ROME (AP) – Italians will vote Sunday in an election they’re calling crucial as Europe grapples with Russia’s war in Ukraine. For the first time in Italy after the end of the Second World War, elections could push a the leader of the far right in the premiership.

Hovering energy costs and the rapid rise in prices of staples such as bread – the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s breadbasket – has devastated many Italian families and businesses.

Against this gloomy background, Georgia Maloney and her Brothers of Italy party — with neo-fascist roots and an agenda focused on God, country and Christian identity — appear to be favorites in Italy’s parliamentary elections.

They can be a test to see if the right-wing sentiment is gaining more and more strength in the 27 countries of the European Union. Recently, a right-wing party in Sweden has grown in popularity thanks to people’s fears about crime.

Meloni’s main partner in the alliance is the leader of the right-wing League party, Matteo Salvini, who blames migrants for crime. Salvini has long been a convinced ideological booster of the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland.

“An election in the midst of a war, in the midst of an energy crisis and at the dawn of what is likely to be an economic crisis … is almost by definition a decisive election,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of a Rome-based think tank. tank of the Institute of International Relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered Moscow to invade Ukraine on February 24, is betting that “Europe will break” under the weight of economic and energy problems caused by the war, Tochi told The Associated Press.

Salvini, whose electoral base consists of business owners in northern Italy, has worn pro-Putin T-shirts in the past. Salvini also questioned the advisability of maintaining Western economic sanctions against Russia, saying they could harm Italy’s economic interests too much.

Polls stopped being published 15 days before Sunday’s vote, but before then they had shown Meloni’s party to have the most votes, ahead of the centre-left Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Enrico Letto.

The election alliance, which links Meloni with conservative allies Salvini and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, gives him a clear advantage over Leta under Italy’s complex system of dividing parliamentary seats.

Letta had hoped in vain for a campaign alliance with the left-wing populist 5-Star Movement, the largest party in the outgoing legislature.

While this is a difficult time for Europe, Sunday’s election could be the lowest turnout in modern Italy. The last election in 2018 saw a record low turnout of 73%. Pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco says this time the percentage could drop to 66%.

Pregliasco, who heads polling company YouTrend, says Italy’s last three different governing coalitions since the last election have left Italians “dissatisfied, disillusioned”. They don’t perceive their voice as something important.”

The outgoing government is headed by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. At the beginning of 2021, the Italian president proposed Draghi to form a unity government after the collapse of the second ruling coalition of the “5 Star” leader Giuseppe Conte.

In what Pregliasco called an “apparent paradox,” polls show “most Italians like Draghi and think his government has done a good job.” However, Meloni, the only major party leader who refused to join Draghi’s coalition, will be the strongest candidate.

According to Tocci, Maloney’s party is so popular “just because it’s the new kid on the block.”

Draghi has said he does not want another term.

To Meloni’s chagrin, criticism continues to dog her for not making a clear break with her party’s roots in the neo-fascist movement founded by nostalgics of the dictator Benito Mussolini after his regime’s disastrous role in World War II. During the campaign, she stated that she “does not pose a danger to democracy.”

Some political scientists say that worrying about the fascist question is not their main concern.

“I fear incompetence, not the fascist threat,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at LUISS, a private university in Rome. “She didn’t manage anything.”

Meloni served as youth minister in Berlusconi’s last government, which ended ten years ago.

Instead, it’s her main right-wing coalition partner to worry about, D’Alimonte told The AP.

“Salvini will be the troublemaker, not Meloni,” he said. “It is not Maloney who is calling for an end to sanctions against Russia. This is Salvini. Maloney is not calling for an increase in the debt or deficit. It’s Salvini.”

But recent incidents have heightened concerns about Italy’s brothers.

A candidate from the Brothers of Italy in Sicily has been rejected by his party after he posted phrases on social media expressing gratitude to Hitler. Separately, the brother of one of Meloni’s co-founders was spotted giving a fascist salute at a relative’s funeral. The brother denied that he was doing it.

For years, the right has crusaded against rampant immigration after hundreds of thousands of migrants reached Italy’s shores aboard smugglers’ boats or ships that rescued them in the Mediterranean. Both Meloni and Salvini railed against what they see as an invasion of foreigners who do not share what they call Italy’s “Christian” character.

Letta, who wants to make citizenship easier for the children of legal immigrants, also played the fear card. In his party’s campaign bus ads, half of the image shows a serious-looking Leto with his one-word slogan “Choose” and the other half shows a sinister image of Putin. Salvini and Berlusconi expressed admiration for the Russian leader. Meloni supports the supply of weapons so that Ukraine can defend itself.

With electricity bills 10 times higher than a year ago, saving jobs is at the top of Italian voters’ concerns.

But with the possible exception of Salvini, who wants to review Italy’s closed nuclear power plants, candidates did not decide on proposals for solutions to the energy crisis. Almost everyone is pushing for an EU cap on gas prices.

The danger of climate change did not loom over the Italian company. The tiny Green Party of Italy, Letta’s partner, can barely win a few seats in parliament.

Colleen Barry reported from Milan. Sabrina Sergi contributed to this report from Rome.

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