Italy votes in EU election with Meloni poised as powerbroker

Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni could end up being a powerbroker in EU politics (Adnan Beci)
Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni could end up being a powerbroker in EU politics (Adnan Beci)

Italy became the first heavyweight nation to cast votes for the EU's next parliament on Saturday, in a test of far-right leader Giorgia Meloni's strength at home -- and future influence in the bloc.

Most of the European Union's 27 member countries, including powerhouses France and Germany, go to the polls on Sunday, the final day, with projected overall results due late that evening.

The ballot in Italy -- the EU's third-biggest economy with 76 of the 720 seats in the new parliament -- could have major consequences.

Meloni was expected to cast her ballot in her Rome constituency where temperatures were set to hit a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).

Polls suggest Meloni's Brothers of Italy party could win with 27 percent of the vote -- more than quadrupling its score from 2019 -- amid a broader surge of far-right groups across the bloc.

That would set up Meloni as a powerbroker in deciding whether EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen gets the backing she needs, from both member states and parliament, for a second term.

In the election run-up, Meloni has been actively courted both by the centre-right von der Leyen -- and by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who wants to create a right-wing supergroup in the parliament.

Le Pen's National Rally (RN) party is also topping the polls in the EU race.

- Game plan? -

For the time being, Meloni is playing her cards close to her chest -- though she has made clear she wants to send the EU's left-wing parties into opposition.

The Italian prime minister has her name on EU ballot papers as lead candidate for her party, but does not intend to take up a parliament seat if chosen.

Instead she aims to bolster her party's grip on Italy's fractious political scene, possibly at the expense of her junior coalition partner, the far-right League party.

In a social media video message Saturday, Meloni said her priorities were to "defend Europe's borders against illegal immigration (and) protect the real economy and jobs".

Public concern over the flow of irregular migrants across the Mediterranean was one of the key issues that propelled Meloni to power in 2022.

- Alliances -

EU-wide, immigration is the hot-button issue driving support to far-right parties. They are forecast to grab a quarter of parliament seats -- though the centrist mainstream is still seen coming out on top.

Beyond the predicted surge, analysts say the bigger question is whether parliament's main grouping, von der Leyen's European People's Party (EPP), will ally with the far right.

Von der Leyen has indicated willingness to have the EPP work with far-right lawmakers, as long as they are pro-EU and not what she calls "puppets" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Von der Leyen explicitly ruled out allying with Le Pen or with Germany's AfD on those grounds.

Both of those parties -- unlike Meloni's -- are leery of EU military and financial support to Ukraine against Russia's invading forces, with the AfD outright hostile to weapons deliveries.

Hungary's ruling populist Fidesz party is likewise opposed to further helping Kyiv.

- Acts of violence -

Italy was voting on the same day as Slovakia, which was shaken by an assassination attempt last month on premier Robert Fico.

Voters have rallied to Fico's ruling left-wing populist Smer-SD party in the wake of the shooting -- which he blamed on "aggressive and hateful politics" by the main liberal opposition.

Authorities said the assassination attempt, by a 71-year-old poet, was politically motivated.

One voter, Jozef Zahorsky, a 44-year-old teacher, said "it was not easy" but he cast his ballot for Smer because it stood for "the interests of Slovakia, not Brussels".

Fico's party opposes EU arms deliveries to help Ukraine repel Russia's invasion, and regularly rails against alleged "warmongers" in Brussels.

In a Facebook post, Fico posted a photograph of himself casting a ballot from his hospital bed. He urged voters to "elect European Parliament lawmakers who support peace efforts, not the pursuit of war".

The lead-up to EU elections in various countries has been marred by incidents of violence, though not all linked to political motives.

Late Friday in Denmark, which votes Sunday, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen suffered a whiplash injury after being physically attacked in the street.

Police arrested the assailant but on Saturday said it was unlikely political motives were involved.