Polls open in Italy for closely watched election

Polls opened in Italy on Sunday in the first autumn election for more than a century, with parties on the far right leading the race to form the next government in Rome.

Attempting to negotiate a price cap on Russian-imported gas with other EU countries is going to be one of the first tasks any new government in Rome will be faced with, as surging energy prices continue to be voters’ top concern, according to the latest available opinion polls.

The introduction of a legal minimum wage, reducing unemployment in the southern part of the country, as well as an increase in minimum pensions are other top concerns.

Of the 51mn voters that could head to the polls, less than 65 per cent are expected to turn out, the lowest percentage since the first general election in postwar Italy.

According to the latest available data published two weeks ago, the rightwing coalition is on course for victory although many Italians continue to be angered by the sudden collapse of Mario Draghi’s national unity government this summer.

Draghi is not running in the election but a small liberal coalition which includes former prime minister Matteo Renzi and MEP Carlo Calenda who are campaigning on his policy proposals, the so-called Draghi-agenda, have vowed to reinstate him as prime minister should they emerge as victorious. The coalition is polling under 10 per cent, according to the latest available data. Voting ends at 11pm local time when the first exit polls will be published.

In a possible portent of the arguments that lie ahead between the new government in Rome and the European Commission, president Ursula von der Leyen irked rightwing leaders in the final days of the campaign by appearing to intervene in Italy’s election.

“Democracy is a constant work in progress, we’re never done, it’s never safe,” she said in a speech at Princeton University on Thursday. And referring to today’s election she added: “if things go in a difficult direction, I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools.”

The comments, which appeared to refer to the sanctions Brussels can impose for rule of law violations, riled Italian politicians with several of them accusing the Commission president of unduly interfering in the election.

However, while ​​Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightwing League, said Von der Leyen was “threatening a sovereign country on the eve of an election”, Brother of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, who could become Italy’s first female prime minister, was more measured.

“I don’t think she referred specifically to Italy, or it would be an unprecedented interference,” Meloni said in her last interview before the so-called election silence came into force on Friday night.

The 45-year-old Meloni has sought to reassure the international community she is well-placed to govern Italy in spite of the rightwing coalition’s erratic EU stances and her partners’ closeness to the Russian president.

As the campaign drew to a close, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi faced a backlash after saying that Vladimir Putin “only wanted to replace [Ukraine’s president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy with a government made up of decent people” but he had encountered “unexpected resistance” on the ground.

In response to Berlusconi’s remarks, Democratic Party secretary Enrico Letta said: “The first person to celebrate will be Putin if the right wins.”

But Meloni accused Letta and her other opponents of disregarding the national interest and spooking markets and international investors with their alarmist statements.

“Instead of heading to Berlin to discuss a gas price ceiling, Letta went to see Scholz to get his endorsement ahead of the vote . . . it means bargaining the nation’s interest for your personal one,” she said in a television interview on Friday night.

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The right has promised broad tax cuts, the reduction of labour costs as well as a cut to the national retirement age as a way to boost the hiring of younger workers. It has also promised a universal increase of minimum pensions to at least €1,000 a month.

Centre-left parties, which are not running as a coalition, have also promised the introduction of a national minimum wage as well as the safeguarding of a generous job seekers subsidy scheme. In addition, they have proposed a wide ranging extension of civil rights, including for second generation Italians.

The sustainability of Italy’s long-term public debt, the eurozone’s second-largest after Greece, has been called into question by investors and EU officials. Experts warn Italy’s new government must tread carefully to make sure policy is financially sustainable.

However, many Italians — especially younger voters — seem sceptical about the credibility of such propositions. A result is expected sometime on Monday.

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