, in fact, triggered by M5S. For the party to stand a chance at reentering government, it would need to again partner with the Democratic party, whose leader, Enrico Letta, swore on Friday “never again”.
The citizens’ income battle could give M5S a boost, but is unlikely to change the course of these elections.
Wolfango Piccoli, the co-president of the London-based research company Teneo, said the same secret polls also maintained that the rightwing would win with a majority. “The electoral system doesn’t really play well for a party that has a high concentration of votes only in some regions,” he added.